GM Foods and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson

By David Shearman 9 August 2002

John Anderson has joined the public debate over stem cell research. In The Australian, August 2, he was reported to repudiate Professor Trounson who had called ethicists and Catholics hypocrites for opposing the use of excess IVF embryos as a source of stem cells. John Anderson insisted that legislators not scientists were the right people to set boundaries on research. He said that the embryonic research legislation agreed by Mr.Howard and the State Premiers "worries the life out of me". He indicated that it was absurd that Australians were becoming more concerned about genetically modified foods "that go into our stomachs and toilet rather than into our own genes" This statement merits further discussion

I am not sure where the statement ‘we are what we eat’ originates, but there is more than a grain of scientific truth in it.

There is a body of evidence that a variety of small molecules traverse the intestinal mucosa to enter the human body. Entry is though intestinal pores or via small breakages in the intestinal mucosa. Entry of small protein antigens explains the severe allergic reactions, sometimes anaphylactic, to certain foods. Indeed antibodies to a variety of ingested food proteins eg. Bovine serum albumen are found in the systemic circulation. Serum antibodies to a range of bacterial antigens present in the gastrointestinal tract are also found. We know that the bacteria present in our intestines can exchange genetic material between themselves. Recent studies from the University of Newcastle, UK, suggests that GM material can survive in the small intestine and can then be incorporated into the resident bacteria. If confirmed this finding has obvious implications for the use antibiotic resistance marker genes. But more importantly the distinct possibility is raised that the bacteria of the human intestine will sample and retain ingested GM material and some of this will enter the body. The precautionary principle should indicate to us that it would be very unwise to say that this material could not be incorporated into human cells. Why should this matter, surely we have always ingested cow, pig sheep and plant genetic material? The obvious worry lies in the nature of some of the genetic material being introduced into foods.

The mechanisms of absorption and fate of ingested protein and genetically active molecules is ill understood. We should have learned this lesson from the prion, ingested from the mad cow. It just couldn’t happen scientifically, but it did!

So perhaps John Anderson is right to indicate that the embryonic research legislation "worries the life out of me". Perhaps if he recognised that not all GM food his children eat ends up in the toilet he would worry about this as well, in the same way that. I do. The absorption of immunologically active molecules was one of my research interests.

The statement by John Anderson stimulated me to look at the 'official' statements of the government through ANZFA, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. It states that "farmers have altered crops by selectively breeding them to obtain certain characteristics for thousands of years-for example, the cultivation of modern wheat from wild grasses. Gene technology speeds up the process by identifying the genes that produce these selective traits and introducing them into the desired crop". Now it seems to me that this statement, constructed to reassure the public, manipulates the truth. Humanity will have never before experienced some of the genetic material being inserted into foods today. Without being a Luddite and if I had children to feed, I think I would be using the TRUE FOOD GUIDE (how to shop GE-FREE) the next time I shopped at the supermarket! This little booklet is produced by Greenpeace.

There are several members of DEA who have expertise in GM foods and I look forward to their comments.