Sunday, 21 October 2012

Why Genetically Modified (GM) Foods are Big News Right Now

Genetically modified (GM) foods stories keep popping up in the news, raising public awareness of significant GM issues. This post examines two of the big GM stories currently in the press.

Results of a French study published in September[i] revealed a disturbing increase in the development of tumours and damage to the livers and kidneys of rats fed a diet containing GM-corn (with and without the herbicide Roundup sprayed on the crop[ii]), rats fed non-GM corn but administered Roundup in their drinking water at levels equal to the [“acceptable” level of] contamination in some drinking water, and rats given water with Roundup levels comparable to that found in sprayed-on GM food crops but not fed GM food. In the study, the health of all these rats was compared to rats fed a non-GM, non-Roundup diet. 50-80% of the female rats in all treatment groups developed tumours within two years (mostly mammary), compared to 30% of the control group rats, and those tumours were on average two or three times larger than tumours that  developed in the control group rats. Treated male rats developed massive kidney, liver and skin tumours and had unusually high mortality rates. Previous GM food trials with rats only lasted 90 days and did not show significant health risks associated with consumption of GM corn. The study is considered controversial (Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, are “dismissive”)[iii] but alarm bells are ringing.

Although anti-GM activists have been quick to talk about the study as if it is just about GM foods, the real story here, I think, is that it didn’t matter very much which of the “treated” groups the rats were in: GM food, GM food treated with Roundup, or just Roundup, nor did it seem to matter very much if they just got a little or a lot, all of the treated groups showed abnormal numbers and aggressive growth of tumours and high mortality. Since GM corn is specifically modified by Monsanto to be Roundup-resistant, this suggests that even if the rats weren’t exposed to Roundup directly, if they were fed GM corn then they were fed a product that is genetically linked to the herbicide Roundup. Furthermore, it suggests that even limited (i.e. “acceptable”) exposure to Roundup or GM foods has a deleterious effect.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, an estimated 88% of the US corn crop is genetically modified, and over 90% of the soybean crop[iv], and one must presuppose that those crops are being sprayed with Roundup. Most of this production is used in animal feeds, cooking oils, margarine, and corn syrup (a common sweetener). Many other food crops are genetically modified as well, and one source estimates some 30,000 products on American supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients[v]. Its estimated that the average American eats some 193 pounds (87.5 kg) of GM foods per year, broken down roughly as 68 pounds of beet sugar, 58 pounds of corn syrup, 38 pounds of soybean oil, and 29 pounds of corn-based products[vi]—more than his/her bodyweight!

The other big GM story at the moment is Proposition 37, a proposed statue (law) in the State of California that reads, in its short form:

Requires labelling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. Prohibits marketing such food, or other processed food, as “natural”. Provides exemptions.

The statue is up for a vote on November 6. At the moment, GM foods and food ingredients need not be identified as such in the U.S.[vii], so California is breaking new ground with this proposal. It’s not surprising that “the right to know what is in our food” campaign is being fought against vigorously by a hoard of agri-science chemical companies with Monsanto leading the way (over $7 million spent to campaign against the bill), followed by Dupont (almost $5 million), Dow ($2 million), and Beyer ($2 million). Other big-time contributors to the “vote no” campaign include Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Nestles, General Mills, and Kelloggs[viii]. They claim the new law would add government bureaucracy to food production, increase food prices, and invite law suits.

There are no major industrial supporters for the “vote yes” side of the campaign, only a handful of committed individuals coughing what they can. It seems a highly lop-sided fight. One of the most ardent “vote yes” supporters is Dr Joseph Mercola, who has fronted over $1 million to support the bill; he sums it up: “Your health care, your food supply, everything you need to live a healthy life is now being taken away and controlled by a massive industrial complex and corrupt government.”[ix]

There is a growing awareness among ordinary consumers that GM is not the saviour for modern farming and food production that agri-chemical companies like Monsanto have tried to make us believe, and there is a growing distrust of the “it’s all perfectly safe and good for you” message that big food and chemical corporations keep feeding us about GM foods. I suspect that even if Proposition 37 fails this time around, it will be back in another form somewhere else, very soon.  And I’ll be expecting more rat studies...

For more on the GM/Monsanto story, see my earlier post The Inextricable Links Between GeneticallyModified Foods and Agri-chemical Companies.

[ii] GM-corn was developed to be resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, enabling farmers to spray and kill weeds in their crops with Roundup without killing the desired plants. See my earlier post The Inextricable Links Between GeneticallyModified Foods and Agri-chemical Companies.
[vii] Labelling is required in New Zealand, but I’m personally sceptical that all of those products on our supermarket shelves that say “made with local and imported ingredients” are always 100% GM free, or that food items imported from the US that contains corn- or soy-based ingredients would have special NZ labels put on them, given American producers are not required to indicate any GMO ingredients.

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