Why GM crops are dangerous
People and Planet, 5 Feb 2009
Exactly two years ago Professor Jeffrey M. Smith published a sequel to his best-selling book Seeds of Deception on the dangers of genetically modified food.
Entitled Genetic Roulette - The Documented Health Risks Of Genetically Engineered Foods this second book set out in documented detail the facts which, he claims, the big biotech companies have tried hard to keep secret.
The book received widespread praise. Michael Meacher, former British Environment Minister, called it "a smoking shotgun that should stop in its tracks any dabbling with GM foods, whether by individual families, food companies, or indeed nations."
Here in an interview with the Women's Feature Service in Delhi, Jeffrey Smith talks about the dangers that, he says, Indian farmers and consumers in India and elsewhere face from genetically engineered crops and genetically modified foods.
Q: Do tell us about your campaign against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
A: The campaign for Healthier Eating in America, coordinated by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), is one of the only viable strategies to remove GMOs from the food supply.
There are several serious, even catastrophic, dangers of GMOs. Genetically modified crops concentrate on the corporate control of food and increased herbicide use without increasing average yields. They endanger food security, are detrimental to sustainable and organic farming, and trap farmers in a cycle of debt and dependence. But the single greatest motivator for action is the health risk to consumers.
Our campaign targets four demographic groups that are receptive to dietary changes - health-conscious consumers, parents and schools, faith-based groups, and healthcare professionals and their patients. Within each group, the women, who generally do the shopping for the family, are clearly the most receptive and responsive gender. Thus, the tipping point is largely in their hands.
Q. Given the fact that awareness levels in the developed countries are higher, how effective has public opinion in the West been in trying to contain the export of genetically modified (GM) foods by multinational companies (MNCs)?
A: The most effective containment of exports has come from consumers in Europe and Japan, whose knowledge of the dangers of GMOs has translated into avoidance of GM products. The subsequent rejection of GM ingredients by food companies there has limited US exports of GM crops and derivatives. This has been facilitated by mandatory labeling of GMOs, particularly in the European Union, which would alert consumers to GM content, and, therefore, keep companies on track with their non-GMO commitments.
Q: What are the health risks posed by genetically engineered (GE) foods?
A: GMOs are linked to toxic and allergic reactions in people, the deaths of thousands of sick, sterile livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 per cent in the UK soon after GM soy was introduced. A human subject showed a skin prick allergic-type reaction to GM soy, but not to natural soy.
In the 1980s, a contaminated brand of food supplement called L-tryptophan killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness and disability in another 5,000 to 10,000 people. The source of contaminants was almost certainly the genetic engineering process used in its production. The disease took years to find and was almost overlooked. It was only identified because the symptoms were unique, acute, and fast-acting. If all three characteristics were not in place, the deadly supplement might never have been identified or removed.
If GM foods on the market are causing common diseases or if their effects appear only after long-term exposure, we may not be able to identify the source of the problem for decades, if at all.
Q: Has there been a perceptible impact of GE crops on India's farming community?
A: Hundreds or thousands of Indian farm workers who pick Bt cotton by hand are developing allergic-type reactions. The cotton is engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), which produces a natural insecticide. The reason it is in our crops is that the industry and government say the Bt toxin is completely safe for humans. In its natural state, it's used in organic agriculture and forestry. They, therefore, claim that Bt toxin has a history of safe use, and doesn't even interact with mammals; that it's destroyed in the digestive tract.
But this assumption ignores the evidence. About 500 people in the US and Canada developed allergic-type reactions when they were sprayed with natural Bt discharged from airplanes. When they fed natural Bt to mice, the mice developed a powerful immune response and damaged intestines. But the Bt engineered into crops is thousands of times more concentrated than the natural form and is designed to be more toxic.
When I reviewed the symptoms from the Indian cotton workers, they turned out to be the same symptoms that were described by the 500 people in North America who were sprayed with Bt. The Indian Bt cotton farmers allow sheep to graze on the cotton plants after harvest. According to several shepherds, within five to seven days, one out of every four sheep dies. Thousands of sheep have died in the Andhra Pradesh region, and more will be added to those numbers the next year. There are also widespread reports of disease and death among buffalo, who either grazed on the Bt cotton plants or consumed Bt cottonseed or oil cakes.
When I visited Andhra Pradesh, I spoke to a group of women and asked if any of them experienced any reaction to BT cotton crop. After some hesitation, two women stood up and one of them revealed that she suffered from itching. I was also told that women cotton workers are embarrassed to discuss the details of their symptoms, so they don't come forward.
Q. A chapter in your book says that the risks posed by GE crops/GM foods are greater for women and children.
A: Pregnant women should most definitely avoid GMOs. A Russian study found that more than half of the babies from mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks, compared to only a 10 per cent death rate for babies whose mothers ate non-GM soy. The offspring from the GM group were also smaller and could not conceive.
Q. In your opinion, does India really require GM foods?
A: The US spends three to five billion dollars per year to subsidise the GM crops that no one else wants. They are trying to force other countries to take GMOs to solve their own problems. The US department of Agriculture confirms that GMOs do not increase yields or farmer income, and in many cases reduce both.
In developing countries, GM crops are clearly disadvantageous. A study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that GMOs are not appropriate, and that industrial farming practices in general force small farmers and landless peasants off the land. Analysis of Bt cotton in India consistently reveals that it provides far less income compared to farmers growing organic or NPM (non-pesticidal management) cotton. But these more appropriate and healthy systems don't have corporate champions to promote them.
Q. What would be the best strategy to regulate the introduction of GM food?
A: The best regulation would be to demand a ban of current GM crops and all outdoor field trials. Then India can invest in proper independent studies, which I am sure will confirm our conclusions that the current generation of GM crops is unsafe for humans, animals, and the environment.