Functional Foods—the next wave of GE foods

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  • by Anup Shah
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"Functional foods" (or "prescription" foods, as they have also been called) are the next big thing in biotechnology and genetically engineered foods. The purpose of functional foods would be to add ingredients that would in some way help tackle a health-related issue. So, you could have your favorite chocolate modified to contain some vitamins, or even a vaccine of some sort.

However, this has been met with much criticism.

On this page:

  1. Creating more support for genetically engineered food
  2. What has functional foods got to do with the causes of malnutrition?
  3. Edible Vaccines

Creating more support for genetically engineered food

With the public backlash around the world, against genetically engineered (GE) food, the biotech companies have attempted to repackage the way they promote such foods, by creating a "second generation" of GE foods. By promoting functional foods, and its potential humanitarian benefits and a solution to world hunger, it helps to repair and improve the tarnished image of many of these biotech companies.

Additional criticisms about the real value and practicality of such foods are discussed below, and furthers the questioning of the motives of the biotech industry -- are they just trying to improve their image, or are they really trying to help? If they are really trying to help, why are they receiving such criticism from the very groups of people that would likely receive the products or be working in poverty alleviation, hunger problems and so forth?

The latest such foods are those that attempt to tackle malnutrition.

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What has functional foods got to do with the causes of malnutrition?

Blunty, nothing. Malnutrition, hunger etc comes about due to poverty, and no land ownership. It is the inability to buy food that causes hunger and malnutrition. We already have enough food to feed everyone, but those who are poor are unable to afford food.

The much touted "golden rice" is causing concerns in Asia. Golden rice is rice genetically modified to contain vitamin A. While the corporations that back the claim that this will help reduce malnutrition and deficiencies in the vitamin, critics point out that the point of how malnutrition comes about is missed -- that it is political and economic situations that lead to poverty and malnutrition -- hence such an investment is not going to help alleviate hunger for those who already cannot afford food.

And, this report from GRAIN -- Genetic Resource Action International -- says that "300 grams of golden rice can only provide at most 20% of an adult's daily vitamin A requirement." (Emphasis is original) Well, read in another way, that implies, an adult would need to eat 1.5 kilograms of golden rice each day to get their vitamin A requirements!

"According to Daycha Siripatra of the Alternative Agriculture Network in Thailand and the director of Technology for Rural and Ecological Enrichment, vitamin A deficiency will not be solved by golden rice technology since it does not address the key to the problem of poverty, which is landlessness. "They're cheating us. If the poor had land, they would have better diets. The poor don't need vitamin A. They need vitamin L, that's Vitamin Land. And they need Vitamin M, that's Vitamin Money. Malnutrition is because of poverty, not [a lack of] technology."

Grains of Delusion,, February 2001

A May 2000 article from UK-based Corporate Watch (not the same as the US-based organization with the same name!), titled "Functional Foods: good for Monsanto's health" points out a number of problems with functional foods:

  • False health claims -- that "the lack of government regulation has given the companies free rein to make dubious allegations on behalf of their new wonder products." and that "[o]ften statements are made that functional foods will lower cholesterol or prevent cancer – without any strong evidence that this is really the case."
  • Misleading overall diet -- that there is a "risk is that these new 'functional foods' might mislead consumers into switching from a diverse, healthy diet to a basically unhealthy one – with an increasing reliance on 'functional' additives or modifications"
  • Distraction of valuable research resources -- that "[h]undred of millions of pounds have been poured into research for 'golden rice' alone, and much more will be needed before this crop stands a chance of becoming widely available. Much of this is cash that could be put into true sustainable development – promoting locally appropriate and ecologically benign agriculture."
  • Accessibility -- that "most of the crops will not be accessible for those who would need them, since they will be too expensive for poor people to buy. The corporations are motivated by profits, and by the monopoly control conferred by the patents system – not by charity. And having spent vast sums in research, even progressive companies can ill-afford to give their new products away." [Note that it has been announced that the research to golden rice will be made freely available. However, it is not clear if there will be royalties on commercial use of it. If so, the cost problems just described are applicable in this case too.]
  • Power to big companies -- that "[i]nstead of relying on traditional modes of diverse and self-sufficient production, farmers are being persuaded to turn to new 'wonder crops' and throw away centuries of experience" leading to further dependency on a few large corporations. [Note, that this can become a tool or level of foreign policy therefore.]
  • Technical fixes avoid the real problem -- that these "technical fixes serve to divert attention from real [political] problems of starving people – poverty, injustice, a lack of land and other resources. And ironically, the intensification of corporate control that GM crops promise will only make this problem worse."
  • Exacerbates problems from Green Revolution -- that "[s]witching from diversity to monoculture has turned farms the world over into wildlife deserts, poisoning water supplies and destroying wildlife. GM crops – with their emphasis on global supply lines and giant corporations – will destroy local capacities to develop food security and intensify the concentration of land ownership, as the Green Revolution did before them."

That report also makes the point that this next wave of food may be more likely to be targeted at already wealthy countries, not the poor ones where the hunger usually is.

