What are you having for dinner tonight? Pasta with tomato sauce? Tortillas with beans, or maybe vegetable curry with rice? Foods that people around the world rely on to fill them up and make them feel good.
What would you think if I said that your dinner resembles Frankenstein an unnatural hodgepodge of alien ingredients? Fish genes are swimming in your tomato sauce, microscopic bacterial genes in your tortillas, and your veg curry has been spiked with viruses. You might think I was a sensationalist at best and a liar at worst a deranged environmentalist making mountains out of molehills. But, unfortunately, genetically engineered foods are not science-fiction. They were not invented by environmentalists. They are being sold in your food shops and grocery stores right now, and their health risks are almost entirely unknown.
Corporations that produce genetically engineered foods claim they can make crops resistant to herbicides, pesticides and diseases; fruits and vegetables that grow in inhospitable climates and soil conditions; fish that grow at twice their average speed to twice their average size. You may have already eaten one of these 'new products' (sometimes called 'Novel Foods'). Calgene corporation's 'Flavr Savr' tomato is being sold fresh in US supermarkets while in Britain genetically engineered tomato puree is being sold under the Safeway and Sainsburys store brands. Even if you only eat tomatoes from your own garden or local store, you still may have consumed genetically engineered materials. For example, up to 60 per cent of our processed foods contain soya beans. Monsanto corporation's herbicide-resistant 'Roundup Ready' soya beans are now being used by processed-food manufacturers in the European Union (EU), the US, Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
So what? Fruit and vegetables that don't rot, soya that resists pesticides, salmon that grow in leaps and bounds sounds great, right? But who really benefits from these developments, and what risks are involved? The gene-food industry is driven by corporations for profit not for the benefit of consumers, or the world's poor.
In fact, consumers could be at substantial risk from genetically engineered foods. In nature, crossbreeding only takes place between very closely related species. Any genetic changes occur very gradually, over time. But genetic engineering allows the joining and transfer of genes between totally unrelated organisms. Going against nature can have dangerous consequences: the actual process of genetic engineering can create toxic by-products in our foods. For example, in 1989 a new disease called Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS) hit the US. Out of an estimated 5,000 people who contracted the disease, 37 died and 1,500 were permanently disabled. EMS was linked to the consumption of a dietary supplement called L-tryptophan. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the batch of L-tryptophan implicated in the outbreak was traced back to one manufacturer, Showa Denko, which had recently introduced a new genetically engineered bacterium into its production process.
Genetic engineering can also introduce known and unknown allergens into common foods. For example, Pioneer Hi-Bred International injected normal soya beans with genes from Brazil nuts to increase their protein content. The desired result was achieved, but the new 'improved' beans were never approved for sale. Why? Because scientists discovered that anyone allergic to Brazil nuts (and quite a few people are) is allergic to the genetically engineered beans. In this case, scientists knew what allergen to look for but many genetically engineered foods contain genes from bacteria and viruses that have never been a part of the human food-chain. Nobody knows what allergic reactions people might have to them.
Genetically engineered foods could also spread resistance to antibiotics in animals and human populations, thus undermining their effectiveness in treating diseases. When geneticists inject foreign genes into plant or animal cells, they often link them to other genes, called 'trackers'. For experimental reasons, tracker genes are usually resistant to antibiotics. Genetically engineered maize approved for sale in the European Union, US and Canada contains tracker genes that are resistant to ampicillin. Naturally there is concern that this resistance could be transferred to bacteria in the intestines of livestock and human beings. This could create 'super bacteria' that no amount of antibiotics could kill. For this reason, governments in Italy, Austria, Luxembourg, Britain, France and Germany have banned farmers from growing genetically engineered maize. However, it continues to be grown in the US, where it is an ingredient in many processed foods and is also fed to livestock.
Despite the risks of toxins, allergens and antibiotic-resistance, over 3,000 genetically engineered foodstuffs are poised to enter food stores around the world. If the current trend continues, in five to eight years almost everything we eat and drink will contain genetically engineered materials, according to Dr Antoniou, a senior lecturer in molecular pathology at one of London's leading teaching hospitals.
