By Charlie Parke
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org
An ABC News poll found 93% of Americans support labeling food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMO). Safety was cited as the major concern and why some support the labeling of genetically engineered foods. GMO technology has been adopted by many farmers and food companies due to promised benefits from lower pesticide use to increased food supply that may be necessary to feed the ever growing world population. A number of reports have worried consumers that GMOs may be responsible for rising allergies, birth defects, cancer and other disorders. Does the GMO technology present a real danger or is it the solution?
Commonly genetic engineering (GE) has been used to produce modified corn, soy and other plants. Genetically altered fish has brought new concerns about the effect of such genetic changes introduced into DNA. In the mid-1990’s foods containing GMO ingredients hit store shelves with consumers largely unaware of a difference. Critics have suggested this made humans “guinea pigs” for testing long term effects of genetically modified foods. GMO foods are largely unregulated in the USA with no required label to inform consumers. Products are not tested by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and often bypass USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) review. Critics of GMO use have called for labeling to make consumers aware of what is in their food and more testing by regulatory agencies. The fact that regulatory agencies haven’t acted to investigate GMOs more and that the US has not seen a need for safety labels would seem to attest to a high level of US government support for GMOs being safe.
Since GMO foods began to hit the market in the mid-1990s food allergies and a number of health conditions have exploded. In the United States food allergies have increased 18% in children under 18 years of age between 1997 and 2007. Critics have often suggested GMOs as a cause of the increase, however many other plausible explanations exist. Dozens of US studies have found the foods safe. Studies around the world have often been more critical but have also received criticism from leading US scientists. Many studies simply point to GMO foods affecting the natural processes of our bodies in unexpected ways. A study conducted on MON810, a genetically engineered maize, found that when it was consumed alterations in the percentage of T and B cells occurred thus creating a “gut and peripheral immune response to GM crop ingestion”. Debate continues over the issue of what long-term harm, if any, such changes will cause.
Around the world concern about GMOs have often led to bans, moratoriums and labeling in the name of consumer safety. In the European Union labeling is required and 6 countries – Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg – have banned GMO cultivation under a safeguard clause. Japan requires GMO food labeling along with China, Australia, South Korea and India. Russia requires labeling and recently banned import and/or use of the most common GMO corn due to cancer concerns. New Zealand has no GMO crops grown commercially and labels all GMO food imports. Saudi Arabia has GMO testing and labeling requirements including demanding a health certificate for imported GMO goods. Peru banned GMO seeds and foods for 10 years to study health effects. Canada requires a testing period for GMO foods averaging 7-10 years. Critics of GMO food seem to feel the United States should adopt labeling and further regulation as many other countries have done. Some supporters of GMO food have pointed out that when labeling is required the foods are still usually deemed safe for consumption.
GMO crops were predicted to increase insect resistance with lower herbicide use, increase food production, create less cost/work for farmers and lower environmental impact. Critics often claim the opposite is occurring with weeds and insects adapting and steadily increasing amounts of herbicide being used. A study found an overall increase of 404 million pounds in pesticide use related to GMO plants during the period of 1996 and 2011 in the United States. In some cases insects seem to be adapting which leading to large crop loss for GMO plants. Others claim many beneficial insects – such as butterflies and bees – are dying off due to the use of GMO technology and increased herbicide. As these insect populations decrease less pollination occurs thus leading to fewer plants and perhaps less oxygen. A recent lawsuit by Beekeepers has charged the EPA with approving chemicals dangerous to bees through their expedited process, missing safety steps. Debate exists on whether GMO technology will continue to change to keep up with insects and as to whether GMO/pesticide use has truly contributed to decreasing pollination.
When discussing health many Americans turn to their doctor. Popular TV medical advice shows such as Dr Oz seem to support labeling and ways to avoid eating GMO food. The Illinois and Indiana Delegation of the AMA (American Medical Association) have introduced resolutions for study to determine safety of GMO food. Nationally the AMA has found no evidence of GMOs being dangerous to consumers. The AAEM (American Academy of Environmental Medicine) called for a moratorium on GMO food, calling for “physicians to educate their patients, the medical community and the public to avoid GM foods” and went on to say in their statement that “physicians should consider the role of GM foods in their patients’ disease processes.” Debate on this subject ranges from whether doctors (as opposed to scientists) or nutritionists should be the one giving advice on what foods are safe to eat to questions of which doctors you personally trust for advice.
With or without labeling, people are asking more and more questions about what is in their food. Many companies have begun to label themselves as “GMO free”. Unlike the term “USDA Organic”, language like “GMO free” is unregulated so the consumer has to do their own research about what foods are truly Non-GMO. To help lessen the confusion “Non-GMO Shopping Guide” and the “Non GMO Project” provide guidance and lists of GMO free products. Local organizers working towards labeling of GMOs here in Arizona will be hosting an evening of short films and discussion of the opposing viewpoints on GMO food safety on Wednesday, April 17th at ASU Tempe Campus.
**Film event will take place on Wednesday April 17th at 6pm at the ASU Tempe Campus Memorial Union – Yuma Room 2nd Floor #225. Films include a series of Ted talks and others shorts arguing for and against the safety of eating GMO food. To RSVP via Facebook click here.