GM Food Fibs

Fibs About GM Food Fool No One


You have every reason to be alarmed at the lack of research into the safety of genetically modified foods, argue Dr. Judy Carman and Dr. John Coveney.

The first casualty in war is the truth. So in the fracas over genetically modified (GM) foods it should not surprise that a number of significant Big Fibs have been doing the rounds, mainly to support the introduction of gene technology to the food supply.

There are four Big Fibs at the heart of the debate.

Big Fib 1

The first is that genetic engineering is really no different from the age-old processes used to develop crops and improve our foods. This fib usually continues with reference to the mixing of genes in crops like wheat, which is a hybrid of various grasses, or modem cattle, which result from cross-breeding of different stock.

But these examples are clearly nonsense. Only current laboratory gene technology can insert fish genes into tomatoes, specific bacterial genes into potatoes, or terminator genes into corn or cotton.

So why would anyone try to argue this? Is it because it allows GM foods to be introduced under regulatory laws designed for more conventional foodstuffs? Is it because, by saying that GM foods are substantially equivalent to traditional foods, thorough testing can be avoided? These important questions have been scoffed at by proponents of GM foods, who instead have argued that full testing is completely over the top and totally unrealistic. Which brings us to the second Big Fib.

Big Fib 2

This is that GM foods have been proved to be safe for the environment and safe for people. We can't cover environmental safety in detail, except to note there have already been pollen cross-overs from GM crops to surrounding plants, and that the dramatic effects of GM crops on insect life have now been demonstrated.

We will instead go straight to human safety. Many of GM foods have been released for human consumption with only minimal testing on animals by the manufacturing companies and essentially without independent assessment.

The very small number of checks that have been conducted could not determine any long-term health risks, or even most short-term health risks. For example, they did not measure changes in biochemistry, immunology, organ function (including gut function), cancer risk or health risks to off-spring. In most cases, there has been absolutely no testing on people.

No wonder the public is a little concerned. Which brings us to the third Big Fib.

Big Fib 3

If some reports are to be believed, the public is apparently unconcerned about the advent of GM foods. Indeed they appear to be almost salivating at the thought of eating them. The reality is that published surveys have shown the public to be genuinely concerned - and increasingly so as people learn more.

An overwhelming number of people want full and accurate labelling of GM products to allow them to choose. But it benefits certain groups to promote the myth that the public basically doesn't care and it permits the marginalisation of those who raise concerns.

Big Fib 4

We have saved the biggest Big Fib for last because it is the most odious. It is that GM foods are needed to save millions in developing countries from starvation.

As anyone who has studied global hunger knows, there is enough food to feed the world. People starve because food is inequitably distributed. Wars and conflict are mostly to blame. World starvation will be solved through political solutions, not technical fixes. So, it is quite misleading to suggest that the problem can be overcome without radical political change.

If we were really serious about helping food producers in developing countries, most effort would be put into developing mixtures of crops which could be grown at minimal cost on small holdings, using local know-how, appropriate technologies, and recyclable seed stock.

Instead, nearly all GM seeds are costly, designed for large-scale acreage using expensive chemicals and will eventually have "terminator genes" that prevent farmers harvesting seeds for replanting.

We fully recognise that the public's health has often been improved through new technologies. But even interventions with known benefits should be introduced carefully, then monitored and evaluated. This is not happening with GM foods.

For example, why do we have to wait two years for the establishment of a national regulator of gene technology, promised in the last Federal Budget, when funds from the same source are earmarked for immediate commercialisation of gene products?
It's no wonder that many public health experts are aghast at the breathless pace in which the food supply is being radically challenged. It's no wonder they are asking: why the rush with something as important and as far-reaching as our food supply? They know that the precautionary principle, which has served the public's health well in the past, is sensible, cheap, effective and easy to apply. So why are we not applying it with GM foods?

Dr. Carman and Dr. Coveney : Public Health + Flinders University : Adelaide, South Australia.
The Sydney Morning Herald

7 comments:

TechNyou said...

Re your 4 big fibs. I am the manager of TechNyou at the University of Melbourne ( www.technyou.edu.au ). We are an information service set up to provide balanced and factual information about emerging technologies to the Australian community. We also do a significant amount of outreach in the form of presentations to schools and community groups, conduct teacher professional development and organise public forums. Through this outreach we try and engage the public and facilitate dialogue to help determine how the science and resulting technologies should be applied.
I would like to add some context to your fibs
Big Fib 1
Genetic engineering is really no different from the age-old processes used to develop crops and improve our foods.
TnY: I find very few people working in this field that suggest the transgenic technology is the same as cross breeding. I hear the occasional uninformed comment along these lines but that is about it.

