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Is GM food safe?
21 June 2003
As farmers, we need to understand consumer resistance in order to predict future market trends.
The concerns can be best described by Judy Carmen in a letter to the editor, Farm Weekly August 5, 2004.
"...Not all ingested DNA and proteins are completely broken down in the gut. If proteins were fully digested, we would not have allergies (eg to peanuts) or mad cow disease.
There is also evidence that some DNA can survive digestion in the gut and be incorporated into white blood cells, spleen, liver, muscle, milk, kidneys and cells of the immune system.
Studies have shown that large molecules, including food proteins and allergens, eaten by the mother, can enter the developing foetus and breast milk.
There is a specific concern about proteins and DNA in genetically modified foods because of the way GM foods are made.
Methods, such as shooting the desired genes into the plant on tiny bullets, result in genes being placed randomly into the plant's genetic code.
This may inadvertently turn some of the plant's natural genes on, or off, produce new toxins, proteins or allergens or produce characteristics found in ancestral forms of the plant.
There have been no human safety tests on these foods and no investigations or monitoring of their effect on people in the community who have eaten them.
Some GM foods haven't even been tested on animals.
Most of the animal tests assess only the new proteins engineered to appear in the plant, not the whole food, and for only a few days' exposure.
Full animal autopsies are rarely done. Almost all of the tests have been done by those with vested interests.
There have been almost no independent safety tests.
Neither the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) or Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) do any of their own safety testing of these foods."
Judy Carman (Epidemiologist and biochemist)
Kate Clinch-Jones (Medical practitioner)
Phil Davies (Plant geneticist)
Institute of Health and Environmental Research"
Many consumers simply do not want scientists tampering with their food and would prefer conventionally produced food. For ethical reasons some object to cross-kingdom breeding or encouraging corporate control of the food chain. Scientific reassurances are insignificant with ethical concerns as some consumers are no more likely to accept GM products than the Jewish community will accept pork after being told by scientists that it is safe.
Some consumers are genuinely worried about the possible health impacts and unprepared to be involved in unmonitored feeding trials.
There is concern that there appears to be a rush to permanently contaminate the world's food supply with what is considered by many as an "unpredictable" product that is virtually unrecallable. As farmers, can we manage to grow uncontaminated produce in the future if a health problem is revealed or consumers continue to reject this product? (More specific details of genetic concerns here)
Do scientists really know what they are doing? See Reference - Commoner writes, "the biotechnology industry is based on science that is forty years old and conveniently devoid of more recent results, which show that there are strong reasons to fear the potential consequences of transferring a DNA gene between species." In other words, we now know that there is not a one to one equivalence between genes and proteins which means genetic engineering is far more complicated than has ever been assumed (ie one cannot just insert a transgene and have a precisely predictable effect). No wonder Craig Venter, who led one of the teams of scientists which sequenced the human genome, has asserted, "We don't know sh... about biology" ".
The recombinant DNA process is claimed to be exact and yet the success rate is extremely low (ballistics technique is worse than one in a million) and many of the first generation of GM plants are deformed in some way (usually bleaching). There is concern that although only the plants that appear to be normal are selected for further development, they may have abnormalities that are not detected visually. Cross kingdom breeding has never been possible before, it is different and many feel it should be treated differently and accordingly, be thoroughly tested. More details on the specific problems that could occur can be found (here)
Health testing is done on the basis that GM food is substantially equivelant, which means it is considered the same as any other food and should only be subjected to the same tests expected of conventional food. This international testing protocol was established under the Codex Alimentarius, see (here)
In 2001, The Codex Commission agreed in principle that the safety of food derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO) should be tested and approved by governments prior to entering the market. In particular, GMO foods should be tested for their potential to cause allergic reactions. See (here)
Monsanto has a list of published papers on biotech product safety see (here)
There are serious concerns regarding the inadequacy of testing done based on substantial equivelence as some results are adverse but not considered reason to reject approval. For example, an official French report warned that people eating a particular GM corn could suffer "unforeseen effects" and although crucial safety tests claimed to show the sweetcorn was safe, these were in fact carried out on a different type of maize grown to be fed to animals. (more here)
The Australian public are told we have one of the most rigorous GM health and environmental testing regimes in the world through the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).
The following is a senate estimates transcript with Sue Meek, the Gene Technology Regulator:
- Senator CHERRY, Have you commissioned any research on impact on biodiversity in Australia of GM crops?
Dr Meek, No, we have not.
- Senator CHERRY, What research have you commissioned on the issue of human health effects of GM crops?
