Australian supermarkets are now full of foods with ingredients that could be derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. Much of the meat, eggs and dairy products could come from animals given GM feed. Most scientific evidence suggests these foods are harmless, but lack of evidence of harm isn’t evidence of safety. Current labelling regulations make it almost impossible for consumers to know when they’re buying GM foods.
What foods can be GM?
Currently, the only GM food crops produced in Australia are canola and cotton. GM cotton now makes up more than 90% of the cotton crop. GM canola was grown commercially for the first time in 2008 in NSW and Victoria (and in January this year was approved in WA).
Nonetheless, almost all manufactured foods may now contain GM products. This is because our national food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), allows manufacturers to use a wide range of GM food ingredients imported from overseas. These include specific GM varieties of soybeans, canola, corn, rice, sugarbeet, potatoes and cotton.
Soybean products are used as ingredients in many foods. As well as soybeans, oil and soymilk, soy protein is used in products where you wouldn’t expect soy, such as bread, snack foods and even meat pies. Soy lecithin (additive 322) is used as an emulsifier in a vast range of products, including spreads, cakes and confectionery. Soybean meal is used in stockfeed (particularly for pigs and poultry and in supplements for dairy cattle). Much of this is imported from the US, the world’s largest producer of soy, where more than 90% of the soybean crop is now GM.
Corn products used as food ingredients include glucose, fructose, maltodextrin and modified starches (1410, 1412). Again, these are often imported from the US where more than 80% of the corn crop is now GM.
Canola oil is used in margarine-type spreads, dairy blends and as an ingredient in many other foods. Canola meal is used in stockfeed. Australia is largely self-sufficient, and locally-grown canola is segregated into GM and non-GM streams.
Cottonseed oil, most of which is GM, can be used for food (it’s often used for deep-frying) and cottonseed meal is used in stockfeed.
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Are GM foods harmful?
According to FSANZ, there’s no scientific evidence that any of the GM foods now on the supermarket shelves are harmful and that food safety is at risk. Nor is there evidence to suggest GM reduces the nutritional value of food, or that feeding GM plant material to animals affects the nutritional quality or safety of the meat, milk or eggs. But questions have been raised about the lack of truly independent studies, free from industry bias. Monsanto and Cargill, the world’s biggest developers of GM crops, recently withdrew their European Union (EU) application for approval for LY038 corn when the European Food Safety Authority questioned the quality of their safety studies. (This variety has already been approved in Australia, and remains approved, on the basis of the same questioned science.) The Indian government recently halted release of a GM variety of eggplant because of doubts about its safety.
Nonetheless, millions of people worldwide have been eating GM foods for more than 15 years with no obvious ill effects. The major risks seem to be environmental, with increased usage of pesticides and the risk of accidental transfer of genes to other crops or weed species. There are also ethical issues around the possibility of too much power over important food crops getting into the hands of multinational corporations – see Your Guide to GM.
Are people with allergies at risk?
Potentially, there could be problems for people who suffer from allergies. Products derived from GM crops can contain proteins different from any naturally occurring in the food, and these can trigger allergic reactions. FSANZ, like regulators in the US and EU, requires allergy testing as part of the assessment of GM foods, particularly if the new genes are from a source known to cause allergies. On the other hand. GM is being used to develop and trial non-allergenic varieties of rice and soy.
Are there any advantages for consumers?
Proponents of GM claim food is cheaper because GM crops need less application of pesticides and are easier to manage. But this argument is difficult to sustain, given GM seeds cost farmers more than non-GM varieties and increasing evidence that GM varieties of corn and canola can require higher levels of application of pesticides than some non-GM varieties. Still, the GM industry is big on promises of tastier and healthier foods that have yet to become reality (see Your Guide to GM).
So far, it seems big agribusiness has benefited more than consumers, and not surprisingly these companies often produce the pesticides to which their GM crop varieties are tailored. Monsanto became the world’s largest seed firm in 2005, and in 2007 increased its control through the purchase of Delta and Pine Land, the world’s largest cotton seed company.