Genetically Modified Food: Why Worry?

no genetically modified food

One of the major PR coups of the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) lobby to promote genetically modified food has been in convincing people that genetic modification (which used to be called genetic engineering, another PR triumph) is in no way different from the kind of selective breeding that has been practiced for centuries by botanists. Both involve the manipulation of genes, so are the same, right?

Well, no, no and emphatically no! Plant breeding simply involves giving nature a helping hand and then letting it do its thing. If two plants have a characteristic such as sweetness, then the pollen of one can be given to the other in order to try to produce more plants that are even sweeter, rather than letting random pollination occur. The important facts here are that the breeding occurs between members of the same (or closely related) species, and the process of gene transfer itself occurs through the natural process of plant reproduction.

In contrast, genetic modification involves scientists cutting the DNA of a plant or animal in certain places and inserting the DNA from another (often completely unrelated) organism. These include genes to increase the level of certain vitamins or minerals, resistance to specific herbicides, etc. Such genes are obviously very desirable (especially to the company who produces the herbicides) but the problem is that the gene is not meant to be in that plant or animal, so it is unknown what effects it might have on the rest of the organism.

gm foods

Concerns have been raised about whether GMOs present a risk to human health, and recent studies have shown that GM corn lowers fertility in mice [1] and leads to kidney and liver damage in rats [2]. Both raise serious worries about the impact of GM corn on human health. Another study demonstrated the adverse effect of GM potatoes on the mammalian digestive system [3]. Though GM companies maintain that their products are subject to rigorous safety laws, scientists remain unconvinced that the short-term assessment of health risks and current legislative framework of ‘substantial equivalence’ (that the GM food is pretty much the same as its non-GM counterpart) is sufficient to protect the wellbeing of consumers [4].

The GM lobby has thus far successfully managed to keep the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) from requiring GM foods to be labeled as such, and the FDA's official position is that genetically altered foods are identical to conventionally grown foods, so need no special labeling. I'm sure the fact that those who head the FDA are former Monsanto executives or have ties to the genetically modified food industry has nothing to do with it...

For a country in which consumer choice is held up as of paramount importance, this seems to be a strange situation. Although a recent summit on food regulation in Geneva set out guidelines that the labelling of GMO foods by any one country could no longer be seen as anti-competitive, there is no labeling requirement for foods that contain meat or dairy from animals that have been fed GM soy, for instance. This is despite the fact that 90% of consumers are in favor of knowing whether their food is conventional or genetically modified.

If the majority of consumers wish forgenetically modified food products to be labelled as such, why is this not happening? Because, as ever, big business holds more sway in government than the person on the street. Fortunately, there is a way around this. You can help support the labeling of GM foods by signing the petition to support truth in labeling, sponsored by Millions Against Monsanto.

In the majority of countries (including the US), any food labeled as organic means that it can't contain any product that has been subjected to genetic modification, so buy organic as often as possible. If you are concerned about the long-term effects of genetically modified food on human health, this is another very good reason to use our SLO food acronym and make sure that you know where the food going into your shopping basket comes from.

In our view, progress does not come from increasing the complexity of food production but by improving the nutritional quality of farm produce within a framework of sustainability. If better technology can help with this then all well and good. If not, there are plenty of farmers who rely on the simple good management of animals and plants to achieve that goal. For this, we can be truly grateful.

Andy McLellan

[1] Velimirov A, Binter C and Zentek J (2008) Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice. Report, Forschungsberichte der Sektion IV, Band 3. Institut für Ernährung, and Forschungsinttitut für biologischen Landbau, Vienna, Austria, November 2008.
[2] de Vendômois JS, Roullier F, Cellier D and Séralini GE. (2009) A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health. Int J Biol Sci 5:706-726. Text here
[3] Ewen, SW and Pusztai A (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 354 (9187): 1353–4. Text here
[4] Millstone, E, Brunner, E. and Mayer, S. (1999) Beyond 'substantial equivalence'. Nature 401: 525-526. Text here

Further Reading
‘Eat Your Genes’ by Stephen Nottingham (Zed Books Limited)

Top Photo: Timothy Valentine
Middle Photo: Despi Ross
Bottom Photo: John S. Quarterman

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