The enormous effort potentially seen in developing such foods still leaves underlying causes in tact. Furthermore, the underlying causes have other effects as well, so single focused things like golden rice do little to address the real underlying issues. This is summarized well by Peter Rosset:

"The suggestion that genetically altered rice is the proper way to address the condition of 2 million children at risk of Vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness reveals a tremendous naivete about the reality and causes of vitamin and micro-nutrient malnutrition. If one reflects upon patterns of development and nutrition one must quickly realize that Vitamin A deficiency is not best characterized as a problem, but rather as a symptom, a warning sign if you will. It warns us of broader dietary inadequacies associated with both poverty, and with agricultural change from diverse cropping systems toward rice monoculture. People do not present Vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little Vitamin A, or beta-carotene, but rather because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else, and they suffer many other dietary illnesses that cannot be addressed by beta-carotene, but which could be addressed, together with Vitamin A deficiency, by a more varied diet. A magic-bullet solution which places beta-carotene into rice – with potential health and ecological hazards – while leaving poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture intact, is unlikely to make any durable contribution to well-being."

Peter Rosset, Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?, (Emphasis added)

As described above, agricultural habits are a major cause. This is also described more explicitly here:

"The main reason for the vitamin deficiency problem is the transition to monoculture agriculture in large parts of the Third World. This industrialized form of agriculture has caused severe poverty by making millions of former peasants unemployed. Many have therefore a diet that is nutritionally deficient in several respects, out of which Vitamin A is just one. The low availability of varied food sources has contributed importantly to the multiple malnutrition problem. Vitamin A rice would only be a partial solution in addition to being a hazardous. ... Furthermore, claims that [Vitamin A] rice will solve A-vitamin deficiency are unjustified. The rice appears likely to generate only a fraction of the additional vitamin A intake its developer promised."

Vitamin A enhanced GE crops: potential problems, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, (Emphasis is original)

An announcement by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to forge a new alliance to increase access to nutrient fortified foods sounds like promising philanthropy that would help many around the world, but again, this risks diverting attention and resources from the urgent causes of hunger and malnutrition and can even cause more harm, while being of benefit to corporate interests, as Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé highlight:

Bill Gates thinks he's got a brilliant idea: fighting malnutrition abroad by fortifying food.

The scheme, backed with $50 million from the Gates Foundation, in part encourages Proctor & Gamble, Philip Morris' Kraft, and other companies to develop vitamin and iron-fortified processed foods. It then facilitates their entry into Third World markets.

... His strategy ignores a crucial reality: Many, if not most, of the hungriest people in the world are themselves farmers. They eke out a living by selling what they grow, and eating it. Helping foreign food purveyors penetrate their markets will only further rob them of livelihood. For example, India's dairy cooperatives -- many run by poor women -- would be hard-pressed to withstand the onslaught of Kraft's marketing power.

... Aiding market penetration by global food processing companies also ends up making consumers dependent on foreign suppliers for life's essentials. But while corporations such as Kraft or Proctor & Gamble might well participate in Gates' do-good scheme, ultimately their interests diverge from those of the hungry. By law, theirs is assuring the highest return to their shareholders -- foreigners -- not the improved well-being of local people, and certainly not hungry local people too poor to make their needs felt in the market.

Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, A Better Way to Feed the Hungry, Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 22, 2002

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Edible Vaccines

Another potential of functional foods is to have edible vaccines. Currently, vaccine treatment for all is far from reality. It is also expensive, and requires refrigeration and a skilled person to give the injection. Health expenditure in many countries is declining (in part to things like flawed structural adjustment impositions by the World Bank and IMF). Even needles are even hard to come by in some places.

As a result, edible vaccines sound like a promising alternative. However, this is another technology which critics point a lot of holes in, as, described in an article titled, "Eat Up Your Vaccines", (December 2000) from Genetic Resources Action Internatinal (GRAIN). For example, the article points out concerns on things like:

  • Being able to determined and assure the right dosage is taken. As an example, the article points out that "Charles Arntzen, one of the pioneers of edible vaccines, acknowledges the challenge of assessing how much an infant, in particular, ingests. "A baby may eat a bite and not want any more, may spit up half of it, or eat it all and throw it up later," he concedes."
  • Growing the foods to deliver these have additional problems, due to the need of sufficient amounts of proteins.
  • Limitations of edible vaccines; that "[a]nother much-hyped advantage ignores the fact that if they could be given orally, today's vaccines already would be. Few vaccines are absorbed well from the gut because they are too big to cross the gut wall easily and/or are broken down by the gut enzymes. Edible vaccines would be subject to the same limitations as any other oral drugs."
  • There will still be considerable costs, not real reductions.
  • Being a new idea, it is not clear if it will work everywhere, for economic and biological reasons.
  • Environmental risks; the fear of horizontal gene transfer (the transfer of genes from one species to another, unrelated, species) will have numerous unpredictable and dangerous effects. "Antibiotics and traditional vaccines already contribute to horizontal gene transfer. Recombinant vaccines, like those that would be used in edible vaccines, would exacerbate such transfer. This is a serious concern for the release of any genetically manipulated organism, but particularly worrisome in the case of vaccines, because of their disease-causing potential."

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  • by Anup Shah
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