What you should know about the GE food debate
About 10 years ago, news first emerged of genetically engineered (GE) “frankenfoods” entering the food supply, unlabelled. Irate consumers were inflamed by the idea of being fed these new foods without their consent, while activist groups appeared in numerous countries. Proponents of the technology presented a range of arguments, including a claim that only genetically manipulated food is capable of feeding a growing world population. Yields would increase, chemical use would be slashed, and farmers’ profits would go through the roof.
Misleading comparisons were made with traditional breeding techniques and sometimes the issue was framed in simplistic “science versus superstition” terms. A decade later, have these promises been fulfilled?
Herbicide-tolerant crops are created by companies to survive chemical applications, most commonly Roundup (made by Monsanto) and Basta/Liberty (Bayer). Varieties known as B.t. crops have the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) spliced into their DNA, and each cell of the plant acts like a miniature insecticide source.
Some strains of B.t. produce proteins that kill certain insects with alkaline digestive tracts. When these insects ingest the protein produced by B.t., the function of their digestive systems is disrupted, producing slow growth and, ultimately, death.
“Terminator technology” is designed to produce sterile seeds and there are widespread concerns that this may threaten the right of farmers in less developed countries to save their seed, jeopardising the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest people. Following a 2006 meeting of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity in Brazil, an international ban on terminator technology was upheld. Interestingly, Australia was one of three governments arguing against a blanket ban.
There are questions, though, around the scientific assumptions that underlie GE technology. The current reductionist genetic model received a setback in July 2007, when a paper published in the science journal Nature questioned the existing assumption that gene sequences each have their own discrete function, and that desired traits can be isolated in DNA strands. Instead, it seems that these sequences interact with each other in little-understood ways, a finding that supports a more holistic view of genetics.
Australia’s regulatory framework
The approval process concerning modified crops comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). This extends to both commercial releases and the many trial crops being grown around the country, including pineapple, canola, sugar cane and wheat.
According to Greenpeace, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has approved every single GE food application it has so far received. Making use of biotech company data, it conducts no independent testing or human feeding trials. In a reversal of the precautionary principle, GE foods are regarded as safe until proven harmful. Western Australia’s Food Minister Kim Chance has challenged this stance by calling for pre-approval independent tests.
Last year, a potentially worrying trend started to emerge: GE crops never intended for human consumption were receiving FSANZ approval. These include Monsanto high-lysine corn (intended for pig feed) and Syngenta alpha-amylase corn (for bioethanol production). Australia was the first country to approve the alpha-amylase corn, which had been previously rejected by South Africa due to health concerns. GE cotton in Australia
With the exception of a blue carnation, the only commercial GE crop being cultivated here is cotton. Varieties have included B.t., Roundup Ready and a “stacked” variety created through conventional breeding that combines both B.t. and Roundup Ready characteristics.
More recently, the CSIRO used a gene licensed from Monsanto to develop a new B.t. cotton variety known as Bollgard II. Designed to protect Australia’s cotton crop against its major pest, the heliothis caterpillar, Bollgard has been touted as a major success story. Biotech supporters claim a reduction of up to 80 per cent in the use of synthetic pesticides and a 10 per cent drop in water usage. This variety now represents the vast majority of cotton grown here.
Cotton also becomes a food crop in the form of cottonseed oil (most commonly used as a frying oil in fast-food outlets), “linters” (used in sausage casings) and cellulose (in products such as icecream and syrups). In terms of the textile, the only sure way to avoid GE is through buying certified organic.
At the time of writing, the only GE canola grown in Australia had been in trial crops that were never destined for human consumption. The future direction of Australia’s canola industry is now hanging in the balance, as five state-level bans on the growing of GE food crops (other than cotton) expire this year and are currently subject to review. Both Monsanto and Bayer are waiting in the wings with GE canola varieties ready to be planted.
Being very light, canola pollen can travel a few kilometres, spreading contamination to nearby growers. For this reason, the coexistence of GE and non-GE canola is seen by many as an unrealistic goal. Transgenic canola also has the capacity to transfer herbicide-tolerance genes to related weed species, including wild radish, wild turnip and charlock.
