Monday, 21 February 2011

GMO - How safe is the food we eat?

Science and the advancement of it is responsible for a lot of things in this World to be thankful for: space exploration leading to a deeper and more profound understanding of the Universe in which we live; imaging systems that allow doctors to make non-invasive diagnoses; even mugs that change colour depending on whether the liquid in them is hot or cold can be seen as a plus. But, can we honestly say that genetically engineered so-called ‘Frankin-Food’ is one of them?
What is GMO?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and is most commonly used to refer to edible plants, which have been modified to have certain traits. For example, a plant that is more resistant to cold or dry conditions or fruit and veg that packs a greater nutritional punch. These traits used to be acquired through breeding programmes but these methods can be time-consuming and complicated. In contrast, genetic engineering leads to a crop with the exact desired characteristic quickly and with little error. Largely, genetically modified crops have been hailed as the ‘answer’ to World food shortages as plants can be engineered to give better yields and be more resistant to disease or extreme conditions.
So what’s the problem?
Objection to GM food and products comes from a variety of sources; for example, environmental campaigners, religious groups, professional bodies and various scientists. Most notably, HRH The Prince of Wales has spoken out publicly against GM produce and established his own company to promote organic food and sustained farming that protects the UK countryside and wildlife. The main concerns relating to GMO are as follows:
-       Harm to wildlife
In 1999, a study was published in the highly respected academic journal, Nature, which found that pollen from GM corn was deadly to a specific type of caterpillar (monarch butterfly caterpillars). In this case, the corn had been genetically modified to have a greater resistance to crop-damaging pests by producing its own pesticide; however, the toxin responsible for the pest resistance killed insects indiscriminately, including those that are harmless to crops. Greater numbers of these pesticide-producing crops could lead to a situation where some species or insect are at risk of extinction.
-       Production of super-insects
GM opposition groups fear that insects will, in time, develop resistance to the pesticides produced by GM crops leading to the evolution of immortal super-insects. Far from being futuristic fantasy, this effect has already been observed in mosquitoes that have developed resistance again the now restricted insecticide, DDT.
-       Non-GM crops could be contaminated
Cross-breeding between GM crops and non-GM plants or weeds is a real concern and has proved itself to be very difficult to control. In fact, the possibility of cross-breeding has been used as a defence by the numerous farmers sued by food giant Monsanto for patent infringements. Monsanto claims that farmers are in the habit of obtaining Monsanto GM seeds from unknown sources and have harvested crops from them without paying royalties to the company; however, farmers argue that their non-GM crops are being inadvertently cross-contaminated with GM crops planted nearby – an argument that has science and logic on its side!
-       The risks to human health
The risks to human health are worryingly unknown or hotly debated. There is growing concern that introducing foreign genes into plants could have a negative impact on health once consumed. Several animal studies have been conducted to support this claim and have, controversially, found links between GMO consumption, cancer, infertility and digestive abnormalities. Furthermore, there is significant risk that, for example, introducing genetic material from nuts into crops could then induce allergic reactions in susceptible individuals if they were to eat that GM product. Couple that with the concern that cross-breeding between GM and non-GM crops cannot be effectively controlled and we have a very worrying an almost unavoidable situation!
How do I know if my food is GM or not?
The long and short of it is, unfortunately, that you don’t! In 2004, the EU brought in new regulations with regards to labelling of GM products. These new rules stated that all products originating from a GM source must be labelled as GM; however, foods produced using GM technology, crucially, do not have to be labelled. So, cheese produced using GM enzymes or milk, meat or eggs from animals fed on a GM diet do not need to be labelled. In addition, with the risk of cross-breeding between GM and nearby non-GM crops, it is even difficult to know whether those labelled as ‘non-GM’ are truly GMO-free!
Regrettably, it may be down to the test of time to tell us if GM produce is in fact really safe. In consideration that it would be extremely difficult to reverse the decision to allow GM produce into the food chain, I, for one, am very much hoping that it is!

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