Why you should go GM free
Most people know that genetically modified ingredients are in our food chain and most consumers expect products containing these “novel proteins” to be labelled accordingly. But have you ever gone looking for the words “genetically modified” amid the ingredients list? In Australia, those two words are as rare as hens’ teeth, yet GM ingredients are used to make an estimated 70 per cent of food sold in Australian supermarkets. What’s going on here?
What is genetic modification?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), also known as GM or GE (genetically engineered) ingredients, are, in most cases, plants that have been altered using biotechnology. Scientists extract genes with desirable traits from one organism and transplant them into others. While the vast majority of GM crops grown around the world have been genetically modified to resist a specific type of weedkiller or to produce their own insecticide, the potential is for GM crops to produce better foods that can tolerate severe weather, contain no allergens or are enriched with live vaccines, for example.
It’s a seductive thought: rice that cures vitamin deficiency, bananas that render a whole population immune to rotavirus, drought-resistant wheat for Aussie farmers. Real examples of GM foods include soybeans with more of the good fats than bad, Golden Rice enhanced with vitamin A (deficiency of this nutrient is a huge problem in some rice-based societies) and peanuts with their allergenic properties removed.
The shining examples above are heralded by GM proponents around the world. However, according to Greenpeace and other organisations concerned about the creeping spread of GM foods, 80 per cent of the crops in use today have been engineered to produce more and cost less rather than save lives through nutritional enhancements.
Below is a top-level look at the environmental, health and ethical issues surrounding GM foods; however, the biggest problem facing consumers in Australia is that, if you wish to avoid GM foods for whatever reason, it’s not as simple as reading product labels.
While genetic modification all sounds highly technical, it is essentially a fast-tracked version of what man has been doing since we first learned to cultivate food: selecting the plant with the most flavour or yield and then growing its offspring, or grafting sensitive fruit stock onto more hardy native varieties.
However, now that this tampering takes place in a lab rather than in the fields, the process leaps forward, eliminating the slow and steady pace of nature. What’s more, scientist can break natural limits, moving genes between species.
- No decreased use of pesticides
Some GM crops have been designed to produce a bacteria that kills specific bugs (these are known as BT crops), however an increasing body of studies is showing that the use of BT crops such as corn does not reduce the need for pesticides, as was their original aim.
- Increased use of herbicides
In the US, where GM crops are far more widely grown, it has been seen that, as weeds become resistant to the weedkiller to which the crop is resistant, farmers are forced to use even more herbicides than before. Furthermore, some studies suggest that the weedkiller is not the “relatively benign” chemical it is often perceived to be and can actually build up in soil.
- The creation of “superweeds” and “superbugs”
It is nature’s job to evolve to survive and that is exactly what is happening with the weeds and insects targeted by the genetically modified crops. Weeds can also cross-breed with the crops themselves, making them even tougher to eradicate.
- Contamination of other crops
For those farmers who wish to remain GM free, the problem of cross-contamination arises when the wind or bees carry GM pollens into their fields.
- GM crops affect biodiversity
In her beautiful essay on the topic, author and scientist Barbara Kingsolver explains the intricate and inexplicable phenomenon of diversity as “nature’s insurance policy”. Already today, most of the Western world’s crops are grown from a relatively small range of seeds sold by a very small number of seed sellers. The South American corn blight and the potato famine of Ireland are examples of what can happen when everyone plants the one crop. At a more immediate level, GM crops impact on biodiversity when the plants kill non-target insects such as butterflies.
- No long-term studies
The major health concern with GM foods is that, as products of new technology, we simply don’t know how these novel proteins might affect our bodies and long-term health. At the moment, testing is dominated by the companies that produce the seeds, so there is a real issue of bias. There have been small studies that have shown adverse effects in mice fed on GM foods, but more comprehensive and independent studies are needed.
- The creation of new allergens
While no allergens have been found in any of the GM foods on the market, there was one study that transferred the genes of a brazilnut into soybeans and the end product was found to be potentially allergenic. The World Health Organization says, “As a matter of principle, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods is discouraged.” Some scientists are also concerned that the genes added to GM crops have not been present in human food before and therefore their allergenic potential is unknown.
- Resistance to antibiotics
There is a very low risk that the antibiotic-resistant genes used in some GM technology could be absorbed by the gut and cause antibiotic resistance in humans, leading to an increase in infectious disease.
- More pesticides in our food
No matter how “benign” a pesticide, few people can argue that having more chemicals in our food chain is beneficial to human health.
- Crossing the species barrier
Unlike farmers, scientists are not limited to plant matter when it comes to manipulating crops. An oft quoted example is the cold-resistant gene of a fish being transplanted into strawberries (this product is not commercially available). This crossover of species could pose ethical issues for certain groups if they were unknowingly eating something derived from meat, for example.
- Control of the world’s food supply by a small number of chemical companies
Farmers using GM plants are required to buy seeds for every new crop and, as GM crops become more widespread, there are only a few companies benefiting.
- Food becoming intellectual property
The agro-chemical companies vigorously defend their patented seeds and have been known to prosecute farmers found growing GM crops without a contract — even when their non-GM crop was contaminated by a nearby GM crop.
The secret ingredient
In Australia and New Zealand, foods containing GM proteins must be labelled, which sounds OK until you read the list of exemptions. These include highly refined foods such as sugars and oils — even if the oil is made entirely from GM canola. Also exempt are animal products such as meat, eggs and milk, where the animal may have been raised on GM feed — a common practice. Products where less than 1 per cent of an approved GM ingredient is unintentionally present require no label, and restaurants, cafes, takeaway food shops and caterers are also exempt from GM food labelling requirements.
The issue of GM food labelling came before the Senate in 2010 when Independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert introduced the bill, Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling — Genetically Modified Material). The bill was presented in response to GM material being found in soy infant formula (as there was less than 1 per cent, no labelling was required). The senators proposed that GM foods be labelled regardless of how much GM material was present in the food, how it made its way into the food or whether it was intentional. In other words, for all ingredients made with GM organisms at any stage of processing to be labelled “genetically modified”.
The committee recommended the bill not be passed, stating, “The committee considers that the current system for labelling of GM material presents an appropriate level of information to consumers.” In 2011, a wider review of food labelling in Australia was chaired by former Australian health minister Neal Blewett, but this, too, found the current labelling system to be sufficient.
This, despite the fact that a Newpoll survey in 2009 found that 90 per cent of Australian consumers want all food derived from GM crops to be labelled.
Where you’ll find GM ingredients in Australia
Australia grows GM canola and cotton, both of which are consumed as oil. However, most of the genetically modified ingredients you’ll find in the supermarket are imported from the US and are very rarely labelled. Corn and soy are used to make a huge range of additives and can be found in everything from sauces to spreads, cakes to cookies, chocolate to breakfast cereal. Eighty per cent of US corn crop is now GM, while more than 90 per cent of soy comes from GM crops.
Here’s what to look out for:
Avoiding GM foods
With such lax labelling laws in Australia, it may seem nearly impossible to avoid GM ingredients, but Fran Murrell from MADGE (Mothers Are Demystifying GE) says it’s a case of simplifying food: cooking at home, avoiding processed foods, shopping thoughtfully.
Here are some suggestions on how to avoid GM ingredients:
- Buy organic Certified organic foods should not contain any GM ingredients. To ease the financial burden, consider buying organic versions of foods or condiments with ingredients that may contain GM organisms (see Box).
- Eat fresh food With up to 70 per cent of processed foods containing GM ingredients, it makes sense to avoid these. Make your own biscuits and sauces, choose wholegrain cereals and use GM-free butter instead of margarine.
- Ask questions about your meat products Get to know the provenance of your eggs, dairy and meat. If you can, ask the farmers about their policy on GM feed. Remember, you can email companies to ask for their policies.
- Choose good oils Avoid canola or oil marked “vegetable oil” unless specified as “GM-free”.
- Download the Truefood Guide Created by Greenpeace and based on the results of company questionnaires,The Truefood Guide is a very handy list of common supermarket brands and their policies on GM. Find it at www.truefood.org.au.
The future of GM foods
Although canola and cotton are currently the only commercially grown GM crops in Australia, wheat trials are going ahead in Western Australia and New South Wales, and FSANZ has issued approvals for corn, soy, potato, sugarbeet, lucerne and rice. So it seems that GM foods are here to stay.
Efforts for clearer labelling have so far been unsuccessful but there’s no reason to give up hope that in the future we might see the words “genetically modified” in the ingredients list.
As always, the European Union is far ahead of us on this issue. Where they initially adopted a labelling policy similar to Australia’s, today all food products made from or derived from GM organisms at any part of the process must be labelled as such. The reason for the change was mass consumer unease — which, in Europe, is the result of a number of food scares in the 90s, including mad-cow disease. In other words, European consumers will no longer tolerate people messing with their food and the regulators know this.
In her submission to the Blewett Report, MADGE’s Madeleine Love wrote, “I insist on the right to avoid food derived from GM crops and processes that don’t have a long history of safe use.” One can only hope that, as the chorus of voices grows louder, the regulatory bodies will listen.
Jo Hegerty is a freelance writer and editor based in sunny Redcliffe, Queensland. She blogs about eco living, mindful parenting and healthy eating at www.downtoearthmother.com.
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