by Stan Hirst
I met my neighbour Elinor in the supermarket the other day. She was in Hot & Cold Cereals studying the side panel of a cornflakes box. As I strolled up she shook her head and replaced the box on the shelf. I recognized the cereal as one I sometimes buy, so I just had to ask: “What’s wrong with it?”.
“Probably got GMOs in it” she replied.
“So?” I persisted.
“They’re bad for you” she said, and wandered off to Jams and Spreads.
Two things later nagged at me about dear Elinor’s response to my question. The first was her view that “GMOs are bad for you“. That translates into a perception that a food containing ingredients derived from genetically modified (GM) crops such as wheat or flax can be harmful, even dangerous, if eaten. Is that true?
Elinor is hardly alone in this view of GM food. A 2014 online survey by Insights West amongst respondents in B.C. revealed that 66% of consumers had a negative view of GM foods and 56% favoured a ban on GM products. However, when asked why they felt so negatively, a plethora of reasons was offered, including vague terms like ‘unnatural’, ‘bad’, ‘unsafe’, ‘unknown effects’, ‘better bodies’, ‘seeds’ and ‘altered’. This strongly indicates that the bulk of the public doesn’t really understand genetic modification and what it means for consumers, and that much more public education is needed on the subject (which is unfortunately complex).
We maybe need to ask a more fundamental question first. Do we even have GM foods on Canadian supermarket shelves? We know they have them in spades in the U.S. but this is Canada eh.
The answer is yes. Several varieties of genetically modified corn, canola, soy and sugar beets have been approved by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for cultivation, harvesting and processing, and so may find their way into food products sold in Canadian grocery stores. A second source could be imported fresh and processed food and products made from some varieties of cottonseed, papaya and squash and from bovine milk grown and processed in the U.S.
So how do we know that GM foods are safe to consume?
In Canada we rely on Health Canada’s assurance on that. They apply, in their own words, “science-based regulation, guidelines and public health policy, as well as health risk assessments concerning chemical, physical and microbiological contaminants, toxicants and allergens in the food supply” to protect our health and safety of Canadians.
But that verbiage is a little murky. It turns out that Canadian government agencies don’t actually test the safety of the GM crops or products we consume. Instead, their people read great tomes of information, most of it from the U.S., on the GM products in question and derive their conclusions accordingly.
In the US three regulatory agencies share responsibility for GM crop and product approvals. The Environmental Projection Agency (EPA) regulates biopesticides derived from GM live organisms (usually bacteria). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks after all the rest.
Does all this include testing the safety of GM crops and crop products used and consumed by the American (and Canadian) public?
Actually, no. The U.S. agencies get their intel on GM from the same pile of documents, study reports and assessments that the Canadian agencies use, probably plus a few more that are not passed on.
Well then, where does all the GM intel really come from?
It comes in many forms from studies on GM crops and crop species conducted by thousands of scientists in more than a dozen technical fields. These specialists are housed in labs and research facilities in universities and commercial units located throughout the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
And who pays for all this research and testing?
It seems that the majority of studies and assessments are paid for by Monsanto, Dupont (Pioneer), Syngenta, Groupe Limagrain, Land ‘O Lakes, KWS AG, Bayer, Sakata, Takii and DLF-Trifolium. These corporations collectively control 73 percent of the world’s commercial seed market and 90 percent of the global pesticide market. So basically the same people that synthesize the GM crops in the first place pay for the subsequent safety trials.
This all seems like the proverbial putting the goat out to guard the cabbages, but development and testing of GM crops is a very expensive business. It makes financial and managerial sense to let the developer and potential profiteer bear the not inconsiderable costs of research, development and product development. The alternative would be to transfer some or all of the testing to regulatory agencies and let it be paid for by the taxpayer. Suddenly there is silence in the room.
Do they test the safety of the GM crops, products and derivatives on humans? Officially no, unofficially only in the movies. GM crop and food trials utilize hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of laboratory rats and mice and other beasts, who are categorized, aged, sexed, measured, weighed, fed on GM foods and then eventually dispatched so that their organs can be examined in detail for pathological signs.
So how do they relate the feeding trials with rats, mice and other beasties with potential human impacts of eating the same GM food?
Laboratory animals have been used as surrogates for humans in clinical trials of drugs, foods and other substances for more than a century. The idea is that if a GM foodstuff is going to have any deleterious effect on a human, then it should manifest in some detectable way in a lab rat or mouse.
There is one big assumption built into the testing of all GM foods and products intended for human or domestic livestock consumption. As long as the introduced gene protein is determined to be safe (an initial step in the safety assessment) and the GM and non-GM crops are alike in all other respects (i.e. in the other 99.999% of the genes in the crop plant), then the GM crop is said to be substantially equivalent to the conventional counterpart and it is then assumed that it will not pose any health risks. This assumption is built into all regulatory approvals of GM foods in the U.S. and Canada. It satisfies the experts in the field of food safety while intensely annoying all the many opponents of GM crops and foods.
There is of course a rather obvious way of assessing GM food safety, one that isn’t often openly mentioned. The fact is that some GM foods, primarily those derived from corn and soya, have been on the market in the U.S. and Canada but also in the developing world for three decades already. Foods with GM content have been guzzled by countless billions of people over that period, and so far no clear signs of ill effects attributable to GMOs have emerged.
Clearly the many learned and professional bodies which represent international professional medical and scientific opinion think that so far everything is hunky dory on the GM food safety issue, and they’ve proclaimed as much. So has Neil de Grasse Tyson for that matter!
So, if consuming GM foods poses no known risk to the consumer, then there is no problem with the production and marketing of GM crops?
Sadly, the logic extending from GM foods to GM crops is not simple. There may be no convincing evidence against the harm of consuming GM foods, but we need to be mindful of the potential problems surrounding the growing of GM crops.
Most, not all, GM crops are engineered to fit in with large-scale mechanized (or industrial) agriculture which favours monocultures and the use of large quantities of herbicides to kill weeds which compete with corn or soya crops and pesticides to kill off the many bugs that infest monoculture crops and drive down profits.
The herbicide glyphosate has been on the market for more than half a century and is now used globally to the extent of nearly 800,000 metric tonnes annually. Much, not all, of this production goes to killing weeds in monoculture corn and soya, these two crop plants having now been rendered resistant to the glyphosate through genetic engineering. The fact that the seeds and the herbicide are supplied to the farmers and agricultural co-operatives by the same companies enhances the commercial reach and amounts of glyphosate in use.
Glyphosate has been labelled “probably carcinogenic” by World Health Organization but that in itself doesn’t say too much – many agricultural chemicals are carcinogenic if applied profusely or carelessly enough or if inhaled or ingested during application. Glyphosate is used very liberally on many commercial crops. Glyphosate residues have been detected in GM foods at concentrations measured in a few parts per million, and some surveys have found glyphosate residues in human urine. Much speculation but no hard proof exists thus far for any harmful effects of these concentrations on human health. Much more important at this stage is the clear emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds on a large scale due to massive and non-selective application of the herbicide, much of it on GM crops.
I mentioned two things that nagged at me about Elinor’s reaction to GMOs in the cereal box. One was her automatic assumption that GM ingredients were somehow harmful. The other? She had checked out the GM information on the label (and found none) but she seemed totally unconcerned about the huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the same product, details of which were fully visible on the label. HFCS is inextricably linked to obesity, diabetes, chronic disease and mercury contamination in half the North American population.
This all sounds like crossing the road while watching the oncoming car on the left and getting flattened by the bus coming from the right!