Dr Meek, Directly, we have not commissioned research. Obviously, Food Standards Australia New Zealand does a lot of work in assessing food products.
Senator CHERRY, But they have commissioned no research either.
Senator CHERRY, What does human health mean under your act then?
Dr Meek, It can be things to do with occupational health and safety issues, for example.
The OGTR does no health testing but relies on FSANZ (Food Safety Australia, New Zealand). FSANZ does no health testing but relies on data provided by Monsanto.
OGTR, FSANZ (and the US FDA) approval is based on Monsanto's food safety testing that must be submitted with their application for license.
“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food.... Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job” — Phil Angell, Director of Corporate Communications, Monsanto, quoted in New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998
“Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety.” — FDA,“Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties” (GMO Policy), Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 104 (1992), p. 22991(Note: the FDA performs the same role as FSANZ does in Australia)
Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved GM corn without reviewing hard data - they trusted Monsanto's word. (more here)
More about health - see www.iher.org.au
The following article quoting Britains longest serving minister, summarises the main health concerns regarding GM food, the reason for and the lack of health testing.
Michael Meacher: Are GM crops safe? Who can say? Not Blair
Independent on Sunday, 22 June 2003 Reference Extracts:
Contrary to the assurances of the biotech companies that genetic engineering is precise and simply extends traditional breeding techniques, it is actually quite different. When genetic crops are engineered, the gene is inserted randomly, out of a sequence that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.
But genes don't operate in isolation; they interact with each other.
Genetic engineers have assumed that each gene has one function, but the recent discovery that human beings have only some 30,000 genes to produce the quarter of a million proteins in the human body shows that this premise was wrong. Most genes are multi-functional. It is not known how to determine artificially a single function of a gene without triggering other unpredicted and undesired effects.
The random position and lack of control of the gene's functions could change any character of the plant and might not be evident immediately.
One example is the increased lignin in GM soya which only became apparent in hot weather when the stems began to split. In the United States there are already many examples of undesired effects only being identified after approval had been given - again one example is GM cotton where the cotton boils became deformed.
Another problem is that genetic engineers usually introduce other material - viruses or bacteria - into the plant which have the role of inserting the gene, activating it, and identifying where transfers have been successful. Viruses in particular are good at inserting their genetic material into other organisms. But that opens up the risk of "horizontal gene transfer" whereby genes transfer out of the genetically modified organism (GMO) and into other organisms. But we don't know how frequently or intensively this might occur, or what the safety implications might be.
GM technology also often involves producing novel substances which may cause allergic reactions. If such substances are used in food, consumers may quite often be exposed to this risk. It was recently found, for example, that a GM soya with a brazil nut gene could cause allergic reactions.
A further health risk is that creating herbicide (weedkiller) resistant plants allows the application of much more toxic herbicides to the growing plants. People therefore become exposed to more toxic residues than previously. In the recent case of the GM forage maize, Chardon LL, the herbicide used was glufosinate, a neurotoxin and a teratogen (ie it damages embryos). What is particularly worrying is that there seems to be a 10 per cent reconversion rate of the degraded herbicide back to the original toxic form in the gut.
Given that there is so much uncertainty, it might be expected that there would be routine testing of GMOs for healthy effects as a legal requirement. This applies to new pharmaceutical drugs which are subjected to lengthy trials so that all side-effects can be uncovered.
However, whilst it is often claimed that all GMOs have been "rigorously tested", all that this testing amounts to is deciding whether a GM crop is similar in terms of its composition to the non-GM plant.
This is justified under the rubric of "substantial equivalence", which was originally a marketing term, and is scientifically vacuous. It wholly misses the point that health concerns are focused, not on known compounds, but on the effects of the GM technology which are unpredictable.
It is really extraordinary that there have so far been virtually no independent studies of the health effects of GM. What there is has mostly been done by the companies themselves. We are constantly told that there is no evidence of any greater health risk from a GM crop than from its non-GM counterpart. What is not added is that there have been no health checks to find out. Indeed, the only Government-sponsored work ever carried on the health impacts of GMOs was Dr Pusztai's work on rats and GM potatoes, and then, when it found negative effects, it was widely rubbished in government circles, even though his paper had been peer-reviewed six times before publication.
These uncertainties have been acknowledged by some of the leading UK institutions. The Royal Society, in its reports last year, said that the potential health effects of GM foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or
breast-feeding women, elderly people, and those with chronic disease. This was because GM "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods".
