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FEATURE ARTICLE - MAY/JUNE 2008
GE Food: Precaution Advised
Support local farmers, buy organic, and know that your family is enjoying safe, untainted, nutritious food.
You may be surprised at how much of
the food you eat every day comes from genetically engineered (GE) crops. In fact, a perusal of your shelves could reveal a variety of common foods with GE ingredients: high-fructose corn syrup in sweetened drinks and many cereals; soy flour in crackers; canola oil in salad dressings; ground corn in tortilla chips; and even soy milk in baby formula.
While most foods—including most fruits and vegetables—are not genetically engineered, the process is common in the “big four” crops: corn, soy, canola, and cotton. About 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn grown in the US are genetically engineered. These crops are used widely in processed foods in the US, including all of those containing the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, about 70 percent of processed food in your supermarket contains GE ingredients, according to the Center for Food Safety.
No long-term testing has been done to assess the safety of a diet containing GE food, and there is evidence that GE food may adversely affect human health—and proof that it is hurting the environment and small farmers. For those reasons, Green America recommends that people embrace precaution* and avoid foods with genetically engineered ingredients.
At Green America, we embrace the Precautionary Principle, which mandates extra caution whenever the health and environmental effects of something are uncertain. For more about the Precautionary Principle, download the Heal Your Home issue of our Green America Quarterly. [PDF]
What is GE Food?
Genetic engineering involves changing the DNA of an organism to give it a trait that it doesn’t have naturally. Virtually all of the GE crops developed to date have been designed to either be insect- resistant or herbicide-tolerant, according to a 2008 Friends of The Earth International (FOEI) report, “Who Benefits from GE Crops?” In the case of insect resistance, engineered primarily into corn and cotton, plant genes are usually manipulated to include proteins deadly to pests who eat them. Herbicide-tolerant crops, like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy, cotton, and corn, are designed to resist the Roundup herbicide, so farmers can spray it to kill weeds without harming the crop itself.
Dangers for Human Health
Regulation of GE crops in the US falls under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); however, there are no actual laws on the books on how to handle genetically modified organisms.
In 1992, the FDA, which has the authority to regulate new foods that enter the market, declared GE foods as “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods, so that now most GE foods fall under the category of being “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). The GRAS review process for new GE foods relies on information given by biotech companies voluntarily—the FDA has not done any safety studies on GE foods.
“Certain companies have flooded the marketplace with thousands of untested food products containing foreign genetic material with no label to alert us to these ingredients,” says Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist, in Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food (Earth Aware Editions, 2007). “The health effects have not been seriously studied. That means consumers are unknowingly test subjects.”
Specifically, many fear that the prevalence of GE crops could lead to exacerbated allergies and antibiotic resistance.
Allergies: Genetically engineering a crop entails changing the protein of the plant—and it is often proteins that contain allergens. Critics fear that slicing and dicing those protein genes may result in a greater risk of allergic reactions.
For example, nut allergies are among the deadliest type of food allergies in humans. In 1993, Pioneer Hi-Bred International used genes from Brazil nuts to boost the protein of soybeans. However, the resulting soybeans were shown to cause allergic reactions in people who were sensitive to Brazil nuts. The project was halted before the soybeans reached the market, but some experts see the Pioneer example as just the tip of the allergen iceberg.
Antibiotic resistance: When biotech scientists genetically engineer a plant, they add “markers” to the genes as a way to test for success; in the majority of cases, they add an antibiotic- resistant gene. They then flood the plant’s cells with antibiotics—if the plant survives this onslaught, scientists know that they have successfully inserted the foreign DNA into the plant.
The use of antibiotic resistant “markers” is a major concern as it runs the risk, though low, of introducing antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the GE plant into a human or animal—this could add to the already-growing number of antibiotic-resistant diseases throughout the world.
“When it comes to the human health effects of GE foods, there’s just way too much we don’t know,” says Gillian Madill, genetic technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth US.
Bad for Your Health and the Earth
Supporters of GE foods argue that they hold the key to feeding the hungry all over the world, because hardier plants mean higher crop yields. However, according to FOEI, “A compelling number of studies by independent scientists demonstrate that [GE] crop yields are lower than, or at best equivalent to, yields from [non-GE] varieties.”
GE crops have also resulted in more pesticide spraying. A study by the Center for Food Safety, using USDA statistics, shows that herbicide-tolerant soy, corn, and cotton have led to a 122-million-pound increase in pesticide use since 1996.
Because herbicide-tolerant crops are designed to withstand application of weed killers, farmers can apply large amounts of pesticides without fear of harming their crops. The US has seen more than a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate, or Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, on major crops from 1994 to 2005.
Several new species of glyphosate-resistant weeds have sprung up in recent years, so farmers now find it necessary to apply other, often more potent herbicides in addition to glyphosate. Application of atrazine, a chemical herbicide banned in the European Union in 2006 due to its link to endocrine disruption, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, rose by 17 percent in the US between 2002 and 2005.
Hurting Organic Farmers
Another troubling fact about GE crops is that they are plants and behave as such—crops cross-pollinate, and seeds are carried elsewhere by winds and animals. Consequently, GE crops can contaminate conventional and organic crops that are not GE. This is especially problematic for US farmers selling crops overseas, because the EU has strict GE labeling laws and tests US exports for traces of GE content. A 2002 report by the UK Soil Association found that US farmers lose $300 million in annual corn exports to Europe because of GE contamination. Organic farmers stand to lose even more if other GE crops are introduced.
What to Do
Use precaution and avoid GE foods when you can—we just don’t know enough about their effect on human health, and we do know that they are hurting the environment and small farmers. he good news is that, for now, the vast majority of food in stores has not been genetically engineered. It is possible to avoid GE ingredients.
Look out for the “big four” ingredients: The majority of GE crops are soy, corn, cotton, and canola, so these are the ingredients to avoid. GE corn and soy may appear as a food ingredient, such as high fructose corn syrup, corn flour, soy flour, soy lecithin, and more.
Buy organic: Certified-organic food is GE-free, so if you want to avoid food with GE ingredients, buying organic corn-, soy-, and canola-based foods is the way to go. Likewise, look for organic milk, eggs, and meat to avoid products from animals that were fed with GE feed or injected with genetically engineered growth hormones.
Farm-grown fish like trout, catfish, and salmon, may be fed with GE feed, so also look for sustainably caught wild fish.
Avoid processed foods: It is estimated that about 70 percent of processed foods in the US contain GE ingredients. Look for organic snacks, or skip the processed foods altogether and seek out whole, bulk grains, and fruits and vegetables.
Buy fresh, local, food: What better way to know where your food comes from, and what’s in it, than to ask the farmer who grew it? Look for a local farmer’s market or join a CSA (community supported agriculture) program to get fresh produce in season. The vast majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are not genetically engineered (with the exception of some papaya grown in Hawaii and a very small amount of summer squash)—and though GE corn is used in processed foods, less than three percent of sweet corn, sold as ears, has been genetically engineered. Visit www.localharvest.org to find a farmer’s market or CSA near you.
Look for GE-free labels: Although the FDA does not require that companies label food containing GE ingredients, it does allow companies to label their products as “GE-free.” You can keep an eye out for those labels—but read them carefully. A product labeled as being free of “GE soybeans” may still have other GE ingredients, and some products may use the label as a selling point when none of the ingredients would have been genetically engineered anyway.
Buying organic, local, whole foods is a great way to support the green economy. Plus, they’re healthier; packed with vitamins; pesticide- and herbicide-free, in the case of organic; and they provide the easiest way to avoid GE foods.