So what sort of precautions are corporations and governments taking to ensure that these foods are safe for consumption? What testing is being done and who's doing it? The answers to these questions leave a lot to be desired. What tests do not look for and cannot reveal is the existence of new, unknown toxins and allergens. Canadian geneticist Richard Wolfson states that current testing methods 'are completely incapable of detecting the unsuspected or unanticipated health risks generated by genetic engineering'. Furthermore, most tests are conducted for a short period of time on laboratory animals. Wolfson argues that genetically engineered foods should be subjected to clinical tests, like pharmaceutical drugs. Clinical tests screen for 'general toxicity' rather than for specific toxins, are long-term and include extensive trials with human volunteers. Wolfson says that 'animal tests provide virtually no useful information regarding the allergenicity of food to humans'.
Another problem with current safety-testing procedures is that most tests are carried out by the same corporations that produce and market genetically engineered foods. These tests are accepted as unbiased and legitimate by governments in Britain, the US, Canada and some EU countries. But it seems risky to entrust our health to the corporations that have spent millions of dollars developing genetically engineered foods and stand to lose so much if they are rejected.
Testing, no matter how comprehensive, cannot possibly prove the safety of gene foods for consumption by everyone, everywhere. Labelling is desperately required. 'Consumers want standardized information,' says Diane McCrea, Head of Food and Health Research at the British Consumers Association. 'We have a right to know what we are eating, so that we can protect our health and make informed decisions about our diets.'
At present, only three types of genetically engineered foods have to be labelled worldwide. Food or drink containing 'live' genetically engineered organisms, such as bacteria in yoghurt or genetic materials from humans (yes humans!) or animals have to be labelled. Foods and drinks that are considered 'substantially different' from their non-engineered counterparts also have to be labelled. This means that only gene foods containing more than five-per-cent genetically engineered materials will be labelled. This system is deeply flawed. That same food supplement that killed and injured people in 1989 in the US was 99.6-per-cent pure. It required no testing or labelling.
Fortunately, all this may be about to change, at least in Europe. The European Commission has decided to endorse, in principal, the labelling of all genetically engineered foods, including processed foods that contain products derived from genetically engineered crops. In order to achieve this, they plan to make producers and distributors separate genetically engineered crops and foods from their unmodified counterparts.
To date, producers and suppliers have resisted separation, claiming that it would be prohibitively expensive. Supermarkets and processed-food manufacturers have consequently been unable to label genetically engineered foods. 'We've been shafted by Monsanto, to put it bluntly,' said Tony Combes, Public Affairs Manager for Safeway PLC when I spoke to him about this. 'We can't trace Monsanto's soya unless it has been segregated and suppliers in America will not segregate.'
If the European Commission's decision becomes law, producers such as Monsanto, which sell up to 50 per cent of their soya beans to Europe, will be forced to segregate. Segregation could raise the price of such foods, making them unattractive to consumers and financially unviable. This would be a major blow not just to Monsanto but to all genetically engineered crops. The US plans to fight the European Commission's decision, claiming that the mandatory labelling of all genetically engineered foods is 'unreasonable' and an illegal barrier to trade.
At this juncture it is vitally important that consumers make their fears or reservations about genetically engineered foods heard. After all, are the benefits longer shelf-life, pesticide resistance, faster growth worth the risks? The British Consumers Association is cautious: 'BSE has taught us that what looks like simple changes in food production can have devastating effects in years to come. Some of the gene modifications that are possible may seem harmless, but it's important to be cautious.' Greenpeace is more forceful: 'It is quite clear even from existing research that a ban on genetically engineered foods and a moratorium on the release of all genetically modified organisms is essential for the protection of health.' I, for one, think this particular Pandora's box should remain as nature intended, firmly shut.
Sara Chamberlain is Editorial Assistant at the New Internationalist and edits Oxfam's website.
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