On November 27, 2007, the Victorian and NSW governments announced that the four year moratoria over the commercial release of GE canola (set to expire in those states on February 29, 2008, and March 3, 2008, respectively) would not be renewed. These latest moves to lift the bans are largely the result of independent panel reviews conducted by each state into the economic ramifications of their moratoria.
Environmentalists are concerned that the terms of reference of state review panels are purely economic with no real consideration of effects on human health or the environment. Even based on economics alone, there are arguments against going down the GE canola path.
Canada, which opted for GE canola years ago, has lost its export sales to Europe. The segregation of GE and non-GE canola has proven impossible and the organic canola industry has suffered extensive GE contamination. If Australia sets off down the same avenue, according to the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, non-GE canola growers will be obliged to pay 5-15 per cent of the farmgate value on segregation — if it proves feasible.
The global picture
Over the past decade, GE crops have made significant inroads in a small number of countries, while elsewhere few commercial plantings have taken place. Most have been in the US, with other significant acreages in Argentina and Brazil.
High levels of anti-GE sentiment are found in Europe, where particularly tough policies have been adopted by Austria, Greece and Poland, which banned GE crops in 2006 and is set to prohibit the use of GE animal feed this year.
The precautionary approach of several EU countries has raised the ire of US authorities, which in 2003 combined forces with Canada and Argentina to launch a World Trade Organization (WTO) action against Europe over its decision to ban many GE crops and foods. A couple of years ago, the WTO ruled against the bans, yet today European policies remain largely unchanged.
Because of the continuing consumer aversion towards GE foods, a trend has emerged whereby countries that are keeping their agriculture GE-free are experiencing increasing demand on the international market. This is made possible by the existence of strong labelling laws in the EU, Japan and China.
A range of objections
Among the many arguments raised against GE crops and food, issues involved extend to:
Genetic contamination.This is virtually impossible to prevent and such a view is reflected in the permitted accidental contamination thresholds of certain labelling regimes. Under Australia’s regulatory system, the costs of contamination are externalised onto taxpayers and farmers. Large agricultural insurers such as Wesfarmers indicate the scope of their coverage will not extend to contamination incidents.
Yield. Surveys carried out around the world show a general lack of evidence that the use of GE crops has led to a greater yield, which in turn questions the substantial extra cost of GE seed and the per-hectare payment of an additional “technology fee”. In some areas of India, B.t. cotton has experienced a 100 per cent failure and investigations in a few regions of the country indicate organic cotton farmers are earning more.
Chemical use. Probably the most authoritative study in this area was released by agricultural consultant Charles Benbrook in 2004. It found that over the previous eight years, there had been a significant reduction in pesticide applications on B.t. crops. Unfortunately, the large increase in applications onto herbicide-tolerant crops has outweighed this reduction, resulting in an overall net increase.
Biodiversity. Herbicide-tolerant canola trials in the UK have been linked to biodiversity loss as a result of sizeable increases in chemical use. In India a couple of years ago, about 1500 sheep and goats died from internal organ damage after grazing on B.t. cotton plants. B.t. toxins are also known to enter the soil via the root system, and the full implications on soil biodiversity are unknown.
Corporate control. Many observers believe that underlying the GE push is a corporate desire for control over much of the world’s food supply. Following recent takeovers, notably Seminis in 2005, Monsanto is now the world’s largest seed company.
Human health worries
The possibility of human health effects from GE crops has been raised by the Public Health Association of Australia and the British Medical Association. Although these mainly centre on GE food, other issues have emerged among those living close to transgenic crops.
Concerns include the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in some GE crops. Sometimes GE DNA is incompletely digested in the guts of humans (and animals). It may be taken up by bacteria, which may then be unaffected by the actions of certain antibiotics.
In addition, because of their unpredictable qualities, GE foods are capable of producing novel proteins, toxins and allergens. This occurred overseas when a soya bean spliced with a Brazil nut gene was found to cause allergic reactions.
