Claim and Counter-claim on GM foods

In recent days the Premier of SA has announced that the moratorium on genetically modified crops will continue. Moratoriums have been lifted in other states and in Victoria Sir Gustav Nossal a member of DEA’s Scientific Advisory Committee has supported their production. Clearly there are differing scientific opinions about the environmental health and safety of Gm food crops. One of the difficulties in making assessments is the lack of independent evidence because much of the scientific data comes from the companies producing Gm species. Recently there have been examples of possible suppression and misrepresentation of scientific information. One such example is listed by ISIS at  This was an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, UK, 28 November 2007 introduced by a UK ex-environment minister, the Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher.

“That this House regrets the continuing attempts to silence or misrepresent scientists whose research indicates possible human health problems from GM crops, as in the case of Dr Irina Ermakova who was misled by the editor of Nature Biotechnology into submitting an article to the journal to be published under her name, with the article in fact published under the editor's name with criticisms by four well-known GM supporters not seen by Dr Ermakova prior to publication; deplores the continuing efforts by an employee of the Canadian Government, Shane Morris, to close down websites in the UK and Republic of Ireland which have, along with Dr Richard Jennings of Cambridge University, said that research which claimed that consumers prefer GM sweetcorn published by this employee and others and given an Award for Excellence, is a flagrant fraud; and calls on the Government Chief Scientist to protect the integrity and objectivity of science by reasserting the right of scientists to have their views published by journals without underhand interference by journal editors, and for the Chief Scientist to encourage journal editors to withdraw papers they have published which subsequently turn out to be grossly misleading or even fraudulent”.

The article then documents several other cases of suppression or misinformation in relation to findings on the health aspects of some GM foods.

 Let us look at two issues, firstly the environmental and productivity issues and secondly the possible impacts on human health.

Environmental and productivity issues

“Friends of the Earth International has just produced a report "Who Benefits from GM crops?"  which is worthy of consideration It finds that:

The adoption of GM crops has led to a significant increase in pesticide use.   Government studies show a 15-fold increase in the use of the  herbicide RoundUp (glyphosate) in the United States and an almost  80 per cent increase in Brazil  This is resulting in  increasing numbers of glyphosate-resistant weeds around the world,  leading to higher production costs for farmers as well as concerns  about the environmental impact.

The US also reports increasing use of more toxic pesticides, including one banned in Europe:- The increase in glyphosate is no longer displacing other herbicides in the US.  From 2002 to 2006 the use of 2,4,D (a component of Agent Orange) on soybeans more than doubled. The use of atrazine (banned in the EU due to links to health  problems) on maize increased by 12 per cent in the US from 2002 to  2005.”

The Report also states that GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.

 “The vast majority of GM crops commercialised so far are destined  for animal feed for the meat and livestock markets in rich  industrialised nations rather than for feeding the poor.  GM  crops, as part of the intensive farming model, contribute to small  farmers losing their land and livelihoods and do not alleviate  poverty.

Overall, GM crops do not yield more than other crops. Even the US Department of Agriculture admits that no GM crop on the market has been modified to increase yields.  The main factors influencing crop yield are weather, irrigation and fertilizers, soil quality and farmers' management skills.”

The situation in the US contrasts with that in Europe which has adopted a precautionary approach which has lead to the US taking legal action through WTO on the basis of unfair protection.

The Friends of the Earth Report should be considered along with the report of the industry-sponsored International Service for the Acquisition of  Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) which promotes GM crops as beneficial for the environment and a key solution to hunger and poverty.  The GM  industry continues to claim that GM crops reduce pesticide use and play a role in tackling poverty and hunger.

Health Aspects

Food standards Australia and New Zealand states “Indeed, no other foods in human history have been subjected to as much scrutiny as GM foods so that, at the end of the analysis process, we can truly say GM foods passed for human consumption are safe to eat”. This statement makes me very uncomfortable. It is not possible to find any long tem feeding studies which can support the statement. My discomfort is based on two main issues.

Firstly, in epidemiology we increasingly recognise that environmental impact on the human body may take decades to demonstrate an adverse effect. The recent studies in the US on human breast cancer and automobile emissions are a case in point. There must be particular concern to exposure to toxins, POPs  and other foreign substances in utero (via the mother) and in infancy.

Secondly,in relation to my own past research on immunological behavior in the human gastrointestinal tract, it is clear that even in adults the intestine absorbs some large molecules undigested. However this process in marked  for a few days after birth. Some protein substances absorbed by the mother, are then secreted into colostrum and milk and are absorbed by the new born baby. We cannot know the effect of those substances that are foreign to human experience. Now this does not apply to all GM but this in itself exposes the need to assess each modification separately.

What can DEA do? We must recognise that this remains an important issue, a topic that we put have aside for lack of medical input and because of urgent threats of climate change have consumed out time. We therefore need to identify a member of DEA with scientific skills in this area and if we do, we need to analyse some of these issues in more detail and prepare reports on our health concerns.

Doctors for the Environment Australia has adopted the GM policy of PHAA, see Policy

Please give your view on the Blog

David Shearman