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Are genetically modified foods safe?

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Are genetically modified foods safe?

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11 April 2005

Are genetically modified foods safe?

• Genetically modified organism foods (GMO) present us with a problem which is still not entirely understood by the general population.
• GMO foods are foods whose chromosomes have been mixed with those of other plants and even entirely other organisms.
• Why do we need GMO foods?

Investigation of benefits versus concerns

• The IRMA Project in Kenya (currently ongoing) under the control of Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and funded by Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Project is done by Hugo de Groote, David Bergvinson from CIMMYT, together with Ben Odhiambo of the Kenya Research Institute
• This project tries to clear away myths and replace them with fact.
• Both, conventional breeding and biotechnology are being used in this project and it was agreed, that the plants would only carry the gene of interest without marker genes.
• BT.Maize (Bacillus Thuringiensis) contains this natural, soil based, pestizide, which is not harmful to humans or livestock, but would control stem borer damage in maize.
• Current studies by national and international organizations reveal no demonstrated nutritionally harmful effects of foods from genetically modified crops, but long term effects are still outstanding.

Reasons given

• To increase shelf life, reduce spoilage and with this increase profits.
• While this seems initially quite laudable, the underlying reason is to increase not only profits but ensure profits by creating economic dependence. By means of licensing agreements and physical change of other food resources, without considering Public health.

Contamination of existing competitor foods

• The sterile seed created, is spread by natural means such as cross pollination by insects or wind action for a distance of up to 2,5 Km into adjoining fields of competitors. Thus is the competitor’s grain also influenced and will not produce usable seed. This creates another potential customer or a future pauper.

• Eventually all grains in the area are contaminated by this action, creating also a largely unknown health risk to the public

Economic dependence

• GM foods produce only sterile seed which allow only one growth cycle.
• By means of licensing the newly developed food
(for instance -a grain like maize or wheat ) the unsuspecting buyer is forced by law to buy new seed for every new growing cycle from the single supplier of this grain. This locks the client into perpetual economic dependence.

Possible health risks to the unsuspecting public
• Loss of biodiversity. If a plant is attacked by a previously unknown sickness or insect, the process of crossing it with a resistant strain of the same plant (hybridisation) would ensure a continued healthy food supply. However, all similar plants would have been contaminated and be unable to be used for this process of hybridisation. This would create famine in the country.
• Other health risks may also be involved.

Food allergies

• Mielies (Maize), which were intended for animal use, have been modified with human or even animal, growth hormones. This can cause allergic reactions in people.
• A study in the New England Journal of Medicine (2001) concerned genetically engineered soybeans that contained Brazil nut genes. This caused potentially fatal allergies in people which are allergic to nuts.
• This creates a dangerous food instead of a health food.

Increased use of pesticides

• Gm potatoes, which have been modified with genes of pesticides poison the aphids which attack them. The poisoned aphids get eaten by their natural predators, the lady birds. The ladybirds die and the food chain is disrupted, affecting other animal species and even humans.
• The aphids start developing a resistance to the pesticide gene and this makes it necessary to increase the amount of pesticide or change to a stronger one. This is not healthy to humans.

Nutritional quality is affected

• In one study, scientists found that genetically engineered soybeans contained less phytoestrogens than natural soybeans.
• By crossing the species barrier, plants may be altered to produce pharmaceuticals (such as vaccines) and even glue. Fish genes may be found in tomatoes, viruses in fruits and human genes in tobacco. No wonder it is so difficult to quit.
• Joking aside, at least 35 varieties of genetically engineered crops have been registered with the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) in The USA.

Proliferation of GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms)

• Although only available since the 1990s, the food supply has been penetrated significantly. Especially processed foods are thought to be manufactured with genetically engineered ingredients. Because there is no consistent labelling and disclosure required.
• For example, the cornflakes you had this morning may contain parasite resistant corn and could have been altered to avoid spoilage in the box. Salad dressing could be made from modified canola or soybeans that allow the oil to resist attack by bacteria (and unfortunately leads to improper digestion in humans). Again, a case of a touted “health food option” being anything but healthy.
• This makes consumers unwitting participants in an unregulated clinical trial of genetically modified foods!

The South African Situation at present

• The GMO Act ( Act 15 of 1997) is internationally accepted to being inadequate to control GE agriculture and food production and does not offer any protection to consumers and farmers with regard to negative health impact and environmental consequences.

• There is a total absence of the “polluter pays” principle and up to now, South Africa has not yet signed the Bio- safety Protocol (1999) which provides for strict bio-safety liability when moving GM organisms and material internationally. This is contained in the “Impending disaster Statement of the South African Catholic Bishops” as is available on internet

Signs of Hope

• World wide, a number of Governments and organisations have demanded labelling and restricted or outright banned the use of GM foods. Germany- banned Novartis BT maize Austria banned three varieties of GE maize and created a “Biotech-Free Zone”. Norway imposed a ban on Six GE crops and 36 products with anti-biotic resistance.
• Other EU countries are England, Italy and Denmark which have taken protective action.
• In Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia have banned GE foods.
• China, Sri Lanka and Japan have enforced labelling.
• WE should do at least the same!

In the meantime, what can one do?

• A growing trend is, to eat a variety of whole foods which are organically produced. Cut down on processed and fast foods (especially imported ones from outside sources).
• Besides being risky, these products are generally very expensive and full of fat, salt and / or sugar.
• However, doing away with all processed foods has serious financial and time implications for the Hospitality industry and food producers/ manufacturers in general.
• A stringent disclosure policy is urgently needed to allow the public to choose. Demand It!

• Not enough clinical trials under proper supervision have taken place. As a result, public health cannot be guaranteed unequivocally.
• Licensing practices of GM foods create economic dependence and have proven to imperil the food safety of countries.
• Biodiversity, which is so necessary for our survival, may still be threatened.