Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where Are We Going with GMO Food Labeling?

“The ‘Frankenfoods’ debate is coming to your dinner table. Just last month, a mini-war developed in Europe, when the European Union’s chief scientist, renowned biologist Anne Glover, said that foods made through genetic engineering, such as soy beans—about 80 percent of US grown soybeans have been genetically engineered —are as safe as organic or conventional foods. It’s a wholly uncontroversial comment—at least among scientists. But it set off the usual scare mongering from Friends of the Earth, and other like-minded advocacy groups that finds all genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops to be, in their words ‘stomach turning’.”Pamela Ronald, Rachel Carson’s dream of a science-based agriculture may come as a surprise to those who believe that sustainability and technology are incompatible.  

Humans have been breeding and propagating edible foods for a while, beginning with selecting seed from the plants with desired traits to plant subsequent crops. Traditional hybridization and breeding techniques have likewise long been used to modify plants and animals at a molecular level, resulting in plants and animals that have been genetically modified.

These days however, when people refer to GMOs they typically are referring to the use of relatively recent developments in biotechnology more properly defined as genetic engineering that have been employed to alter a plant or animal organism at a molecular level. According to the National Academy of Science “Genetic engineering is one type of genetic modification that involves the intention to introduce a targeted change in a plant, animal or microbial gene sequence to effect a specific result” (page IX)

Next month, Californians will be voting on a ballot measure requiring the labeling of all GMO foods. Notwithstanding what you might read in hysterical foodie blogs or other vaguely sourced material, other experts agree, and this should not be news. Before you vote on this measure, please do your homework. Here is mine.

In 2004, the National Academy of Science publication office, aka the prestigious National Academies Press, published a report entitled Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects authored by the Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health, Board on Life Sciences Food and Nutrition Board, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies of Science.  

The NAS report concluded, “All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population” (page 8). I should note that the report also identified the need “for a broad research and technology development agenda to improve methods for predicting, identifying, and assessing unintended health effects from the genetic modification of food. An additional benefit is that the tools and techniques developed can also be applied to safety assessment and monitoring of foods produced by all methods of genetic modification” (page 13).

In 2004 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published the proceedings of a OECD Cooperative research program workshop on the challenges and Risks of GMOs in Maastricht, The Netherlands.  Biological Resource Management in Agriculture: Challenges and Risks of Genetically Engineered Organisms which included a presentation by a UK biotech expert Katherine Williams entitled “Challenges for the Media: Disseminating Information by Avoiding Hysteria” in which she observed that such challenges include “the audience that is targeted, selection of appropriate language, and finding a balance between points of view. Other challenges that face the media include identifying the stories that genuinely require attention and recognizing those based on hype or false claims” (page 203). She warned journalists reporting on the GMO food debates about the use of inflammatory and unscientific terminolology like “Frankenfoods” and “mutant”. Alas.

In 2003, the International Council for Science published New Genetics, Food and Agriculture: Scientific Discoveries – Societal Dilemmas, which concluded: “Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat. Food safety assessments by national regulatory agencies in several countries have deemed currently available GM foods to be as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts and suitable for human consumption. This view is shared by several intergovernmental agencies, including the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety, which has 162 member countries, the European Commission (EC), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Further, there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.”

So, how about we heed the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations and follow their 2012 recommendation to support “a science-based evaluation system that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO”. And while we wait the results of ongoing scientific research to assess safety of GMO foods on a case-by-case basis, I have concluded that I am more likely to be harmed by a crocodile in my backyard pond that I am by eating GMO foods currently available.

I recommend that you refer to established reputable scientific sources for your information on this controversial issue before you reach your own conclusions. Even if you are what you eat, you can still decide what you think.


Martha in Michigan said...

This is unrelated to the issue of food safety that you discuss, but that's not what bothers me about GM foods. I worry that corn that has been modified to survive RoundUp may somehow allow that property to spread to other, undesirable plants. I haven't the knowledge to judge the likelihood of that scenario. Did your research get into that?
BTW, a sixty-ish friend worked summers as a teen in Iowa detasseling corn so that it remained hybrid. I can't see that as a foolproof method of containing genes to the desired plants (and excluding undesirable genes), but I was sort of amazed that it was even attempted. Wonder if it still is, decades later.

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James Moore said...

Organic food is always better. After all we have the right to know what we are eating. Latest research has shown that the commonest modification in GM crops includes a "significant fragment of a viral gene" known as Gene VI. This is a new viral DNA in GMO foods which causes food contamination.Why Big Ag and the Government Leaves Public Out of the Big GMO Food Debate!