"Aren't critics of genetically engineered food anti-science? Isn't the debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms) a spat between emotional but ignorant activists on one hand and rational GM-supporting scientists on the other?"
These questions are posed by Earth Open Source, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security, and safety of the global food system. They answer their own questions in a new study, "GMO Myths and Truths." The myth, they say, is that GM foods have been proven safe. The truth is that there are hidden dangers that corporate-funded research has not yet adequately investigated.
What makes this report unusual is that it was authored not by the usual food activists and environmentalists, but by two well-known genetic engineers with help from an investigative reporter. The team conducted an exhaustive survey of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and concluded not only that GM food crops pose significant, if largely under-evaluated, health risks, but that they have so far failed to deliver on their promise to increase crop yields and lower herbicide and pesticide use.
The authors argue, moreover, that there are already safer environmentally friendly ways to grow more food for the planet's exploding population. By focusing on the false panacea of genetic modification as a way to feed the world's hungry, vital research dollars have been siphoned away from more promising lower-tech approaches to increasing the efficiency of the global food system.
The report's authors include Dr Michael Antoniou of King's College London School of Medicine in the UK, who helped to develop genetic engineering for medical applications, and John Fagan, a biomedical researcher and expert in food system sustainability and GMO testing, who returned $614,000 in grant money to the National Institutes of Health in 1994 because of his concerns about the safety and ethics of genetic modification.
The paper, produced together with Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source, comes out at a critical moment as California voters are considering a referendum which will appear on their ballot in November calling for the labeling of genetically modified foods in the state. Such labeling is already mandatory in Europe, China, India and many other nations.
Seventy percent of the foods that Americans purchase in the supermarket contain ingredients (mostly corn, soy and canola oil) that are genetically modified. The food industry, and often the media, assure us that there is a scientific consensus that GM foods are equivalent nutritionally to foods that have not been modified and not a danger to those who consume them. But it is just not true that all scientists agree. Given the uncertainties in the field and the lack of long-term health studies, some groups like the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the Union of Concerned Scientists have called for labeling of GM foods.
If Californians agree, it could have a big impact on the rest of us. Some believe that if the labeling referendum there passes, other states may follow suit. Furthermore, as I reported in the Guardian last month, if food companies are made to label GM foods in California, the nation's most populous state, they may well do so all over the country, rather than maintain a costly two-tier packaging and distribution system.
The food and biotech industries are expected to fight the labeling initiative with a multi-million dollar statewide PR blitz, like the one which helped to defeat a similar measure in Oregon in 2002. But nearly 90 percent of Americans -- Republicans and Democrats equally according to a recent survey -- want to see GMOs labeled. This latest report on the dangers of genetically engineered foods will give the referendum's advocates valuable ammunition in the upcoming California debate.
Here are some of the conclusions of the report:
*Genetically modifying crops, which involves the transfer of genes between biologically unrelated species, is not an extension of traditional plant hybridization, but a radical departure which can produce new toxins or allergens in food that are unlikely to be spotted in current regulatory checks.
*GM foods have not been adequately safety tested. There has been no long-term research, and the few short term studies have been inadequate. In many cases proprietary restrictions put in place by biotech companies like Monsanto have prevented independent research by scientists not connected to the corporations which are making claims about their safety.
*Animal studies of the effects of GM foods have disclosed clear signs of toxicity -- notably disturbances in liver and kidney function and immune responses.
*Over 75 percent of genetic modifications are to to increase crop tolerance of herbicides. Where these crops are grown there has been a massive increase in herbicide use.
*Over half of GM crops are engineered to withstand application of Monsanto's best selling Roundup. Contrary to the company's claims Roundup is not safe at the levels it is being use, but has been found to be associated with miscarriage, birth defects, neurological development problems, DNA damage, and certain types of cancer. A public health crisis has occurred in GM soy-producing regions of South America, where people exposed to spraying with Roundup and other agrochemicals report escalating rates of birth defects and cancer.
*There is insufficient evidence that the BT toxin engineered into the plant structure of corn and cotton (whose seeds are used in food oil production) is safe for human consumption. But crops have been found to have toxic effects on laboratory animals in feeding trials. These toxins have also been found circulating in the blood of pregnant women in Canada and in the blood supply to their foetuses.
*GM crops have not been shown to offer higher crop yields, enhanced nutritional value or greater drought tolerance, as they have been hyped to do. The products of conventional breeding continue to outstrip GM in all of these arenas.
*Conventionally bred, locally adapted crops, used in combination with environmentally sustainable farming practices, offer a safer, cheaper and more efficient way to ensure global food security than genetic modification.
"Crop genetic engineering as practiced today is a crude, imprecise, and outmoded technology," says the report's coauthor John Fagan. "Recent advances point to better ways of using our knowledge of genomics to improve food crops, that do not involve GM."
Selling patented genetically modified seeds, and the agro-chemicals designed to be used with them, has earned biotech giants like Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer and Syngenta untold billions of dollars in the past two decades. But it turns out that what is good for these corporate bottom lines may not be good for human health, or the integrity of the environment.