Talk about genetically modified (GM) foods causes angst for some people who’re concerned about eating healthily, because they worry that too little is known about the long-term effects of modified foods to label them safe.
But others say that controlling our food’s characteristics is nothing new, having been practiced in agriculture for hundreds of years. For example, being selective about the fruit and vegetables we propagate means that we now have products that are larger, are more resistant to natural elements and taste better.
The same has happened with our livestock. Through selective breeding, our cows are bigger than ever before—ready to meet the demands of a growing population.
But the definition of what constitutes genetically modified food today is considerably more space-age
The Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Website explains that “today’s techniques use new ways of identifying particular characteristics and transferring them between living organisms”. For example, the site explains that it’s now possible to make a copy of a particular gene from the cells of a plant, animal or microbe, and insert the copy into the cells of another organism to give it the same characteristic.
It’s the foods that are derived from these genetic modifications that are classed as GM foods. Currently, Australia produces just two genetically modified products: cotton and canola.
Both the cotton and canola were modified to ensure insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Both plants are used in oils and therefore make their way into a number of processed food products.
These, however, are not the only genetically modified foods we have in Australia.
There are many imported products classed as GM that we may be unwittingly using every day. Some of these include soybean products, corn products, potatoes, beets and numerous oils. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator in Australia publishes a list of what GM foods are approved for sale.
Some of the health concerns that have been brought up since the inception of GM foods range from the possibility of new diseases being spread among crops or transmitted to humans, to an increase in allergic reactions.
In 1996, a study found when desired genes from a brazil nut were transferred to a soybean, the allergenic properties were too. While this prompted a ban on using gene modification on allergenic there have been cases of genetically modified foods escaping into the wild.
Stephen Leeder, emeritus professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Sydney, told news.com.au that there hasn’t been enough research into the long-term effects of GM foods.
“A lot of GM crops are engineered to tolerate 10 times the normal level of herbicides. Those herbicides have been demonstrated to be carcinogenic. Resistance is bred into the weeds so you need new herbicides or higher doses to keep them at bay,” he said. “No one can say with confidence that it has no effect.”
Jessica Harrison from GM-Free Australia Alliance told Starts at 60 that most Australians were unaware of how much our foods are filled with GM products.
“GM cottonseed oil, canola, soy and corn are used in 60 per cent of processed food.” she said. “GM foods are derived from GM crops which have been engineered in a laboratory with viruses and bacteria, to survive being sprayed with weedkiller and to exude a toxin which kills certain insects.”
Meanwhile, she says, new GM varieties are being engineered by changing the genetic structure of plans, and neither methods are safe. Plus, she claims, there’s the risk of GM crops mixing with non-GM flora because the country has lax laws governing their control.
Harrison believes there needs to be more research into the impact of GM foods.
“The risks of eating GM food products are hard to quantify as GM foods are not labelled,” she says. “However, a body of evidence now shows that test animals show a range of health problems such as tumours, hormone imbalances, birth defects and allergic reactions after consuming GM feed in laboratory conditions.”
Some of the benefits of GM foods include an increased crop yield, insect-pest resistance and so-called bio-fortifying food that help address vitamin deficiencies in humans’ diets. In the future, advances in genetic food production could see an increase in the nutritional value of our food through the development of more vitamin-rich foods.
“There were initially concerns about GM creating increased allergens or super weeds but now that we’ve got 20 years of scientific investigation we should be comfortable calling it safe,” Jones says.
“I think the organic farming industry should see GM as perfect, organic crops. Really, all the food we eat is GM, that’s what traditional plant breeding and animal breeding is – it just takes a bit longer.”