Friday, May 27, 2011


Is genetically modified food safe? This is a question that is haunting consumers all over the world and there does not appear to be any consensus amongst scientists regarding this issue. The whole scientific community is fiercely divided between pro GM foods and anti GM foods and whether any clarity will emerge in the near future remains to be seen. If American market is scrutinized closely, majority of the processed food products contain one or the other GM ingredient and consumers have been eating them since last one and half decades without knowing about it as there are no label provision to declare their presence. The protagonists invariably zero in on the fact that no major calamity has taken place in the US by its population consuming GM foods for a number of years. This is countered by the anti GM food groups by suggesting that GM foods may not show any immediate health set back on short term and there are ample indications that these foods can affect the health of the consumer over a longer time span, say 30 years. Unless the world community takes concerted action to organize credible scientific studies on a massive scale, the safety question will remain at the "debating" table only. Here is an excellent expose on GM foods and their safety which is worth reading.

"To put it more broadly, regulation of the safety of GM food is virtually nil, and research is scant and largely industry-funded. In a 2010 paper [PDF] in the journal Food Policy, researchers looked at all the papers on the health and nutritional effects of GM foods published in English between 1996 and 2009. Of the 94 studies they identified -- not a large number, given the surge of GMOs into our diets over that period -- 80 delivered "favorable" conclusions about the novel foods, while 10 had "negative" views and two were neutral. That sounds at first glance like a positive near-consensus around GMOs. But then the researchers dug deeper and looked for industry ties. In 44 of the 94 total papers, one or more of the researchers had a financial or professional tie to the agrichemical industry. Of those 44, 43 had "positive" conclusions and one turned out "negative." Meanwhile, 37 of the studies were done by independent researchers. Of those, 27 came back positive, eight came back "negative," and two were "neutral." In other words, near-complete consensus reigns among industry-linked scientists as to the safety of GM foods. But among independent scientists, the issue is much more contested.

In a peer-reviewed 2008 paper, Don Lotter demonstrates that only one independent long-term study has ever assessed how eating GMOs affects mammals. Funded by the Austrian government and released in 2008, that study initially seemed to reveal disturbing reproductive trouble in mice fed GMOs. But then in 2010, the Austrian government withdrew it from publication, citing insufficient data. I am trying to contact the study's lead author, Austrian scientist Jurgen Zentek, for comment. So where does all of this leave us? Obviously, in need of much more independent research. In April, a bit more trickled out from Quebec, Canada -- and again, the results are unsettling. The study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, focused on corn engineered to possess a trait from the bacteria Bt, which is toxic to a range of insects. So-called Bt corn is extremely common in the United States; according to the USDA, upwards of 60 percent of corn planted here has it. Since its introduction in the '90s, its maker, Monsanto, has insisted that Bt corn must be safe, because the toxin embedded in it cannot survive the human digestive system. The Quebec study (here's the abstract) casts serious doubt on that bedrock assumption. Researchers checked blood samples of 39 pregnant women and 30 non-pregnant women for the presence of the toxin. None were exposed directly to Bt, but all had conventional diets. The results: The Bt toxin showed up in 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses. It was also present in 69 percent of non-pregnant women in the study".

The million dollar question that eludes an answer is whether there is a deliberate attempt to suppress "inconvenient" results of scientific research by independent scientists at the behest of the GM food industry led by powerful multinational companies with vested interests to protect their business at the expense of the consumer. It has to be conceded that GM technology is one of the marvels of modern science and can revolutionize the food production in a way that is unprecedented. But a good technology is not an assurance that the product made through its application is safe! The Bt corn story, if confirmed by other scientists, is really scary and those who pushed this technology knowing well the dangers inherent in using it, have lot to answer to the future generation. The environmental disaster that is a consequence of wide scale use of GM technology is another danger for which there is no ready remedy. Ultimately consumer resistance including revolt against such dangerous foods can make the regulatory authorities more vigilant and keep consumer interest above all other interests.


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