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The low down on genetically modified foods

Since genetically modified (GM) foods appeared on our radars more than a decade ago they have been the cause of fierce debate among scientists, activists and the like. So, I decided it was time to get myself properly informed on the topic in the hope of better understanding their impact on me personally, my family and our planet. Below is a summary of what I found.

Please note that this is a complex issue, so while I’ve tried my best to be brief, this blog is a little bit longer than usual. You may want to grab a cuppa and get comfy! Please read on …….

What are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals which have had their genetic material altered in some way. Unlike selective breeding, a centuries old method of inter-breeding plants and animals to achieve desirable characteristics, genetic engineering allows for the transfer of genes from one unrelated species to another – something that does not occur in nature.

At the present time, genetic engineering is mainly used in agriculture to produce crops that can withstand the direct application of herbicide and/or are able to produce their own insecticide. The possibilities for genetic engineering are, however, endless.

GMOs in Australia

The only genetically modified crops currently being grown in Australia are cotton and canola. While of course we don’t eat cotton, we do ingest it in the form of cotton seeds, which are crushed to produce cotton seed oil (widely used in the food industry, mainly for deep-frying). Cottonseed meal is also used in animal feed. Canola oil is used in margarine-type spreads, dairy blends and as an ingredient in tinned and snack foods and is also often used in animal feed.

There are currently no GM fresh foods grown in Australia, such as fruit and vegetables, however, government regulations allow manufacturers to use imported GM food ingredients in their products. These include GM varieties of soybeans, canola, corn, rice, sugarbeet, potatoes and cotton.

Labelling and Safety testing

Foods containing GM ingredients – either as a whole food or as an ingredient in a processed food – for sale in Australia must have their GM status identified BUT only if introduced genetic material or protein is present in the final food. This means that oils from GM cotton seed or GM canola don’t need to be labeled as they don’t contain any protein. There are several other loopholes in the labeling laws which mean you could be eating GM foods without knowing it. For example, foods made at bakeries, restaurants and takeaways and foods from animals that are fed GM feed do not need to be labeled.

The safety testing of GM foods is another area of contention. While Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) carries out safety assessments on GM foods for sale in Australia, some argue that this testing is inadequate. For one thing, FSANZ doesn’t carry out it’s own tests but instead relies on data supplied by the company applying for approval.

The Pros and Cons

The topic of GMOs is extremely controversial and there are many arguments both for and against their use. On the pro side, supporters of GMOs argue that they have the potential to produce crops with higher yields, improved nutritional qualities and the ability to withstand drought and rising temperatures, which could improve food security and help to feed the world’s ever-increasing population.

The arguments against the use of GMOs include the following:

Potential harmful health effects

We simply don’t know if GM food is safe to eat because there have been no long-term studies looking at their impacts on human health. Studies on animals have raised some serious concerns. These studies include a peer-reviewed paper, published in 2007, which found evidence of liver and kidney toxicity in rats fed a variety of GE corn that has been approved for human consumption.

Other potential health concerns include increased pesticide levels in our food; the introduction of unfamiliar or unexpected proteins, toxins and allergens; and the use of antibiotic-resistance genes in GM plants.

Potential harmful environmental effects

There are several ways that GMOs are thought to impact the environment negatively. These include: threatening biodiversity; increasing the use of pesticides; and the potential for cross contamination with non-GM crop varieties.

Ethical concerns

Opponents of GMOs argue that their use will lead to the monopolisation of the world food market by large multinational companies. Of particular concern is that the major company pioneering the use of GMOs is Monsanto, which was recently voted “the most evil corporation in the world” and described by a Gaurdian journalist as “a corporate bully that has put its own bottom line above the good of the planet.” The fact that new GMOs can be patented, so that life itself could become commercial property, is also a worry for many.

Animal welfare could be adversely affected. For example, cows given more potent GM growth hormones could suffer from health problems related to growth or metabolism

How to avoid GM foods

As the labeling loopholes described above make it very difficult to know if the foods you are eating contain GM foods, probably the best way to avoid GM foods is to minimize the amount of processed foods you eat.

You can also check out the True Food Guide produced by Greenpeace at http://www.truefood.org.au/ where you can check which products contain GM ingredients and which are GM free.

Buying certified organic food is another way to avoid GMOs. According to the Australian Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce, the use of GM crop varieties or any products made from them is prohibited, as is the use of animal feed derived from GM crops.

For me personally, while there are still so many unanswered questions regarding GMOs, I’ll be doing my best to avoid them. Nature is pretty awesome and I don’t like messing with it.

If you’d like to read more about GM food please check out our sources:

http://www.truefood.org.au/
http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/safety/gm-food.aspx
http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Genetically_modified_foods
http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2012/11/15/factbox-gm-foods-australia

Also, you can sign a petition calling for greater regulation of GM foods here:

https://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/take-a-close-look-at-the-adverse-effects-of-gm-crops-2

As always, please consume with care!

NatDeb

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