Beyond GM’s GMO Wheel of Chance, is based on a traditional wheel of fortune. Topics are divided into four key areas where agricultural GMOs can have a significant impact: consumers, farming, the environment and the marketplace. Each spin leads to a pop-up of bite-sized information for the user to consider. However if you wish to see all the information in one place this can be found on pages dedicated to each key area.
Anyone wishing to learn more about GMOs will quickly find that there exists a huge diversity of information and opinion on the subject. Those who actively promote genetically engineered crops will say that the science is settled and that plants which have been genetically engineered in the lab have been proven to be safe to eat and safe for the environment.
Those who question GMOs point to the links to industry which may pro-GMO pundits have, the over-reliance on unpublished corporate science, as opposed to published studies by independent researchers, and the fact that there has never been a human study conducted on the safety of eating GMOs. They point also to the accumulating evidence of environmental harm – including heavier pesticide use and damage to soil – from growing GMO crops.
The truth is that no agreement among the scientific community has been reached on the risks or safety of genetically modified food, although, increasingly, animal studies suggest that they may possess wide, uncertain and, potentially dangerous implications for health and environment.
Indeed the only certainty is that we do not know enough to say unequivocally that GMOs are ‘safe’ and that this uncertainty can only effectively be managed by erring on the side of precaution.
Until relatively recently most food was grown on small and mid-size family farms in ways that were environmentally and socially sustainable but also, crucially, more transparent and traceable. Over the last 70 years or so, however, food production has become the domain of global corporations that favour intensive, industrial models of food production.
Producing food this way takes power out of the hands of small to medium sized producers – often it involves technologies that are too expensive for these producers to buy into. It produces food made primarily to withstand the challenges of international trade and shipping, and processed in a way that ensures a long shelf life. This takes the emphasis away from fresh, local and small and shifts it to processed, ‘exotic’ and supersized.
Ceding control of our food system to a handful of corporations, where a healthy bottom line is the key measure of success, can also mean that quality and safety standards slip. The increasing number of food scares seen in the last decade are testimony to this. As standards drop, consumer scepticism about ‘brands’ and the benefits of corporate food are rising.
A key question is: Does the corporatisation of the food system help solve the real environmental and social problems associated with food production such as soil degradation, water pollution, rising CO2 levels, and increasing numbers of starving and malnourished people? Evidence of the last several decades suggests it does not.
Like the banking system, the corporate farming system is not too big to fail – and its failure could cause international panic and disaster. Many now agree that we need to change the system before it collapses under its own weight.
How do we know what’s in our food? If we are eating fresh food, such as an apple or a carrot – the question probably never occurs to us. If we are eating processed foods, usually we look on the label to find out.
But increasingly there are things on and in our food that are a cause for concern. Fresh produce, for example, may have pesticide residues on it. Or processed food may be made with synthetic ingredients that can be unhealthy.
As more genetically modified crops enter the food chain as ingredients and processing aids our food may also be quietly contaminated with GMOs. This is true for ‘junk foods’ such as cookies, cakes and snacks, but it is also true for things like infant formulas and some of the liquid foods served in hospitals.
Many of our animals, too, are fed on GMO feed and while the farmer and the supermarket will know this, the consumer may have no idea. Strong regulation and transparent labelling practices could help consumers know what they are eating. But as things stand today, GMOs are neither well regulated, nor transparently labelled.
Many consumers feel that they should have the right to choose – or refuse – to buy certain foods. For this reason the foods we buy increasingly come with a range of different labels such as gluten free, dairy free, organic, biodynamic, vegetarian and preservative free.
Surveys show that consumers also want to know if their food is genetically modified or contains genetically modified ingredients. But the companies that produce these foods and ingredients have spent decades – and millions of dollars – blocking attempts to label them.
In Europe GMO foods must be labelled, although the law allows for levels of up to 0.9% ‘accidental’ contamination. In addition, GMOs used a processing aids, for instance for emulsifiers or sweeteners, do not require labelling.
In the US, in some cases, manufacturers have used loopholes in the law to bring their products to market. The new genetically modified salmon, for instance, is regulated as an animal drug rather than a food, and therefore requires no labelling to alert customers to its origins.
Now companies are claiming that new genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR, are so different, and so much more precise, than older genetic engineering techniques that foods produced via these method require no labelling at all.
Even if they are more precise, this does not make the effects of growing and eating them predictable, nor does it guarantee their safety.
In truth, labels can mislead as often as they inform and there is a compelling argument that the need for so many labels suggests that there is something very wrong with our food system. However, until the necessary systemic changes to the system are made, clear labels are our best chances of knowing what is in our food.
The word ‘natural’ has been greatly abused by the food industry – almost to the point where it has little or no meaning in a food labelling context. But on a personal level, ‘natural’ carries significant meaning for many of us, particularly when it comes to what we eat.
Food manufacturers know that natural is a byword for trust. Marketing a food as ‘all natural’ or ‘as nature intended’ can boost sales by reassuring consumers of its quality or hinting at the idea that this particular food has been part of our diets for millennia.
While not 100% synthetic, genetically modified foods are unnatural. In fact, the international definition of a GMO, according to the World Health Organization, is any organism (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) “in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”
Having said that, synthetic biology – a new branch of genetic modification – takes us into uncharted territory where the natural vs synthetic debate is concerned. With this process food technologists can write a DNA code on a computer, print it off on a bio-printer and use it to create crops that have never existed before in the natural world. There is no current regulation to limit – or label – the products of this process.
Although many of us aspire to eat natural food, and innately value this concept, in truth our diet has never been so far from natural. This is not simply because of the various chemicals and genetically modified products in the food chain, but also because of the lack of diversity and nutrition in the food we eat.
Genetic modification, however technologically sophisticated, doesn’t solve any of these issues; instead it takes us down the road towards more industrial and synthetic ways of producing food.
Although both people and animals eat foods containing GMOs, it is impossible to say unequivocally that GMOs are safe to eat. When GMO crops were first grown commercially regulators around the world were persuaded to take the view that these crops were ‘substantially equivalent’ to normal crops.
In essence substantial equivalence says that if a food looks the same and tastes the same it must, therefore, be the same. This means GMO foods entered the food chain without being subjected to human safety assessments. In addition, in the decades that we have been eating GMOs, the health impacts of these foods have never been studied by any government agency, nor by the companies that produce them.
However, studies of animals fed GM foods and/or glyphosate – the main herbicide used on GM crops – show worrying trends including damage to vital organs like the liver and kidneys, damage to gut tissues and gut flora, immune system disruption, reproductive abnormalities, and even tumours. Laboratory studies are now showing that the genetic modification process can alter the nutritional composition of foods, either directly or through damage to soil. It can also cause the plant to produce unexpected toxins which are dangerous to consume.
These studies point to potentially serious human health effects that could not have been anticipated when we first began growing and eating GMOs, and yet they continue to be ignored by regulators, who should be taking them seriously. Instead our regulators rely on often outdated studies and other information funded and supplied by biotech companies that obscures or dismisses potential health concerns.