What are the concerns about GMO foods—Part 3
Any time there is an advancement of science, there are protests. You probably know some people who still do not have cell phones. Some people do not bother with email and certainly there are a lot of people who are NOT on Facebook. For those of us who carry a cell phone and enjoy the Internet, it seems difficult to imagine why those people can’t just join in the fun.
So when the scientists, corporations and government agencies got excited at the potential of what genetic engineering can do for addressing problems in food production, they appear to have skipped a few steps in the rush to get initiate this process.
We entrust our government to use the protective steps they have in place to test and verify safety of new drugs before they are available to us. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a rigorous clinical trial system and yet there have been drugs that have been rushed though the process because of demand by some interest group, only to find there are hazards that are too high and those drugs are removed.
It appears that we are in a similar situation with GMO foods which have been produced since the mid 1990s. If you are older than 20 years old, that means some of the foods you purchase now in the same packaging you did before 1994 is not the same as the food you ate before then. One major aspect of concern is that we have not known. No one told us. So let’s see what the basis of the concerns are:
- Unintended harm to other organisms: Some of the genetic modifications have been done to kill an insect that has been known to destroy a crop. What if there are other insects that also eat on that crop but are not major pests? Will they also be killed?
- Reduced effectiveness of pesticides: Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
- Gene transfer to non-target species: Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These “superweeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well.
- Seeds released from GM crops can become airborne and cross fertilize with non-GM crops nearby. Makers of the GM seed have taken nearby farmers to court, suing them for “stealing” seed, so this is a concern to them financially, but this unintentional cross-pollination raises concern about the integrity of other strains of crops.
Human health risks
- Allergenicity: Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Labeling of GM foods and food products will acquire new importance, which I shall discuss in Part 4.
- Unknown effects on human health There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. Rats and other rodents which have been fed Bt corn in studies have gained weight (concerns about obesity); had fewer, smaller and sicker babies over the long term; by the third generation hamsters seemed not to be able to reproduce; and stomach linings had excessive growth which raised concern for cancer. In addition, there have been a dramatic and documented increase in the diagnosis of autism since GMO foods have been introduced in the mid 1990s. Finally, other disorders which have been on the rise since the introduction of GM food include a huge increase and severity in allergic reactions to food substances, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, and debilitating syndromes such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. These increase in these illnesses may be, as some suggest, only an improvement of testing procedures and diagnosis and merely a coincidence with the introduction of genetically modified foods into our eating habits.
- For thousands of years, farmers have saved seed from the crops they have harvested to plant the next season. Because of the desire of the agri-biotech companies understandably to make a profit from their expensive research and development process they have patented the seed. This means that any saved seed by individual farmers is an infringement of the patent.
- Consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. It is ironic that the poor and hungry in these third world countries were one of the reasons the GMO foods were developed, and now, with the cost of the seeds, many farmers can not afford to plant. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations. In other words, charity will be needed.
- Patent enforcement may also be difficult, as the contention of the farmers that they involuntarily grew Monsanto-engineered strains when their crops were cross-pollinated shows. One way to combat possible patent infringement is to introduce a “suicide gene” into GM plants. These plants would be viable for only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season.
These concerns are being raised and fought actively by environmental and consumer groups. When I started to learn about this a few weeks ago it made me wonder why the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)did not use the kind of testing program that is in place by the FDA (Food and Drug Adminsitration) for pharmaceuticals. It appears that the public interest is not being considered.
Tomorrow I will present how these GMO strains are in our food. Stay tuned.
I have had comments on the prior 2 blog posts about GMOs by about six people, and wonder if because these essays are a bit long and without photos and are not being read by more people. I have gotten pretty concerned about the effect of GMOs on our public health, which is why I have attempted to use this blog as a way to educate people about the issue. If you have read this, please leave a comment to let me know how effective it is reaching out. Thanks.