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The Human, Environmental and Animal Impact of GMOs

If GM Foods are Safe, Why Aren’t They Tested on Humans?

Genetically modified foods have been a source of controversy amongst consumers and scientists since the technology was first developed in the 1980s. Despite the ongoing debate regarding the environmental, animal, and human impacts of genetically modified foods, many Americans are already consuming more than their body weight in GM foods today.

What’s the Problem?

The central problem with GM foods debate is that big business is involved in the debate. This means that it is difficult to get a clear view of the potential hazards connected with consuming GM foods, or to read between the arguments on both side of the discussion. For the corporations producing GM foods, increasing sales means big money, whereas a poor public image of GM products means low sales. The large companies that seek to increase their profits from this area of business have much as stake when it comes to what the average consumer believes regarding GM foods, and this has led to the issues surrounding GM foods becoming muddied with politics.

A prime example of this is the ongoing criticism of a cosy relationship between food standards agencies and pro-GM corporations such as Monsanto. For example, in 1991 pro-GM lobbyist Michael R. Taylor became a senior adviser to the Food and Drug Administration on food safety. Taylor later became a vice-president of Monsanto, and in 2009 he returned to government as Senior Advisor to the Commissioner of the FDA.

The Animal Impact

Another problem surrounding the production of GM foods is that it requires animal testing, which is not 100 per cent reliable when it comes to predicting the impact of foods and medicines on humans. These tests are also only conducted for a few months at a time, as regulators of GM foods currently only require 90-day trials to take place, whereas human consumption of GM foods is constantly on the increase.

In addition to this are general concerns that GM technology treats animals as commodities akin to factory-farming culture. Advocates for animal rights and health enthusiasts cite Daisy the cow, who was genetically modified to manufacture a type of hypoallergenic milk, as an example of the increasing disconnection between food and the consumer, and between animal and man.

The Environmental Impact

A farm-scale trial in the United Kingdom compared the impact of GM crops and conventional crops on farmland biodiversity. The results showed that GM crops had a significant negative impact on local wildlife, particularly bird populations.

The Human Impact

Concerns about GM foods are often ridiculed because they are not based on evidence; however anti-GM consumers cite this as the very reason for their concern. There is no evidence to prove that GM foods are safe for long-term consumption by humans, and this will be the case until long-term trials to establish the effects of GM foods on humans over prolonged periods of time take place, as this is how the average global consumer will be ingesting them over time, and how many Americans already are.

Other concerns about the safety of consuming GM foods relate to the fact that little is known about how much people will consume them, how often and in what combinations. Regulars admit that this makes it difficult to design a meaningful clinical study of the safety of GM foods for consumption. Instead, regulators examine the genetic modification to check how similar it is to its non-GM-derived counterpart, which is not a thorough way of deducing the impacts that GM foods might have on the human body.

Evidence that was released last week demonstrates the desperate need for thorough clinical trials of GM foods to take place before allowing their release into every corner of the global food market. Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at Caen University in France, has released the results of a €3.2m study to the peer-reviewed U.S. journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology. The findings show that rats that were fed Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant GM maize NK603 for two years, or exposed to Roundup over the same period, developed higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Séralini states that the results fit in with the general concern that Roundup has endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup.

Séralini’s results are crucial to the GM foods debate because these are the first trials to test the specific genes on rats for over two years. In light of these new findings, French health and safety authorities are planning to investigate NK603, and the European Food Safety Agency has said it will assess the research.

To Label or Not to Label?

One way to overcome this issue of potential harm to human health could be to allow GM foods to infiltrate our groceries and supermarkets, but for clear labelling to distinguish them from non-GM foods. In the U.S. there have been various attempts at getting state legislatures to pass labelling laws, but so far all of these have stalled or failed. On 6 November 2012 the residents of California will vote to decide whether Proposition 37 will pass and enable all genetically modified foods sold in the state to be labelled by 1 July 2014.

If GM foods were clearly labelled, those in favour of the technology could prove to be ideal case studies in terms of the effect GM food consumption has on human health over a prolonged period of time. Equally, it would give consumers the power to distinguish between GM and non-GM foods, which is only possible at present when organic options are available, as certified organic foods have to be from non-GM sources. This consumer power is important especially for those with ethical concerns, due to the fact that all GM foods are tested on animals before they can be released for human consumption.

The European Union and at least 21 countries have introduced measures to ensure some form of labelling of GM foods, however various pro-GM bodies in the U.S. have strongly argued against labelling being implemented, primarily using the argument that labelling GM foods will put consumers off buying them, because the labels might read as warnings. The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) take a different stance and oppose mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods because there is currently no scientific evidence to prove that they can cause harm to humans.

What Can You Do?

  • Keep the debate going. Spread the world about the steady infiltration of GM foods into our food chain, which many Americans are unaware of.
  • Demand that more trials take place before people are made to consume GM foods. The pro-GM lobby is right that we have no proof that GM foods are harmful to human health, but we do know that there is no evidence to the contrary, and that they require thousands, if not millions, of animals to be harmed in the testing process.
  • If you live in California, vote yes on Proposition 37, The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2012. If you have friends or relatives in CA, drop them a line or an email to talk about GM foods. Here’s our guide on what you need to know about Proposition 37.
  • Push for similar legislation in your state, province, county or country. Some states already have campaigns in motion; others need people to organise these groups or to bring concerned individuals together.
  • Until clear labelling of GM foods becomes law, the only definite way to avoid them is to buy organic foods wherever possible. This may seem like a tedious transition to make at first, but there are many other benefits to buying organic, and making this consumer choice will take the power and profits away from corporations pushing GM foods.
  • Follow GM Watch on Facebook and Twitter, as their website www.gmwatch.org is often attacked and shut down by unknown sources. There is also useful information on www.saynotogmos.org

 Image Source: Newtown graffiti/Flickr

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