Only current laboratory gene technology can insert fish genes into tomatoes, specific bacterial genes into potatoes, or terminator genes into corn or cotton.
TnY: Only laboratory techniques and modern biotechnology can create crops via mutation breeding or embryo rescue or many of the hybrid varieties as well. These are all non-GM, or conventional, breeding techniques that have been in use for decades. There is also no such thing as a tomato with fish genes or crops with terminator genes, though they have been the subject of some basic research and terminator technology may or may not be introduced down the track, which like hybrid seeds will mean you won’t be able to save seed to plant the following year. It will also mean that, depending on the actual terminator technology, the pollen will be sterile and so will not contaminate non-GM crops. There are many private and public research groups working on variations of this technology with different purposes in mind.

Is it because, by saying that GM foods are substantially equivalent to traditional foods, thorough testing can be avoided?
TnY: Any company wanting to get a GM food onto market must supply the raw data to Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) to prove (as far as science proves anything) that its food is substantially equivalent to the conventional version – that is, all toxins, allergens, anti-nutrients and nutrients in the GM variety are within the limits of natural variation found in the conventional crop plant. The protein from each transgene must also be characterised and found to be stable in the plant and shown to be safe for humans. For many this assessment is not rigorous enough and the concept of substantial equivalence is in dispute as a concept to assess food for health and human safety. It is not for me to judge.

Big Fib 2
There have already been pollen cross-overs from GM crops to surrounding plants, and that the dramatic effects of GM crops on insect life have now been demonstrated.
TnY: What dramatic effect on insect life is this and how does this dramatic effect compare to using insecticide?

The very small number of checks that have been conducted (on GM foods) could not determine any long-term health risks, or even most short-term health risks.

TnY: You can say the same for conventionally-bred foods as well. Every year there are new varieties of many key crops such as wheat, barley, canola, corn…and so on. Do we know what the short or long-term effects on our health of these crops are? The answer would be no, and such crops are equally likely to contain changed levels of toxins, allergens or anti-nutrients because this is normal in a breeding process. And, if you ask people what they mean by long-term, you will find the answer will range from 10 years to 10 generations.

So how safe does a food have to be before we decide to eat it and how long must we test it before we are happy? This will differ for each person. To be cont...

Jason Major
Manager, TechNyou
www.technyou.edu.au

TechNyou said...

TechNyou cont..

Big Fib 3
If some reports are to be believed, the public is apparently unconcerned about the advent of GM foods.
TnY: What reports are these? I have yet to read any that suggest this for a population. Most reports from Australia and the few overseas ones that I have seen show a certain level of concern. But when you ask them if they find a crop acceptable or not they will often have a different response. If I use the example of a GM crop modified to be drought-tolerant (and yes, I know they have yet to develop one, but there is considerable research happening in this area), nearly all people I give this example to will find such a GM crop acceptable, especially secondary students. They will have ranged in their views for other examples, and they still have concerns for a GM drought-tolerant crop, but they find it acceptable because of the risks of not having one.

Big Fib 4
GM foods are needed to save millions in developing countries from starvation.
TnY: I have yet to meet any scientist or plant breeder that thinks this. I occasionally see the odd PR fluff piece from industry that alludes to this (with some qualifiers thrown in). The only time I have seen this statement is on anti-GM material stating that this is what the Pro-GM industry wants you to believe.

Your readers might like to read a recent feature article by Julian Cribb that explores the issues we need to deal with concerning the global demand for food in the next 50-60 years. http://tinyurl.com/y3ox2v2


Why do we have to wait two years for the establishment of a national regulator of gene technology, promised in the last Federal Budget?
TnY: You may or may not agree with they way they regulate but we have the Australian Government agency called the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator that has been in existence for years.

Jason Major
Manager, TechNyou
www.technyou.edu.au

Anna Clements said...

Dear Jason

Fsanz was exposed for the lack of rigour in their assessment process, hear it on ABC Radio National's Background Briefing.

Fibs or not - I don't want to eat it and I just want it labelled (oils and additives too) so that I can avoid it.

Anna Clements.

s.newland said...

Hello Jason,
The reality is that GM foods are on the shelves and people are unaware, due to the FSANZ, turning a blind eye.
I listented on ABC radio yesterday to a scientist from fsanz, espousing the virtues of gm foods, and being irate about his protractors, tut tut, this gentlemen came accross to me as a dictator in his responses to the interviewer. No wonder gm food is not labelled.
People should have choice about want they eat, not foisted on them by any authority.
Like Anna i don't want to eat human engineered food, i would like to see these foods tested on the believers, rather than on an innocent animal.
I am of an age, before supermarkets, when people enjoyed natural food, and had no need to read a label.
Members of the food industry are part of the decision making within fsanz. This has come about due to John Howard getting rid of the Australian Food Authority in 1996.
Sarah Newland

SAGFIN said...

Tech NY ou:

Thank you for expressing your opinion.
It is nice to know that our blog has come to the attention of people outside of our regular contacts. There is abundant information on our webpages to disclose the dangers of GM Foods and substantiate the safety of NON-GM Foods, so we will not repeat it here.

مطبخ رمضان 2012 said...

thanx for your topic

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