Issue#30 - Dedication Theme:
Freedom of Information in the Genetically Modified Age
Lack of transparency might be the worst problem of genetically modified foods
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS ARE HARMFUL OR HELPFUL?
For Fairly Use
What are some of the criticisms against GM foods?
Compiled by Ambika HANCHATE
Representative of The Light Millennium in INDIA
Part 1/2: Genetically Modified Foods are Harmful or Helpful?
[Lightmillennium.Org] Environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations and other scientists and government officials have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and the government for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion about GM foods. Even the Vatican and the Prince of Wales have expressed their opinions. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.
Unintended harm to other organisms. Last year a laboratory study was published in Nature showing that pollen from BT. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, but the fear is that if pollen from BT. corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields, the caterpillars could eat the pollen and perish. Although the Nature study was not conducted under natural field conditions, the results seemed to support this viewpoint. Unfortunately, BT. toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately; it is not possible to design a BT. toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects. This study is being reexamined by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-government research groups, and preliminary data from new studies suggests that the original study may have been flawed This topic is the subject of acrimonious debate, and both sides of the argument are defending their data vigorously. Currently, there is no agreement about the results of these studies, and the potential risk of harm to non-target organisms will need to be evaluated further.
Reduced effectiveness of pesticides Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to BT. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
Gene transfer to non-target species Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These "superweeds" would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to GM crops. The possibility of interbreeding is shown by the defense of farmers against lawsuits filed by Monsanto. The company has filed patent infringement lawsuits against farmers who may have harvested GM crops. Monsanto claims that the farmers obtained Monsanto-licensed GM seeds from an unknown source and did not pay royalties to Monsanto. The farmers claim that their unmodified crops were cross-pollinated from someone else's GM crops planted a field or two away. More investigation is needed to resolve this issue.
There are several possible solutions to the three problems mentioned above. Genes are exchanged between plants via pollen. Two ways to ensure that non-target species will not receive introduced genes from GM plants are to create GM plants that are male sterile (do not produce pollen) or to modify the GM plant so that the pollen does not contain the introduced gene Cross-pollination would not occur, and if harmless insects such as monarch caterpillars were to eat pollen from GM plants, the caterpillars would survive.
Another possible solution is to create buffer zones around fields of GM crops. For example, non-GM corn would be planted to surround a field of BT. GM corn, and the non-GM corn would not be harvested. Beneficial or harmless insects would have a refuge in the non-GM corn, and insect pests could be allowed to destroy the non-GM corn and would not develop resistance to BT. pesticides. Gene transfer to weeds and other crops would not occur because the wind-blown pollen would not travel beyond the buffer zone, Estimates of the necessary width of buffer zones range from 6 meters to 30 meters or more this planting method may not be feasible if too much acreage is required for the buffer zones.
HUMAN HEALTH RISKS
Allergenicity Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. A proposal to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans was abandoned because of the fear of causing unexpected allergic reactions. Extensive testing of GM foods may be required to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies. Labeling of GM foods and food products will acquire new importance, which I shall discuss later.
Unknown effects on human health There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. A recent article published in Lancet examined the effects of GM potatoes on the digestive tract in rats this study claimed that there were appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed GM potatoes and rats fed unmodified potatoes. Yet critics say that this paper, like the monarch butterfly data, is flawed and does not hold up to scientific scrutiny Moreover, the gene introduced into the potatoes was a snowdrop flower lectin, a substance known to be toxic to mammals. The scientists who created this variety of potato chose to use the lectin gene simply to test the methodology, and these potatoes were never intended for human or animal consumption.
On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.
Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course Agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations.
Patent enforcement may also be difficult, as the contention of the farmers that they involuntarily grew Monsanto-engineered strains when their crops were cross-pollinated shows. One way to combat possible patent infringement is to introduce a "suicide gene" into GM plants. These plants would be viable for only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season. In an open letter to the public, Monsanto has pledged to abandon all research using this suicide gene technology.
