When it comes to genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) food, I have found a lot of people have a lot of questions.
- What is GE?
- What contains GE ingredients?
- How does it effect us?
While farmers have been ‘selective breeding’ for centuries this is very different to genetically modifying. Selective breeding is through the natural reproductive process. Genetic modification is introducing an entirely new gene into the plant that could not get there by natural reproduction, like adding a flounder gene to a tomato to make it more cold resistant. Flounders don’t normally breed with tomatoes.
Whilst splicing a flounder gene into a tomato may seem like a scientific breakthrough, many see this as crossing all sorts of ethical boundaries. And it appears that while the experiment was halted due to woeful results, other sources suggest (strongly) it was halted due to a huge public outcry against even trying it in the first place.
Beneficial or detrimental?
Supporters of GM food will claim there are benefits to modifying seeds in the lab. These essentially boil down to allowing scientists to pick and choose what genes to add in, take out or turn off to suit their purpose.
1/ Higher Yields
GMO technology was introduced as a way to “feed the world” and its growing population. This was initially its raison d'être it’s ‘reason for being’.
The goal of higher yields appears to have failed. Major GMO crops of Corn and Soya Bean long a GM staple are showing no increase in yields. In fact a recent study touting increased yields has been debunked because it specifically excluded these crops which had been failing and at the same not considering other non GE factors that did lead to yield increases.
So the higher yield reason appears to have failed.
2/ Protection from Insects?
Another gene modification includes ‘protecting’ crops from insects, through impregnating insecticide into the seed’s genome so that insects will die after eating the crop.
Think about that for a moment. Aren’t we meant to be eating the crop too?
A 2011 study was the first to reveal “pesticides associated with genetically modified foods” in the blood of pregnant and non-pregnant women in Quebec, Canada. Specifically, the toxin CryAb1 from “BtCorn”. Bt Corn is genetically engineered to resist corn borers by producing its own insecticide. 93% of pregnant women or 63% of non-pregnant women were found to have the BT toxin in their digestive system and the concern is the gene’s could merge with other gut flora to start producing the BT toxin inside the human body.
Another observation was the toxin may have come from eating beef that was fed BT corn, showing a longevity in the food chain that is even more concerning.
BT Corn is also known as Monsanto YieldGard or Mon810 and is approved for consumption in Australia by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
3/ Protection from weeds
Next they have sought to make the crop tolerant to much higher levels of insecticide/herbicide spraying. There are 2 issues with this:
- The crops were already being sprayed with herbicides! With herbicide resistant crops, the solution to everything is just spray it with more chemicals. The most common herbicide used is RoundUp with the active ingredient Glyphospate. In March 2015 the World Health Organisation classified glyphosate as aprobable carcinogen.
- Super weeds are being created. Just like the problem of Super Bugs with the overuse of anti-biotics we are now creating herbicide resistant super weeds.
The technology for a seed to produce sterile seeds is known as Terminator Technology or Suicide Seeds. Whilst not yet approved for use or distribution they are designed so that the farmer must always buy their seed from the Biotech company rather than saving their own seed for future use.
Even today it is illegal for farmers using existing GM seeds to save their own seeds. They are required to buy them each year.
What GE foods are allowed in Australia?
In Australia there is a difference between what GE foods have been approved for consumption and what GE crops are grown here. Food Standards are evaluated and set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
There is currently approval for consumption of the following:
This means these GE ingredients may be included in many foods sold in Australia.
In 2008 approval was given for GE Cotton and Canola to be grown in Australia, making us one of only a handful of countries growing GE crops.
Tasmania and South Australia have a ban on GE crops with NSW and Victoria lifting their bans in 2008.
BT cotton is currently grown in NSW and Queensland, as is Monsantos herbicide resistant cotton. Cotton seed is crushed up for cottonseed oil (think fish and chips and processed foods) and the “trash” or cottonmeal is fed to cattle that produce conventional milk and meat – Think back to the BT Corn study above.
“Over 800 trials of GE crops have been conducted in Australia, including GE wheat, sugar cane, grapes, pineapples, papaya, and bananas. While these are experimental trials, the crops are grown on farmland in the open air, posing contamination risks to both the environment and non-GE farmland.” Truefood Network
The Australian GM field trials of pineapple, papayas, wheat, barley and sugarcane have been conducted for insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, colour, oil production, sugar composition, flowering and fruit development.
Gene technology research is also underway in Australia on bananas, rice and corn.
Cross pollination is a real issue. WA Certified Organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his Organic certification because his neighbour’s GM canola infected his crops.
As a general rule, food with GE ingredients must be labeled. However there are many exceptions including if it’s a highly refined product, a flavour or processing aid and only present in low concentrations. Canola Oil, one of Australia GE crops, evades GM labeling altogether due to exceptions in the standard. Interestingly restaurant and takeaway food does not need to be labeled.
“Genetically modified products are in an estimated of 60 percent of processed foods,” coordinator of GM Free Australia Alliance Jessica Harrison told The Huffington Post Australia.
Where to from here?
Without solid labeling laws, how are we to know exactly what we are feeding our families?
So long as we as consumers are prepared to question manufacturers, demand clearer labeling and insist on transparency on issues of public health, then there is always a chance that things can change – for the better.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
The important issue here is choice. Do you want to eat food that has been prepared in a lab or in a kitchen? Do you want to know if the product you are purchasing contains genetically modified ingredients?
With all this opacity in the food chain and labeling laws the one way to ensure your product is GM free is to choose Certified Organic. That is the only way you can be assured of not inadvertently consuming laboratory experiments, dressed up as nourishing food.
The Jackson Choice
As a family – especially as the food purchaser in our family – we always strive to eat organically. Outside of our home, that can be a little harder, but we seek to be flexible (80/20 rule) with our children so they will hopefully learn to make smart, thoughtful choices themselves.
Having said that, there are two items we insist our children avoid when they are out (at friends houses, parties etc) if they do not think they are organic: one is strawberries the other is popcorn.
The former due to excessive chemical residues and the latter because of the GE/BT Toxin concerns. With BT Corn approved for use in Australian food products, it is impossible to avoid in most conventional grocery items. Ingredients derived from corn include corn starches, syrups, meal, caramel colouring and ascorbic acid. These are hard to spot and that is my job to safe guard my family from these. But something, like popcorn is easy for the children to remember.
We even make the choice to pop our own Certified Organic corn to take to the movies or picnics.
Luckily there are certified organic producers of Corn Starch, Corn Flour, Corn Flakes etc so that you can be sure your pantry is free of potentially GE ingredients. And best of all, you can sit easy at the movies knowing your pop corn came from your kitchen and not a lab.