Any baby food containing GM products could lead to a dramatic rise in allergies, and unexpected shifts in oestrogen levels in GM soya-based infant feed might affect sexual development in children. Infants, the report said, are very vulnerable because they have such a narrow diet. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in their food, such as fewer fatty acids, their health would suffer, especially the infant bowel function since even small nutritional changes could cause bowel obstruction.
Similarly, the only human GM trial, commissioned ironically by the Food Standards Agency, found that GM DNA did in fact transfer to bacteria in the human gut. Previously many scientists had denied that this was possible. But instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which should be checked and re-checked, the spin was that this was nothing new and did not involve any health risk - a Nelsonian putting the telescope to the blind eye if ever there was one.
A recent BMA report noted that "any conclusion upon the safety of introducing GM materials into the UK is premature as there is insufficient evidence to inform the decision-making process at the
moment". In their report to the Scottish Parliament six months ago, the BMA stated that "there has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health... In the UK not enough is known to enable us to give an accurate risk of assessment of the health impact of GM crops on the health of local communities".
Equally, a recent report from the General Medical Council stated that GM could switch on "silent" genes whose effects we know little about or know to be toxic. They also noted that GM elements in food might be taken up by bacteria in the gut, and this could alter the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to possible instability or further modification of GM food in later generations. Their conclusion was that more knowledge was needed of the effects of GM on metabolism, organ development, immune and endocrine systems, and gut flora.
Finally, it is often claimed by the biotech companies that there have been millions of people consuming GM foods over several years in the US, but without any ill-effects. However, there have actually been no epidemiological studies to support this claim. What is known is that coinciding with the introduction of GMOs in food in the US, food-derived illnesses are believed by the official US Centres for Disease Control to have doubled over the past seven years. And there are many reports of a rise in allergies - indeed a 50 per cent increase in soya allergies has been reported in the UK since imports of GM soya began. None of this of course proves the connection with GM, but it certainly suggests an urgent need for further investigation of this possible link. Typically, however, this has not been forthcoming.
As the Prime Minister said, we should act on the basis of science, not prejudice. Quite so. But since the science is still clouded with such deep uncertainty, that means deferring decisions till the science is clear and reliable, not rushing to desired conclusions which cannot be scientifically supported.
Michael Meacher MP was, until the recent government reshuffle, Minister for the Environment.
Michael Meacher has become more vocal regarding his concerns since he has left parliament. He was "reshuffled" from parliament and many believe it was due to his anti-GM stance. Mr Meacher was quoted in the Daily Mail, saying consumers face possible damage to their immune system and stomach from GM food. See article
Health testing is undertaken by the GM product providers themselves and relied on by countries to verify the safety of the product. The most stringent of tests usually involve feeding mice/rats for up to 14 days which is considered inadequate to reveal potential long term problems to human health. See Nutritionists comments. The longest test usually undertaken is to check for toxicology (death assessment) and does not exceed 28 days.
Canola oil is considered irrelevent in the GM testing debate as it is claimed that no DNA is in canola oil. When 10-20% of patients allergic to peanuts have an allergic reaction to peanut oil, this is evidence that there is DNA in oil or there would be no allergy protein to cause this reaction. This testing of peanut oil allergies was used by the GM industry claiming they tested only 10 patients who did not have allergic reactions and this has been accepted as reasonable cause not to test canola oil.
Very little independent health testing has been done and it appears every effort is taken to discredit those scientists that do question the problems with GM food. One of those scientists is Arpad Pusztai who claimed his rat feeding trials with GM potatoes showed a possibility of predisposition to tumours and smaller organ development. He was not claiming GM food "will" cause cancer but wanted to further investigate his research.
"Arpad Pusztai, who lost his job at the prestigious Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen after outlining his findings in a television programme in 1998, has published the new research.
It warns that the work carried out by biotechnology companies into the human health hazard from GM food is inadequate and unsafe. It also points to technical defects in the way GM plants are created." See article
More details about sacking: See article
These results are not isolated. "A study carried out at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Nutrition showed that rats fed on beetroot and transgenic potato developed abnormal changes in liver and other organs." See article Russian scientists also claim there has been a huge increase in worldwide allergies due to GM. See article
Scientists have real reasons for health concern regarding the technology See article. Presentations to governments and consumers have led to a more cautious approach in legislation. For example, a summary of the criticisms and questions Austrian consumers and scientists raise while discussing Biotechnology See article
Rather than allay the fears of consumers by investigating these claims, the action to discredit reputable scientists such as Pusztai has fuelled mistrust in the technology. Basically it is considered that there is reason for concern and yet there is insufficient testing. Consumers do not want to take risks when they do not need to.
