Genetically modified food risks

The Australian market is being flooded with food made from genetically modified (GM) crops. Yet you'd never know from the label.
 
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01 .Introduction

GM-foods_LEAD

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.

Join our campaign to change GM food labelling laws.

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.

 
 

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Genetic modification (GM) or genetic engineering (GE) is the technology that enables scientists to take genes from one organism and transfer them to another of a different species. All living organisms share the same system of genetics based on DNA, so genes from one organism can work satisfactorily in another. You could, for example, put a gene from a fish into a fruit, or a jellyfish gene into a mouse. GM makes possible gene transfers between animals, plants and bacteria that can’t be done by conventional plant or animal breeding techniques. For example, both types of GM canola now grown in Australia have genes that came from species of soil bacteria. It’s a powerful technology with the potential to be of great benefit to consumers, but if misused it could cause great harm.

Pros of GM
  • Increased crop yields with less reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides
  • Crops less susceptible to damage after harvest, with built-in defences against moulds or insects
  • Crops more tolerant to drought, salinity or rising temperatures from global warming
  • Food with improved nutritional value, such as rice boosted with vitamin A or soya oil enriched with omega-3 fatty acids
Cons of GM
  • There’s a shortage of rigorous independent studies examining the performance and claimed benefits of GM crops. The big agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers, and only studies that these companies approve see the light of peer-reviewed journals. This means it’s impossible to be sure GM crops perform as advertised
  • There are risks to the environment. GM crop genes can move across to weed plants, which become resistant to herbicides. A recent study by the US Center for Science in the Public Interest found about a quarter of US farmers growing GM corn ignore key government requirements for preventing damage to the environment
  • There’s growing evidence that introduction of some GM varieties has increased the usage of pesticides
  • Patent laws give the developers of GM crops a dangerous degree of control over the food supply. Important agricultural markets are increasingly dominated by a few firms and there’s been convergence of ownership between agricultural chemicals and GM seeds. Increased control of the seed supply by a handful of agricultural biotechnology giants is raising seed prices and reducing seed choices.  

Feed the world?

One of the claims often made supporting GM is that it’s essential for solving the world’s food crisis. So far, however, GM crops have not increased food security for the world’s poor. Most aren’t destined for hungry people in the third world; they’re used to feed animals, generate biofuels and produce highly processed food products, mainly for consumption in rich countries.

Nonetheless, GM crops clearly have huge potential to improve human wellbeing if used for social good rather than commercial gain – and if rigorously tested for health and environmental safety.

FSANZ claims it’s mandatory for GM foods to be identified on the label, “to assist consumers to purchase or avoid GM foods, depending on their own views and beliefs”. But how often have you seen “contains genetically modified …” actually declared on a food label?
This is because the labelling requirements under the Food Standards Code apply only to foods that contain artificially modified DNA or protein. Products such as canola oil that contain no DNA or protein don’t need to be labelled, even when they’re made entirely from GM canola. The same applies to products from animals fed GM feed such as canola meal. These do not require labelling on the grounds that GM protein or DNA cannot be detected in the end-products – meat, eggs or milk.

There’s no way that regulations with such big loopholes can enable consumers to make truly informed choices. If you want to avoid GM foods, you certainly can’t rely on the label (see cake frosting label, below, for an example of what we think labels should look like).


CakeMateFrstng label
The label on this cake frosting, imported from the US, discloses its GM ingredients. Australian food manufacturers often use the same ingredients (imported from the US) and there’s clearly no real reason why their GM status shouldn’t be disclosed in the same way.

Labelling

Our lax labelling laws make it almost impossible to avoid GM foods. Most processed foods contain at least one ingredient derived from soya, corn or canola (the table gives some examples). Cottonseed oil is often used for frying by fast food outlets or as an ingredient in foods such as mayonnaise (it’s labelled simply as “vegetable oil”).

  • Some manufacturers volunteer information about GM on the label – though very few foods actually claim to be “GM-free”. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned food producers that “free” must mean “free”. Steggles and Lilydale chickens, for example, stopped making statements such as “not genetically modified” on their packaging when the ACCC ruled this could be misleading given the chickens had been given GM feed. Two major brands of cooking oil (Crisco and Gold’n Canola) say their canola and vegetable oil blends are “non-GM”, while Soylife and Vitasoy brands of soy milk claim to be “made from non-GM soy”. These products are all made from Australian produced canola or soy, which can have good non-GM provenance. No GM soy is grown in Australia as yet and Graincorp, which handles the bulk of the harvest, segregates GM canola. There are, though, some concerns about misrepresentation – particularly as non-GM canola commands a premium price.)
  • Greenpeace has issued a Truefood Guide with a “green list” of brands that actively avoid ingredients from GM crops and a “red list” of those that may allow GM ingredients to contaminate their supply. The guide is based on the companies’ responses to a questionnaire, often with follow-up questions for further clarification. It’s a useful listing of those brands with a policy of avoiding GM ingredients and which have made a written commitment to that effect. But Woolworths (whose generic brands are in the red list) told CHOICE they also avoid GM ingredients, but couldn’t guarantee non-GM stockfeed is always used in the production of their meat and dairy products or that trace levels of GM ingredients are not added unintentionally to processed foods.
  • Certified organic food should be free from GM ingredients. The Australian Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce prohibits all use of GM crop varieties or any products made from them; it also excludes any use of animal feed derived from GM crops. So buying processed food that’s certified organic is one way to be reasonably confident of avoiding all use of GM.

Here is a guide to some of the foods likely to contain GM ingredients:

GM-Food-table-600px

What CHOICE wants

CHOICE believes you have a right to know if your food comes from GM crops or animals, either directly or indirectly. FSANZ should require manufacturers to fully disclose any use of GM ingredients. Join our campaign to change GM food labelling laws.

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