How GM foods regulated and what are is the government's role in this process?
Governments around the world are hard at work to establish a regulatory process to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. Yet depending on the political, social and economic climate within a region or country, different governments are responding in different ways.
In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has announced that health testing of GM foods will be mandatory as of April 2001 Currently; testing of GM foods is voluntary. Japanese supermarkets are offering both GM foods and unmodified foods, and customers are beginning to show a strong preference for unmodified fruits and vegetables.
India's government has not yet announced a policy on GM foods because no GM crops are grown in India and no products are commercially available in supermarkets yet. India is, however, very supportive of transgenic plant research. It is highly likely that India will decide that the benefits of GM foods outweigh the risks because Indian agriculture will need to adopt drastic new measures to counteract the country's endemic poverty and feed its exploding population.
Some states in Brazil have banned GM crops entirely, and the Brazilian Institute for the Defense of Consumers, in collaboration with Greenpeace, has filed suit to prevent the importation of GM crops Brazilian farmers, however, have resorted to smuggling GM soybean seeds into the country because they fear economic harm if they are unable to compete in the global marketplace with other grain-exporting countries.
In Europe, anti-GM food protestors have been especially active. In the last few years Europe has experienced two major foods scares: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Great Britain and dioxin-tainted foods originating from Belgium. These food scares have undermined consumer confidence about the European food supply, and citizens are disinclined to trust government information about GM foods. In response to the public outcry, Europe now requires mandatory food labeling of GM foods in stores, and the European Commission (EC) has established a 1% threshold for contamination of unmodified foods with GM food products.
In the United States, the regulatory process is confused because there are three different government agencies that have jurisdiction over GM foods. To put it very simply, the EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat. The EPA is responsible for regulating substances such as pesticides or toxins that may cause harm to the environment. GM crops such as BT. pesticide-laced corn or herbicide-tolerant crops but not foods modified for their nutritional value fall under the purview of the EPA. The USDA is responsible for GM crops that do not fall under the umbrella of the EPA such as drought-tolerant or disease-tolerant crops, crops grown for animal feeds, or whole fruits, vegetables and grains for human consumption. The FDA historically has been concerned with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food products and additives, not whole foods. Under current guidelines, a genetically-modified ear of corn sold at a produce stand is not regulated by the FDA because it is a whole food, but a box of cornflakes is regulated because it is a food product. The FDA's stance is that GM foods are substantially equivalent to unmodified, "natural" foods, and therefore not subject to FDA regulation.
The EPA conducts risk assessment studies on pesticides that could potentially cause harm to human health and the environment, and establishes tolerance and residue levels for pesticides. There are strict limits on the amount of pesticides that may be applied to crops during growth and production, as well as the amount that remains in the food after processing. Growers using pesticides must have a license for each pesticide and must follow the directions on the label to accord with the EPA's safety standards. Government inspectors may periodically visit farms and conduct investigations to ensure compliance. Violation of government regulations may result in steep fines, loss of license and even jail sentences.
As an example the EPA regulatory approach, consider BT. corn. The EPA has not established limits on residue levels in BT corn because the BT. in the corn is not sprayed as a chemical pesticide but is a gene that is integrated into the genetic material of the corn itself. Growers must have a license from the EPA for BT corn, and the EPA has issued a letter for the 2000 growing season requiring farmers to plant 20% unmodified corn, and up to 50% unmodified corn in regions where cotton is also cultivated This planting strategy may help prevent insects from developing resistance to the BT. pesticides as well as provide a refuge for non-target insects such as Monarch butterflies.
