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