EXCERPT: Animal toxicity tests often only assessed the effects of feeding a substitute source of the GM products, not the GM plant itself, for just 7 to 14 days. Carman says if cigarettes were examined under the same system they would be deemed safe. Despite this, adverse effects have still occasionally been found. And yet in no cases have tests been performed on humans. These GM plants, however, all still got the green light from FSANZ [Food Standards Australia New Zealand].
Alarm bells over GM food approval: part 1
The Press, 5 May 2006 http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/thepress/0,2106,3658115a12935,00.html
Recent developments in the approvals process for genetically modified foodstuffs have caused alarm with two Canterbury University [New Zealand] researchers. They outline their concerns.
VICTORIA METCALF writes that large gaps exist in our understanding of what genetically modified foodstuffs might mean for our health.
[Dr Metcalf is a geneticist and affiliate of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, University of Canterbury.]
We, as consumers, take for granted that the food we eat is safe. But is it really?
We might expect that any new food product developed, particularly genetically modified (GM) food, would go through a detailed process of testing similar to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) system for pharmaceutical drugs, but it does not.
In a recent presentation at the University of Canterbury, Judy Carman, the director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research and a spokeswoman on GM foods for the Public Health Association of Australia, reminded her fellow scientists what we don't know about the safety of GM food.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand, or FSANZ, is an independent statutory authority with responsibilities to protect the health and safety of people from both countries.
However, FSANZ does none of its own safety testing on food and has a policy that GM food is safe until it is proven to be harmful.
GM modified foods are regularly eaten in New Zealand, often with the consumer unaware they are eating them.
Companies use a technicality that they need not declare if an ingredient has been unintentionally contaminated below 1 per cent (with the GM equivalent) of each ingredient. "Unintentional" means the company should have tried its best to source non-GM ingredients.
But lapses are notoriously difficult to prove. And if a food product contains several unintentionally contaminated ingredients, the total amount of GM substance present in the product may be at a more than inconsequential level.
A food labelled as non-GM is no guarantee that the food is GM-free. In Australia and New Zealand, various GM varieties of soy, canola, corn and potato have all been approved as safe to eat by FSANZ.
These crops are parts of many foods, found in bread, pastries, snack foods, fried foods, oil, confectionary, baked goods and soft drinks. In addition, food sold in bakeries, restaurants, takeaways, and highly refined foods such as oil, sugars and starches do not need to have their GM content labelled. It is nigh on impossible to currently avoid the consumption of GM food.
How do we ensure public health and safety over the consumption of GM food? Scientists rely on a peer- review publication process to ensure both the accuracy of and to instil confidence in the results of their studies. Carman found in a review of 28 GM plants produced as commercial crops that their safety testing was rarely published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. In fact, the information had to be extracted from FSANZ documents.
In nearly all cases, the safety testing was not performed by independent scientists as we might expect but came from the very producers of GM foods, such as Monsanto and Bayer.
What was of even more concern was the low number of tests for each type or variety of the GM plant.
For example, just two reports were submitted to cover four different GM soy plants, with testing not performed on all varieties.
In addition, low sample sizes in many of the reports reduce their statistical validity. One report for a GM corn variety from Monsanto stated that it was substantially equivalent to non-GM corn despite a 44% difference in amino acid composition. Yet this particular variety was declared safe for human consumption by FSANZ.
The types of analyses performed are also of concern. Some of the GM plants have had animal studies performed by the companies that produce them, but animal feeding studies are generally not required by FSANZ.
Animal toxicity tests often only assessed the effects of feeding a substitute source of the GM products, not the GM plant itself, for just seven to 14 days. Carman says if cigarettes were examined under the same system they would be deemed safe.
Despite this, adverse effects have still occasionally been found. And yet in no cases have tests been performed on humans. These GM plants, however, all still got the green light from FSANZ.
It took generations to determine that smoking was directly linked to human diseases such as lung cancer.
However, is there a reason to be similarly suspicious of GM food? Is GM corn really any less safe than non-GM corn?
The answer at the moment is that we simply don't know. Very large-scale and broad-ranging studies are needed to determine if GM food poses a risk to the consumer.
It is something of a needle in a haystack approach because scientists have no idea what potential adverse effects might occur.
Could GM foods cause cancer, skin disorders, immune disorders etc? In our view, better studies are needed to determine if GM food poses a risk to the consumer.
In our quest to move towards a knowledge society, we lack detailed knowledge of potential risks that GM food may pose towards our health.
While GM food may be as safe as other foods, consumers have a right to know about the risks through appropriate and detailed testing.
We know that too much fat and sugar is bad for us. It is our choice whether we consume too much.
We can't make this decision with GM food because we don't even know how much we are eating. We are really no different to guinea pigs. Perhaps it is time for better food labelling and a need for enforced policing of food content.