The USDA has many internal divisions that share responsibility for assessing GM foods. Among these divisions are APHIS, the Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service, which conducts field tests and issues permits to grow GM crops, the Agricultural Research Service which performs in-house GM food research, and the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service which oversees the USDA risk assessment program. The USDA is concerned with potential hazards of the plant itself. Does it harbor insect pests? Is it a noxious weed? Will it cause harm to indigenous species if it escapes from farmer's fields? The USDA has the power to impose quarantines on problem regions to prevent movement of suspected plants, restrict import or export of suspected plants, and can even destroy plants cultivated in violation of USDA regulations. Many GM plants do not require USDA permits from APHIS. A GM plant does not require a permit if it meets these 6 criteria: 1) the plant is not a noxious weed; 2) the genetic material introduced into the GM plant is stably integrated into the plant's own genome; 3) the function of the introduced gene is known and does not cause plant disease; 4) the GM plant is not toxic to non-target organisms; 5) the introduced gene will not cause the creation of new plant viruses; and 6) the GM plant cannot contain genetic material from animal or human pathogens (see http://www.aphis.usda.gov:80/bbep/bp/7cfr340 ).
The current FDA policy was developed in 1992 (Federal Register Docket No. 92N-0139) and states that Agri-biotech companies may voluntarily ask the FDA for a consultation. Companies working to create new GM foods are not required to consult the FDA, nor are they required to follow the FDA's recommendations after the consultation. Consumer interest groups wish this process to be mandatory, so that all GM food products, whole foods or otherwise, must be approved by the FDA before being released for commercialization. The FDA counters that the agency currently does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out exhaustive health and safety studies of every proposed GM food product. Moreover, the FDA policy as it exists today does not allow for this type of intervention.
How to avoid genetically modified food?
Genetically modified (GM) foods are they safe or harmful? While regulatory authorities have approved GM food that is on the market, some people are concerned that there is a risk of harm. Most foods we eat may contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you live in Europe, avoiding GM foods is easier, since laws require labeling. In the U.S. and Canada, however, food manufacturers are not required to label their food as genetically modified or not. Here are some guidelines for steering clear of GM foods in your diet, if that is your choice.DS
Become familiar with the most common applications of genetic modification. These are the products (and their derivatives) that are most likely to be genetically modified:
• Soybeans — Gene taken from bacteria (Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4) and inserted into soybeans to make them more resistant to herbicides. See How to Live with a Soy Allergy for more information on avoiding soy products.
• Corn — there are two main varieties of GE corn. One has a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis inserted to produce the Bt toxin, which poisons Lepidopteron pests (moths and butterflies). There are also several things that are resistant to various herbicides present in high fructose corn syrup and glucose/fructose, prevalent in a wide variety of foods in America.
• Rapeseed/Canola — Gene added/transferred to make the crop more resistant to herbicide.
• Sugar beets — Gene added/transferred to make crop more resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.
• Cotton — engineered to produce Bt toxin. The seeds are pressed into cottonseed oil, a common ingredient in vegetable oil and margarine.
• Dairy — Cows injected with GE hormone rBGH/rBST; possibly fed GM grains and hay.
• Sugar. In 2012, the FDA approved the sale of GMO beet sugars under the name "SUGAR." So now, when we go to buy "All Natural" Breyers ice cream, we can't even know for sure that we are actually eating regular, natural cane sugar. If you see "CANE SUGAR," there's a good chance it's not GMO. This is one of the biggest frustrations with labeling, as sugar is in so many things, and we might think we're avoiding food that POSSIBLY has GMO sugar, but we're really not.
• Corn sold directly to the consumer at roadside stands/markets. Buy only organic corn, popcorn, and corn chips.
• Baked goods often have one or more of the common GM ingredients. Why do we need corn or soy in our bread, snacks, and desserts? It's hard to find mixes to use as well. Some brands avoid GMOs; find those you like and try to stick with them. Organic is one
• Option; learning how to cook brownies, etc., from scratch with your own organic oils is another.
1) BUY FOOD LABELED 100% ORGANIC. The U.S. and Canadian governments do not allow manufacturers to label something 100% organic if that food has been genetically modified or been fed genetically modified feed. You may find that organic food is more expensive and different in appearance from conventional products.
Also, just because something says "organic," it does not mean that it doesn't contain GMOs. In fact, it can still contain up to 30% GMOs, so be sure the label says 100% organic.
2) TRUSTED ORGANIC CERTIFICATION INSTITUTIONS INCLUDE QAI, OREGON TILTH, AND CCOF. Look for their mark of approval on the label of the product. USDA Organic standards pale in comparison. Do not consider a product 100% organic if it is only USDA Organic Certified.
This applies to eggs as well. Eggs labeled "free-range," "natural," or "cage-free" are not necessarily GE-free; look for eggs that are 100% organic.
3) RECOGNIZE FRUIT AND VEGETABLE LABEL NUMBERS.
If it is a 4-digit number, the food is conventionally produced.
If it is a 5-digit number beginning with an 8, it is GM. However, do not trust that GE foods will have a PLU identifying it as such, because PLU labeling is optional.
If it is a 5-digit number beginning with a 9, it is organic.
4) PURCHASE BEEF THAT IS 100% GRASS-FED. Most cattle in the U.S. are grass-fed but spend the last portion of their lives in feedlots in which they may be given GM corn, the purpose of which is to increase intramuscular fat and marbling. If you're looking to stay away from GMOs, make sure the cattle were 100% grass-fed or pasture-fed (sometimes referred to as grass-finished or pasture-finished).
The same applies to meat from other herbivores, such as sheep.
There is also the slight possibility that the animals were fed GM alfalfa, although this is less likely if you buy meat locally.
With nonruminants like pigs and poultry that cannot be 100% grass-fed, it's better to look for meat that is 100% organic.
5) SEEK PRODUCTS THAT ARE SPECIFICALLY LABELED AS NON-GMO OR GMO-FREE. It was once rare to find products labeled as such, but thanks to organizations such as the Non-GMO Project, they are becoming more common. You can also research websites that list companies and foods that do not use genetically modified foods, but be aware that some information is often incomplete, and conflicting interests may not be declared.
6) SHOP LOCALLY. Although more than half of all GM foods are produced in the U.S., most of it comes from large industrial farms. By shopping at farmers' markets, signing up for a subscription from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, or patronizing a local co-op, you may be able to avoid GM products and possibly save money at the same time.
More and more small farms are offering grains and meat directly to customers, in addition to the usual fare (vegetables, fruit, herbs, etc.).
Shopping locally may also give you the opportunity to speak to the farmer and find out how he or she feels about GMOs and whether or not they use them in their own operation.
7) BUY WHOLE FOODS. Favor foods that you can cook and prepare yourself, rather than foods that are processed or prepared (e.g., anything that comes in a box or a bag, including fast food). What you lose in convenience, you may recover in money saved and satisfaction gained, as well as increased peace of mind. Try cooking a meal from scratch once or twice a week; you may enjoy it and decide to do it more often.
Grow your own food. This way, you know exactly what was grown and what went into growing it.
QCS is another organic certifying agency of merit.
Don't be fooled by "natural" or "all natural." This is simply clever marketing and has no significance. Studies show that a consumer would prefer the "natural" label over organic! Consumers often think it means organic, but it means nothing insofar as quality or health is concerned.
Producers who label their food GMO-free don't make any health claims regarding the product.
At chain and nonchain restaurants, you can ask which, if any, of their foods contain GMOs, but the waiters/waitresses and kitchen staffs are not likely to know. Ask them to find out what oils they cook with. It is usually one of the big four: corn, soy, canola, or cottonseed. You may request butter to be used instead, though these are often products from cows fed GM corn feed; it is a secondary product.
Genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world's hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides. Yet there are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling. Many people feel that genetic engineering is the inevitable wave of the future and that we cannot afford to ignore a technology that has such enormous potential benefits. However, we must proceed with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to human health and the environment as a result of our enthusiasm for this powerful technology.
Part 1/2: Genetically Modified Foods are Harmful or Helpful?
OVERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION by Julie MARDIN
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