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Gene-Modified Food Fears Fueled by Secrets
3/10/2011
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Concerns about the health and environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) foods keep growing.
 
The gene-splicing technology used to create GM crops (or animals) changes their genomes, usually by altering parts of the genetic code that control either growth patterns or drought, salt, herbicide, and pest resistance.
 
And certain changes made to commercial GM crops as well as those changes' unpredictable interactions with the remainder of a plant's genome  raise real sustainability, biodiversity, and safety concerns.
 
However, gene splicing usually changes a plant’s genome much less than the far cruder techniques typically used to create new conventional and organic seed strains.
 
Many of the crops now planted by conventional and organic farmers were “bred” by exposing seeds to gene-mutating radiation or chemicals, planting those seeds, and then selecting the resulting plants that displayed desirable new traits.
 
So, rather than anything inherent to gene-splicing technology per se, most independent scientists say that the real risks of GM foods stem from two possibilities:
  1. Introducing genes for toxic or allergenic compounds into foods that wouldn’t normally contain them, thereby posing risks to wildlife and human consumers.
  2. Introducing genome changes that “flow” to other food crops or wild plants, causing undesirable changes in their genomes. (It usually goes unsaid that this risk also applies to non-GM crop strains created by making random, chemical- or radiation-induced gene mutations in seeds.)
Both fears are supposed to be allayed by existing U.S. laws and regulations ... but they seem weak, and regulatory agencies often fail to exercise serious enforcement and oversight.
 
And as the two recent essays note, independent scientists rarely get the access needed to check the claims of biotech companies and U.S. regulators, while foods lack the labeling needed to let consumers to accept or reject GM foods.
 
Thus, the biggest problem facing scientists, consumers, and voters is the patent-based secrecy surrounding GM foods.
 
This fundamental flaw in the rules was addressed in essays published last month … one by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, and another in The Los Angeles Times by plant pathologist Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D., of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
 
Dr. Gurian-Sherman used to work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he was responsible for assessing human health and environmental risks from transgenic plants and microorganisms and developing biotechnology policy.
 
Why we reject GM foods
People worldwide have consumed copious amounts of GM foods over the past two decades, without any evidence of harm.
 
With regard to the animal research most widely cited by anti-GM authors, many independent scientists find it scientifically unpersuasive ... but other studies seem credible (see “Genetically Modified Corn Found Toxic to Animals”).
 
Despite the apparently clean human-safety record of GM foods so far, we have little confidence that U.S. laws and regulators are up to the task of ensuring ongoing safety.
 
Examples of sloppy, distorted science abound on the pro-GM side, with most independent scientists dismissing a recent U.S. safety review of proposed GM salmon as astonishingly lame. (See “GM Salmon Hit by Consumers Union, Congress”.)
 
We’ve declined to carry GM foods mostly because of the secrecy surrounding patented GM food crops and animals, the risk of “gene flow” from GM crops and animals to non-GM plants or animals, and the notably irresponsible behavior of some biotech companies.
 
This writer recommends two books that present notably balanced views of the GM-foods debate:
Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto–The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle, an investigative journalist who’s written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and others. (This book bears no relationship to the documentary film of the same name.)
Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by husband-wife team Pamela C. Ronald (a plant geneticist at UC Davis) and R. W. Adamchak (an organic farming professor at UC Davis).
 
We’ll keep watch on this debate, and keep you posted on significant developments.
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