Is GE Food Safe?

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  • by Anup Shah
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The potential benefits of genetically engineered food are exciting. At the same time though, there are real concerns on biodiversity, the ecosystem and people's safety if such food has not been tested properly and guaranteed to be safe. As economics are factored in, there is also some concern as to who benefits from such technology, people in need, or people who need more.

On this page:

  1. No Adequate Testing.
  2. A Bit Different to the way Nature Works
  3. Long Term Effects are Unknown
  4. Reducing Pesticides, Increased Yields?
  5. So why are they still being given the go-ahead?

No Adequate Testing.

The reason that genetically engineered food could be dangerous1 is because there has been no adequate testing to ensure that extracting genes that perform an apparently useful function as part of that plant or animal is going to have the same effects if inserted into a totally unrelated species. It may be that in the long term, genetically modified food could provide us with benefits2 and be a safe alternative, but we cannot know that at this time due to the lack of safety testing.

The testing that has been done is often to ensure the crop grows. There has been less emphasis on testing the effects or testing the wider ecology and the associated impacts.

It is often claimed that there have been no adverse consequences from over 500 field releases in the United States. In 1993, for the first time, the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) field trials were evaluated to see whether they supported these safety claims. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which conducted the evaluation, found that the data collected by the USDA on small-scale tests had little value for commercial risk-assessment. Many reports fail to mention -- much less measure -- environmental risks.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), p.102

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A Bit Different to the way Nature Works

In industrial systems, time is money: speed is tied to efficiency because of competition and the need for returns on investments. The control and compression of time is central to the creation of profit. By contrast, in nature everything has its own time, rhythm and season. This natural time is a barrier to productivity and profit (Adam 1998).

Politics of GM Food:Risk, Science and Public Trust3, Special Briefing #5, ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme, University of Sussex and launched at the House of Commons, London, October 18th 1999.

Crossbreeding by farmers and evolution by Nature4, has always involved gene transfer between similar species, not completely different species like a fish and a potato.

With the increasing drive for maximized productivity and profits, the diversity of crops used is being reduced. If the diversity is reduced enough the benefits5 that the diversity gives -- resistance to disease, better ability to cope with environmental extremes, increased yields etc. -- is also reduced.

Scientists have warned that non-target species can be affected6 by genetically modified food. They also urge a precautionary approach to allow science, law and regulations to catch up with the advances that have been made. Some GM crops still seem to require pesticide use7 as well.

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Long Term Effects are Unknown

Even if there has been some testing, the long term effects to humans8, animals and the environment9 are unknown. The full ramifications of modified genes "escaping" and mixing with unmodified ones are unknown10.

It may be that genetically modified food can benefit us, but we cannot know that at this time because much needed testing has not been done and current studies point to dangers11 rather than benefits. However, a group of scientists in UK do claim that GE food may be safe12, but mention that the long-term effects are still unknown. (Also, note that a lot of field tests that companies do perform are aimed at assuring that their products are grown as expected, not always necessarily looking into wider effects.)

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Reducing Pesticides, Increased Yields?

Part of the promising and exciting aspects of biotechnology is that it could perhaps reduce harmful pesticide use, and increase yields to help provide food for the hungry and large world population. However:

  • As this article13 points out, pesticide usage has actually remained the same, or even increased, with the use of GE food. And the companies that make pesticides are the ones that also make GE food ingredients. (See the previous link for many more interesting points).
  • The Institute for Science in Society reports14, for example, that as well as pesticde usage increasing, yields have been lower with GM Crops.

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So why are they still being given the go-ahead?

  • One reason is that there is a lot of money and profit15 involved in this. Hence from a business perspective it is more favorable, for example to produce crops that can be resistant to your pesticides (so that you can apply more of them). If you are a chemical company that produces pesticides as well as GM crops, then this is a good way to sell both products, as Monsanto do for example with their Roundup Ready GM Soybeans. (The Monsanto section on this site will discuss this a bit more.) The following also puts it more bluntly:

    Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.

    Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, quoted from Are Genetically Altered Foods The Answer to World Hunger?16, by John Robbins, Earth Island Institute, Winter 2001-2002, Vol. 16, No. 4
  • Another reason seems to be that in campaigns and referendums, a lot of emphasis is put on the fact that transgenic research-animals would help in the field of medicine and so distorts the purpose of the referendums that are usually about patent and food related effects17 of genetic modifications.

From a science perspective there are many issues to address, and there are chances that the GM technology can improve over the years. However, the issues above hint towards some of the political and economic issues of this which can be very significant. As a result, these factors influence the claims of biotechnology being able to feeding the world comes, which we look at next.

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  • by Anup Shah
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