Science usurped in GM debate

G Magazine

Nutritional expert, Rosemary Stanton, OAM, asks why genetically modified crops are being shielded from scientific analysis.

GM crops

Credit: iStockphoto

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A right-wing columnist recently described me as an anti-GM activist. Actually, I have no beef with genetic modification as a technology.

As someone trained in science, I believe that judging whether any technology is good or bad depends on the way it is used.

However, I am concerned that the current crops of GM foods have not been subjected to the scientific testing procedure we might expect. Most testing that has been done comes from the agribusiness companies who own and market the seeds.

Science works in a typical way to give authority and credibility to findings: results are published in scientific journals so that other scientists can review the experiments and repeat the same, or related, tests to confirm or refute the findings.

But with GM seeds, few independent tests have been published and scientists can't do tests because they are refused access to the patented seeds.

In the United States, companies used political interference to convince regulators that GM crops shouldn't be tested, claiming they were "substantially equivalent" to other foods.

Such attitudes are unscientific and lead some to question why GM companies might be afraid of independent scientific testing.

As a result of these deliberate policies, there is virtually no data of any long-term effects of GM foods on human health. The crops have been grown and consumed in the U.S. for 12 years, so they're obviously not lethal.

But without proper tests and with no requirement for GM foods to be labelled, it is impossible to declare that they have no adverse effects on human health.

Is the increase in allergies related to GM crops, as some claim? Frankly, we don't know.

With no labelling, any associations between allergies and GM foods are impossible to clarify. And once again, no direct research is being done.

We also have scant information about the environmental effects of growing GM crops.

Suppliers claim GM crops do not create problems, but they made similar claims about the pesticides and herbicides they previously sold us as safe; the problems caused by many of these products took years to come to light. Some small studies are sending warning bells about potential harmful effects on soil microbes.

We do know that GM seeds spread.

That's bad news for organic farmers, especially as GM companies have already sued farmers in North America because patented GM material was found in their grain - delivered courtesy of the wind.

Most GM crops are produced as animal fodder - environmental and agricultural scientists have already published results showing this is an unsustainable use of land and water. Crops fed to animals could alleviate starvation throughout the world.

The public has also become increasingly sceptical of companies that claim their future products will have consumer benefits, when none have occurred in 12 years.

There are examples where GM products are useful and accepted. Some GM medical treatments, for example, have gone through scientific testing which has shown proven benefits; and their use is carefully controlled and contained.

By contrast, GM foods have minimal testing and are foisted onto people with scant regard for the potential environmental or long-term health effects.

This is not a genie that can easily be put back into its bottle and good science demands that we take a closer and independent look at GM crops before they are unleashed.