For an Australian perspective on health testing, see the Institute for Health and the Environment's submission to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. See article
This report concludes: "IHER believes that the OGTR would be recklessly negligent to expose the Australian environment, its soil and water ecosystems, millions of native and farm animals and 19 million Australians to this GM organism without far more stringent testing. Even if the probability of an adverse event is low, the consequences of exposing this quantity of organisms (including 19 million Australian) could be dire. For example, if only one person in a thousand got ill, then with about 19 million Australians exposed, the result would be 19,000 ill in Australia."
What if there is a health problem found at a later date, who will be liable?
Parliamentary hearing submission presented by Ms Lee McIntosh (Solicitor, Environmental Defenders (WA). (more)
Question by Hon Jim Scott: "I return to the question of liability. From what you were saying if a company went through all the proper processes and released a seed onto the market that had a novel protein to which some people had an allergic reaction and died, those people would have little or no comeback?"
Ms Lee McIntosh "That is correct. If the company complied with all the conditions of its license the first recourse of action would be negligence. To prove negligence, one must show that there was some foreseeable harm that was not guarded against. By granting a license, the regulator in effect has decided that there is no foreseeable harm to be guarded against, or has imposed a condition to guard against that harm."
There is a serious issue when a company is trusted to do their own health testing in order to grant a license for a product in order to deflect liability for their product.
If consumer concerns were not an issue, there would not be the need to segregate the product which causes economic problems to non-GM farmers. Concerned consumers must not be effectively forced to consume GM foods for the simple reason that it will be too expensive to buy non-GM. If farmers are denied the right to produce non-GM crops economically, consumers will be denied the right of choice. No consumer will be forced to consume something they do not want and they will turn to alternatives which will seriously impact on our industry.
The question remains to be answered adequately... is GM food safe?
Consumer concerns - Australian Consumers Association - CHOICE: (link here)
An example of consumers concern expressed in cartoon form:
GM food safety research - Why has it not taken place?
- And yet survey after survey continues to confirm the almost total absence of long-term, independent, published, peer-reviewed studies of the effects of feeding GM foods to humans or animals. Major publications such as Science, Nature and the Lancet have reached similar conclusions, as has the Royal Society of Canada, a committee of Irish GPs and the EU-US Biotechnology Consultative Forum. I'm interested to find out why this research has not taken place.
- Not only has such Government research been terminated but independent scientists wishing to carry out such research have been made to understand that their department or institute may lose funding if they are involved in 'irresponsible' research. Scientists have been denied access to the GM crop varieties and null cassette isotopes. Of the very few published papers on GM food safety that we have been able to identify, half were industry-funded and reported negative results, the other half were independent and all raised safety concerns. All the scientists raising concerns have subsequently been subjected to campaigns of intimidation or ridicule. The only two independent scientists on the Government's GM Science Review panel, Dr Andrew Stirling and Professor Carlo Leifert, were likewise threatened as a result of raising their concerns.
More details on above extracts (here)
More details on Arpad Puztai: Extract from "Seeds of deception" Jeffrey M. Smith
"What Pusztai and his team found was quite a shock. First, the nutritional content of some GM potatoes were considerably different from their non-GM parent lines, even though they were grown in identical conditions. One GM potato line, for example, contained 20 % less protein that its own parent line. Second, even the nutritional content of sibling GM potatoes, offspring of the same parent grown in identical conditions, was significantly different.
If Pusztai’s results were limited to just these facts, they alone might have undermined the entire regulatory process of GM foods. FDA policy was based on the assumption that genetically modified foods were stable. Nutrient levels were not supposed to vary.
But these findings were completely eclipsed by Pusztai’s other, more disturbing discoveries. He found that rats which were fed GM potatoes suffered damaged immune systems. Their white blood cells responded much more sluggishly than those fed a non-GM diet, leaving them more vulnerable to infection and disease. Organs related to the immune system, the thymus and spleen, showed some damage as well.
Compared to rats fed a non-GM control diet, some of the GM fed rats had smaller, less developed brains, livers, and testicles. Other rats had enlarged tissues, including the pancreas and intestines. Some showed partial atrophy of the liver. What’s more, significant structural changes and a proliferation of cells in the stomach and intestines of GM-fed rats may have signaled an increased potential for cancer.
The rats developed these serious health effects after only ten days. Some of these changes persisted after 110 days, a time period corresponding to about 10 years of human life.