A peer-reviewed feeding study found that rats eating a diet rich in the corn variety MON 863 had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood. The conclusions of the study, obtained by Greenpeace after a court action, have been disputed by some food agencies, including FSANZ.
In 2005, a Russian study by Irina Ermakova at the Russian Academy of Sciences found a death rate of 56 per cent among offspring of pregnant rats fed a type of GE soya, compared with 9 per cent for those fed non-GE soya.
CSIRO tests involving the feeding of mice with GE peas containing alpha-amylase inhibitor genes revealed a severe lung reaction, causing research with this variety to be suspended.
In 1998, Dr Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland fed rats GE potatoes modified using a type of lectin that is normally harmless to mammals. He discovered immune system and organ damage and cellular changes in the intestines and stomach walls. After speaking out on TV, he was later sacked and discredited.
In the Philippines, residents of a village situated adjacent to a large field of B.t. corn experienced respiratory illness, skin reactions and fever. These symptoms occurred during the period the corn was pollinating, and antibodies detected in their blood samples revealed an immune system reaction to the B.t. pesticide.
In the marketplace
Surveys across numerous countries show that anywhere from a small to large majority of consumers prefer not to eat GE food. A poll from 2002 shows that 68 per cent of Australian consumers would be less likely to eat a food product if they knew it had genetically engineered ingredients. The world’s four GE food crops are soya, corn, canola and cotton and these are frequently encountered in processed ingredients (see box).
As part of its GE campaign, Greenpeace produces a pocket-sized consumer aid known as the True Food Guide. Available as a hard copy, and downloadable as a PDF document, it rates Australia’s food companies according to their policies on the use of GE ingredients. In addition to providing helpful information, it serves as a lobbying tool. Brands that went GE-free last year include Greens and Sirena.
GE labelling is of primary importance in providing freedom of choice and, unfortunately, Australia’s labelling laws contain several important exemptions (see box). Moreover, the US Free Trade Agreement that came into effect in 2005 undermines our right to retain the extent of labelling that currently exists.
However, strict labelling is found in EU countries, where even the use of GE animal feed must be identified for consumers; the sole permitted exemption is for a small amount of accidental contamination. The US and Canada, both GE-grower countries, are conspicuous for their lack of mandatory labelling requirements.
Thanks to widespread GE contamination in the US, some GE varieties unapproved for human consumption have been detected in processed food using genetic tests. In 2000, the insecticidal Starlink corn caused a furore, and in 2006, the identification of an experimental herbicide-tolerant rice led to billions of dollars worth of losses for US growers. In each case, FSANZ has declined to issue product withdrawals, again applying the “safe until proven harmful” principle.
Labelling required in Australia
Foods with GE content
- Foods sufficiently refined that altered DNA is absent
- Foods with unintentional GE contamination of 1 per cent or less
- Flavourings present at less than 0.1 per cent of the total
- Food prepared at point of sale
- Airline food
- Food from animals given GE feed
- Therapeutic products
Possible GE ingredients
- Canola oil
- Corn/maize ingredients
- Cottonseed oil
- Fructose (syrup)
- Glucose (syrup)
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Lecithin (E322)
- Modified starch (1400-1450)
- Soya ingredients
- Thickener (1400-1450)
- Vegetable extract
- Vegetable fat
- Vegetable oil
- egetable proteins
- Xanthan gum (E415)
Greenpeace True Food campaign: www.truefood.org.au Greenpeace True Food Guide: http://sites.greenpeace.org.au/truefood/downloads/TrueFoodGuide.pdf Gene Ethics: www.geneethics.org Mothers Against Genetic Engineering: www.madge.org.au Network of Concerned Farmers: www.non-gm-farmers.com Office of the Gene Technology Regulator: www.ogtr.gov.au Biotechnology Australia: www.biotechnology.gov.au
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore in northern NSW. He is also an independent distributor of the Ecoflow range of fuel-saving units for cars and gas systems.