Most of us don’t know it, but many of the foods we eat today have been genetically altered. Seventy percent of processed food in grocery stores contains some amount of genetically engineered components, according to the Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Massachusetts that fosters debate on biotechnology.
The list includes some all-American favorites such as Kellogg’s and General Mills cereals, Heinz ketchup, Carnation chocolate milk, Coca-Cola, and Beech-Nut baby food. And it’s not just packaged foods: Thirty-four percent of the corn we eat, 75 percent of soy products, and 15 percent of canola oil has been genetically altered in some way.
Many American organizations have already raised concerns about genetically modified (GM) foods, defined as those in which “foreign” genes–ones not naturally found in the plant–are introduced. The Council for Responsible Genetics, Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, and Consumers Union have all demanded more research and caution. But the debate intensified when Britain’s Institute of Science in Society launched its own rebellion and convened an independent panel of scientists to rule on the subject. In May, the group issued a report called The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World.
The conclusion? Genetically modified crops may pose unacceptable risks to health and the environment. “We are told there is no scientific evidence that GM is harmful,” the panel noted. “But is it safe? That is the question we should ask.”
One of the panel’s key findings is that very few animal or human studies are available in the scientific literature, and the few that are demonstrate ample cause for concern. A 1994 study submitted to the FDA, for example, showed that rats fed GM tomatoes developed erosions on the lining of the stomach similar to those seen in humans taking aspirin or similar medication. In another study, reported in Science magazine in 1999, researchers found that rats fed GM potatoes showed stunted growth and suppressed immune systems.
Another oft-cited danger is that GM foods can expose humans to known and unknown allergens. Soybeans engineered with the Brazil nut gene, for instance, caused allergic reactions during testing in humans sensitive to nuts. Fortunately, the problem was detected before the soybeans made it to the market. But it’s very possible that genetic engineering will also create new allergens that we won’t know about until it’s too late.
The fact is, you’re on your own if you want to protect yourself from the possible risks of GM foods. Currently, the FDA requires only “voluntary” testing of such products. But even more astounding is that GM foods aren’t labeled as such.
That’ right–this country is one of the few Western nations that do not require manufacturers to designate on the label that food has been genetically modified, in spite of the public’s strong desire to know what they’re buying. In a recent Consumers Union poll, 82 to 93 percent of Americans indicated they’d like genetically engineered food to be identified, even if doing so increases food costs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has filed a World Trade Organization case against the European Union for its five-year moratorium on new GM products, is certainly no help. It argues that “more than 300 million North Americans have been eating biotech corn and soybeans for years,” and that “no adverse health consequence has ever been reported.” It also says that the United States government is not trying to “force” foods on consumers and that “consumer choice is a fundamental tenet of U.S. policy.” But how can consumers choose when genetically modified foods aren’t labeled?
The European Parliament voted in July to give their citizens that very right. Beginning early next year, all manufacturers will be required to label modified foods and feed.
Until then the rules change, try to eat local or organic produce whenever possible and stay away from processed foods. This is the only way to avoid the unknown dangers of GM foods as well as the well-documented problems associated with pesticides, hormones, and other additives.
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