In preparing the diet, Pusztai had been characteristically thorough. Comparisons had been made between rats fed GM pototates, natural potatoes, and natural potatoes spiked with the same amount of pure lectin as found in the GM potato. The researchers varied the potato preparation, using raw, boiled and baked potatoes, and varied the amounts in the diet. They also varied the total protein content of the diets and tested all these variations over both 10 day and 110-day periods. These testing protocols had all been thoroughly scrutinized and approved in advance by the government’s funding office and were consistent with several published studies.
In the end only the rats that ate the GM potatoes suffered the serious negative effects. From the evidence, it was clear that the lectins were not the major cause of the health damage. Rather, there was some effect from the process of genetic engineering itself that caused the damaged organs and immune dysfunction of the adolescent rats. "We used exactly the same methods of genetic engineering as used by the food companies," says Pusztai.
Pusztai knew that his results strongly suggested that the GM foods already approved and being eaten by hundreds of millions of people every day might be creating similar health problems in people, especially in children. (pg 12)
"… I find it is very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs. We have to find the guinea pigs in the laboratory." (pg 15)
"The next day the Pusztais came to work encouraged that the truth would finally get out. When they were called to a meeting, Arpad Pusztai expected to be handed the corrected release for review. But when he entered the room, the whole top management was assembled. Professor James spoke in a manner that was quite different from that of the previous day. In fact, the Pusztais had never heard him speak that way before.
He said I was to be suspended, and they will have an audit of the whole business, and then I shall be made to retire, recounts Pusztai. And my retiring wasn’t dependent on what the audit found." pg 18
"James did not act alone. He handpicked a panel of scientists to conduct an audit of Pusztai’s work. It was quite telling that the scientists he selected were not working nutritionists. "That a nutritional institute should select non-nutrtionists to do this audit is quite unbelievable," says Pusztai. Moreover, the panel was not given the complete data, did their entire review in less than a day, and didn’t consult with Pusztai at all.
A summary of their audit report was released on October 28. It claimed that there were important deficiencies in Pusztai’s study. The full audit report, however, was never publicly released. To prevent leaks, only ten copies were printed. Even the chairman of the panel that produced the report was not given a copy." pg 22
"A report published two days later exposed the fact that Monsanto had given the Rowett Institute 140,000pounds before the blow-up, adding even more fuel to the media’s fire." pg 23
"A lot of energy was being spent attacking and defending viewpints. Very little energy was spent on safety testing.
It would have been fairly straightforward to conduct a follow-up study on Pusztai’s research to find out, for example, if any of the GM products we were eating create similar organ or immune system problems. But, having seen what happened to Pusztai, no one was willing to go there.
The British government clearly wasn‘t. According to one observer from the UK‘s Natural Law Party, the reason the government had commissioned the research team from the Rowett Institute " in the first place was that it was convinced that it would come up with a favorable result in relation to the safety of the GM potatoes… In fact, after Pusztai‘s unexpected discovery, the British government ended all funding in safety testing." pg 33
"According to a March 2001 article in the New York Times, "The CDC (Centre for Disease Control) now says that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the United States as scientists thought just seven years ago... At least 80% of food-related illnesses are caused by viruses or other pathogens that scientists cannot even identify." The reported cases include 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 76 million illnesses per year. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans have been eating GM food. In addition, obesity has skyrocketed. In 1990, no state had 15% or more of its population in the obese category. By 2001, only one state didn't. Diabetes rose by 33% from 1990 to 1998, lyphatic cancers are up, and many other illnesses are on the rise. Is there a connection to GM foods? We have no way of knowing because no one has looked for one.
With such slim research on the safety of GM food and such enormous risks, why are respected institutes, scientific panels, research journals, even government officials lining up to defend it as proven safe? And why are they so quick to condemn evidence that might be used to protect the public? Although subsequent chapters will illustrate how pervasive and dangerous these trends really are, a key to understanding why they happen is to follow the money.
With less research money available from public sources, more and more scientists in the U.S. and Europe are dependent on corporate sponsors, and hence, corporate acceptance of their research and results. Among Britain’s top research universities, for example, dependence on private funds often amounts to 80-90% of the total research budget. But reliance on corporate sponsorship can carry a hidden price.
A poll of 500 scientists working in either government or recently privatized research institutes in the UK revealed that 30% had been asked to change their research conclusions by their sponsoring customer." pg 39 "Seeds of Deception" by Jeffrey M. Smith - "Exposing industry and government lies about the safety of the genetically engineered foods you're eating." (We have found the same sort of deception and deceit in the Australian debate, not only in food testing, but any sector of the GM debate.)
Network of Concerned Farmers
Example of campaign against GM foods http://www.krafty.org/flash/
and corporate involvement in farming www.themeatrix.co
This article can be found here: