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Genetically modified (GM) food update

Credit: Thai Ch Hamelin Chokdidesign

Genetically modified (GM) foods have now been in Australia and New Zealand for roughly 20 years, but many consumers remain mistrustful. Factors include lack of consumer choice driven by weak labelling, cosy relationships between GM companies and some governments, the patenting of seed, chemical interests of the biotech giants and the spectre of corporate control over the food supply.

In the mid-90s, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM soybeans — a variety designed to withstand multiple applications of the company’s top-selling herbicide — appeared unannounced on the market. They were soon joined by cotton, canola and corn. Regulatory agency Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has approved every GM food application that it has ever received, and, rather than carrying out its own testing, it instead relies on the data supplied by applicant companies.

Australia remains the world’s top supplier of GM-free canola, which currently fetches a price premium of an additional $40 per tonne.

The two GM crops grown in Australia are cotton and canola and, while nearly all cotton is GM, only about a fifth of canola is modified. Australia remains the world’s top supplier of GM-free canola, which currently fetches a price premium of an additional $40 per tonne. Moratoria on the growing of GM crops are active in the canola-growing states of Tasmania and South Australia until 2019, encouraged by economic incentives. New Zealand has no commercial GM crops under cultivation and a number of councils have created GM-free zones or are in the process of implementing them.

Old & new technologies

Today’s genetically altered crops fall into three categories. Some are herbicide resistant and others are designed to kill insects. The Bt bacterium gene is spliced into these crops so that every cell of the plant effectively has its own tiny pesticide factory. A third set combines both traits through conventional breeding.

These “first-generation” GM technologies involve foreign genetic material being inserted randomly into a genome, creating collateral damage in the process. In comparison with these primitive cut-and-paste techniques, other genetic manipulation techniques are being developed that are known as “gene editing”.

Gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, ZFN and TALEN can be used for the modification of genes in any living organism: micro-organisms, plants, animals and humans. While first-generation GM technology never offered any potential appeal to consumers despite the promises, CRISPR has the potential to alter the taste properties of food.

Unfortunately, the term “editing” is misleading, as off-target effects are likely and the full risks are as yet unknown. While the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator in Australia and FSANZ look disinclined to classify gene editing as GM, in New Zealand it has been ruled as GM by the High Court in a world-first case of its type. No food produced using these new techniques has so far appeared on the market.

Roundup & residues

Herbicide-resistant crops are designed for chemicals including glufosinate (made by Bayer) and 2,4-D (produced by Dow), but by far the most common is Monsanto’s Roundup. In 2015 the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the active constituent of Roundup, as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Studies have found that additional chemicals such as surfactants multiply glyphosate’s toxicity.

While GM crops have some of the highest levels of Roundup residues, this chemical is also sometimes sprayed on non-GM crops to facilitate harvesting. Those most affected are non-organic animal feeds, cereals, oil seeds and dried pulses. Australia’s Maximum Residue Level (MRL) for Roundup is 20 parts per million; New Zealand uses the Codex Alimentarius standard, which has similar levels.

Health risks

One message we frequently hear is that GM foods are safe to eat. The best evidence to back this up is that people have not been observed to become ill immediately after taking a bite of genetically altered food. These foods however have been found to contain increased levels of allergens, toxins and antinutrients compared to their non-GM counterparts. Furthermore, a range of health studies and experiences from the field point to potential risks.

Australian researcher Judy Carman carried out a piglet study in which a diet of GM soya and corn was compared to that of a control group. Piglets fed the GM diet were found to have a 25 per cent heavier uterus and significant stomach inflammation. It has been claimed that Carman, like other scientists critical of GMOs, have had their computers and webpages targeted by hackers.

For consumers who want to avoid eating GM, the easiest solution is to buy organic.

Villagers in the Philippines living close to fields of Bt corn experienced suspected fevers, respiratory illnesses and skin reactions. When tested, they were found to have antibodies to the Bt pesticide. (Monsanto’s Bt corn is modified with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a protein toxic to some insect pests.)

A 2016 study looking at occupationally exposed workers has identified GM enzymes in foods, perfumes, medicines and cleaning products as potent allergens.

Safety first?

One hard-hitting study was co-authored by Gilles-Éric Séralini in France. Focusing on Roundup Ready maize, it took as its starting point a Monsanto study from 2004, extended the rat feeding period from 90 days to two years and applied more sophisticated methods. Published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012, it came to very different conclusions from Monsanto’s shorter-timeframe study: over two years, a concentration of Roundup as low as 0.1 parts per billion (roughly 100,000 times smaller than Australia and New Zealand’s highest MRLs) was found to cause health issues. The following year the study was retracted in controversial circumstances. It was republished in 2014 by Environmental Sciences Europe.

Coexistence or contamination?

The pro-GM Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia promotes a message of coexistence between GM and non-GM crops, including those that are certified organic. This presupposes a permitted threshold for GM contamination which, if raised over time, would diminish the scope of foods aspiring to be non-GM and representing an alternative in the marketplace.

This issue came to a head in 2010, when Western Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh discovered on his property hundreds of GM canola plants originating from his neighbour Michael Baxter. That led to 70 per cent of his farm losing its organic certification for a few years as well as two unsuccessful legal battles in the Western Australian courts. This legal precedent fails to uphold the right of Australian organic farmers to remain GM-free.

A further consideration is whether the organic sector should give ground to the GM industry by allowing a contamination threshold. In the face of protests from the organic industry, Europe allows up to 0.9 per cent GM contamination while the US, Australia and New Zealand all retain zero-tolerance policies. In 2015, Australia’s Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council rejected the introduction of a 0.9 per cent threshold despite being lobbied by the Western Australian Department of Agriculture.

Consumer choice

The GM food ingredients approved in Australia and New Zealand are soya, canola, corn, potato, sugar beet and cotton. The majority of imported GM crop products are soya and corn destined for animal feed; consequently, a high level of consumer leverage against GM foods can be achieved by avoiding animal products that may have been raised with GM feed.

Most Australian and New Zealand supermarket chains have policies to avoid GM ingredients in their own-brand ranges but this does not extend to the animal feed in their supply chains.

For consumers who want to avoid eating GM, the easiest solution is to buy organic, which is becoming increasingly important as a means of avoiding pesticides and other risky technological interventions including irradiation and nanotechnology.

Australia’s new organic mark features a white leaf on a white circle, the most common certification being the ACO spiral seed symbol. For New Zealand, certification symbols are the blue and green AsureQuality logo or the BioGro plant. Be aware though that EU organic certification, operating under a leaf symbol made up of white dots, allows for a small quantity of GM contamination.

Seek out products labelled GM-free (see a list in the resources section) after checking that this applies to all potential GM ingredients.

Most Australian and New Zealand supermarket chains have policies to avoid GM ingredients in their own-brand ranges but this does not extend to the animal feed in their supply chains.

What’s on the label?

The following ingredients may be GM in origin, and the safest route is to assume so unless you know otherwise.

  • Canola oil
  • Cellulose ingredients (E460-E468)
  • Corn/maize ingredients
  • Cottonseed oil (often used as a frying oil)
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose (syrup)
  • Glucose (syrup)
  • Lecithin (E322)
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Margarine
  • Modified starch (1400-1450)
  • Potato ingredients (not fresh potatoes)
  • Soya ingredients
  • Starch
  • Sucrose
  • Thickener (1400-1450)
  • Vegetable fat
  • Vegetable oil
  • Vegetable proteins
  • Xanthan gum (E415)

In Australia and New Zealand, GM ingredients are required to be identified in the ingredients list but this is subject to several exclusions, despite polling showing that about 90 per cent of Australians support comprehensive labelling. Those exclusions are:

  • Unintentional contamination at a level below one per cent of the total food content. (Whether or not low levels of GM content are unintentional is very hard to prove.)
  • Refined ingredients such as oils, fats, sugars and starches.
  • Flavours, where the GM content is less than 0.1 per cent of the total food content.
  • Where animals have been fed GM feed.
  • As a processing aid where there is no GM DNA in the final product.
  • Restaurant or airline food.

However, the limited labelling that we have cannot be taken for granted. The Productivity Commission’s July 2016 draft Regulation of Agriculture report supports removal of GM labelling in Australia and New Zealand, plus ending state moratoria on growing GM crops.

A further risk is tied to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that Australia and New Zealand signed up to but are yet to ratify. If the TPP goes ahead, it involves signatories accepting low levels of unapproved GM foods in international trade. What’s more, both countries could be challenged in secret offshore tribunals if they reject GM foods on health grounds, pass laws against growing GM crops, adhere to a zero contamination threshold for organics or continue labelling GM foods. It is plausible that the Productivity Commission’s proposed removal of GM labelling is tied to the TPP.

Smoke & mirrors

With nearly all media coverage of the GM food issue either neutral or positive, there is a risk of public opinion slowly being swayed in its favour despite the numerous risks.

We hear that GM is needed to feed a growing world population despite the fact that GM crops yield no more than the best conventional varieties. The issue is typically framed so that GM crops are associated with “science” rather than a technology and its commercial products, implying that critics and opponents are emotional and “anti-science”. The biggest furphy is the notion that GM is an extension of traditional breeding techniques.

The agrochemical giants are consolidating into an increasingly small number of mega-corporations. At present, the top six control three-quarters of the agrochemical sector and two-thirds of seeds.

For those people who do understand, it is obvious that technological meddling with food is a dangerous hubris likely to have unintended consequences that we may only fully understand long after the fact. GM technology is a product of an increasingly reductionist view of the world whereby respect for nature is lost; instead it is treated as a machine that can be tweaked to achieve desired results.

A most optimistic vision of the future involves supporting a GM-free ecological agriculture that is capable of feeding the world, possesses a high degree of resilience, adaptability and resilience to climate change, and offers local control and autonomy.


Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.