GM Food Facts


Genetically modified (GM) food ingredients first reached Australian supermarket shelves in 1996, and may be present in many processed foods. Most remain unlabelled due to the looseness of label laws and the lack of policing of those laws.

Genetic modification of a living organism is not a precise process. Foreign genes tend to be inserted into an organism by either of two methods: a gene gun that fires gene-coated tungsten balls at the host or by using a plant parasite to break down the cell's defences to allow entry. Usually antibiotic resistant genes are inserted at the same time to act as markers together with a part of a virus that causes the cell to “turn on” the foreign gene. Genetic modification is not the same as conventional breeding.

Increasingly, doctors and scientists are issuing warnings that GM foods and crops pose serious risks to health and the environment. Independent reviews of the safety assessments of GM foods show that these assessments have been grossly inadequate, and are based on the untested and potentially dangerous assumption that GM foods are essentially the same as conventional foods, and therefore require almost no safety testing.

Most commercial GM crops contain genes for antibiotic resistance. Use of antibiotic resistant genes as markers has created a serious risk of a new wave of anti-biotic resistant bacteria in people.

Most GM crops have been modified by using viral DNA as a “gene switch” or promoter to “turn on” the desired characteristic. DNA can survive digestion and enter the bloodstream and be taken up by cells in the intestine, spleen, liver, brain and white blood cells. It may also be incorporated into the developing offspring of pregnant animals. Some scientists warn that viral promoters may cause changes to the immune system and cause unpredictable effects that may lead to cancer. They may also activate viruses and initiate new infectious diseases.

Most GM crops on the market to date are herbicide-resistant. The other main group of GM crops are engineered to produce their own insecticide, which consumers then eat. Crops are also appearing with engineered sterility (Terminator Technology) and some crops are engineered to be virus resistant. There are no GM crops in commercial production that are engineered to be of benefit to consumers.

Crops engineered to be resistant to herbicides are likely to encourage increased herbicide use. The most commonly used herbicides are glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. Glyphosate is lethal to soil microorganisms, spiders, waterborne insects, fish and frogs. It reduces sperm motility, causes skin reactions, and has been associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Glufosinate is a nerve toxin and has been linked to birth defects in mammals.

Many environmentalists, scientists and farmers say GM crops pose severe threats
to the environment. Environmental risks of GM herbicide resistant crops include:

• The risk of cross-pollination of related plants, causing the development of herbicide resistant weeds. Emerging multiple-resistant weeds require even more toxic herbicides to kill them, e.g. 2, 4-D.

• Selection pressure on weeds from increased spraying, causing herbicide resistant weeds to develop.

• Increased spraying of herbicides which could result in an increase in spray drift.

Environmental risks of GM insect-resistant crops engineered to produce the Bt toxin include:

• Insecticide-producing GM crops produce various forms of Bt toxin, in all parts of the plants at all times.

• Insect resistance to the insecticide.

• Toxicity to harmless or beneficial insects.

• This genetically engineered toxin is not easily degraded in soil but instead accumulates.

GM crops cross-pollinate compatible plants growing near enough for viable pollen to reach them. This distance is variable. Bees carry pollen for at least 4.5 km. The wind can carry pollen much further. Other sources of contamination are contamination of seed stocks for planting. Seeds can be blown on the wind, fall off trucks or travel long distances in farm equipment or on animal fur. Cross- pollination with GM crops could irreversibly reduce bio-diversity.

Most testing of GM foods to date has been limited to assessing the food as "substantially equivalent" to conventional food. There is essentially no testing for unexpected contaminants or toxins.

There are no feeding studies for people. Health risks include:

• Increased antibiotic resistance. GM DNA persists in the gut and soil, and there is evidence of it being transferred to bacteria in the gut.

• Risks of ingesting foreign DNA. DNA can survive digestion and segments can enter the bloodstream and be taken up by cells in the intestine, spleen, liver, brain and white blood cells. The potential ill effects have not been assessed.

• Increased pesticide residues in food.

• Allergy. There is a need for thorough, animal-based testing for allergies to be done on GM crops, particularly after the CSIRO's GM pea was found to cause strong allergic reactions. .

• Altered chemical composition of food.

• Risk of unexpected contaminants.

GM foods are incorporated into a wide range of foods. So far no genetically engineered food on the market has any nutritional or other consumer advantage compared to conventional foods, so there is no known or expected consumer benefit to counterbalance the risk. Genetically engineered foods currently approved in Australia include:

• Soybean – appear in soymilks, tofu, soy protein, soy flour, soy or vegetable oils, protein isolates, lecithin, various food additives, processing aids

• Corn/Maize - corn flour, cornstarch, corn oil, corn protein, corn syrup, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, modified starches, additives

• Cotton - cottonseed oil, vegetable oil, margarine, linters, thickening agents

• Canola - canola oil, vegetable oil, margarine, lecithin

• Sugarbeet – sugar, MSG

• Bacterial Starter Cultures and Enzymes

• Fungal Enzymes - bread, beer, fruit juices

• Potato - potato starch, modified starch

• Lucerne – animal feed, alfalfa sprouts, tea Biotechnology will not solve Third World hunger.

The issues of multinational corporations controlling world food and seed resources may well exacerbate it.

SAGFIN is a non-profit community organisation established in 1998 to collect and distribute information on all aspects of gene technology, with a particular focus on genetically engineered foods and crops. It also acts as an advocate for community concerns and food and environmental safety.

For more information or to join the campaign to keep SA GE-free contact:

SAGFIN (SA Genetic Food Information Network Inc)
PO Box 7

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