Monday, June 6, 2011

Poisoning our people?

GM Food: Poisoning our people?
By Glenn Ashton
The South African Civil Society Information Service
June 6, 2011

One of the most massive unregulated experiments on humans ever is being carried out right here in South Africa. South Africans are the first people in the world to consume a genetically modified (GM) food as a staple. According to industry sources more than 75% of our white maize is now GM. This means that the pap and samp consumed daily in the majority of South African households is now mainly comprised of genetically modified maize.

The industry claim that nobody has become ill from GM foods is scientifically dishonest. It is based on the principle of “don’t look - don’t find.” Because GM foods are not clearly identified through clear labelling, it is impossible to know what sicknesses are related to the consumption of the product.

We are repeatedly told these are the most widely tested foods ever. However, GM producers claim their products to be ’substantially equivalent’ – identical to their natural counterparts. As such they do not require testing. Where testing has been done it has fallen prey to the same pitfalls that have dogged chemical and toxicological testing for decades. This is unsurprising as the GM companies have without exception evolved from agricultural chemical companies, infamous in their abuse of statistical and experimental protocols.

Most food tests have been undertaken and submitted by the very companies seeking approval. The design of these tests has been opaque and misleading. Research has shown results to have been routinely manipulated and skewed to the extent that epidemiologist Judy Carman said, ”Their whole approach to the analysis would fail a basic statistics class.”

The earliest analysis of all feeding studies found exactly three experiments. Even these indicated worrying trends. More recent meta-analyses have reinforced these concerns. A consistent finding has been damage to the liver and kidneys. It is notable that liver and kidney disease has increased since GM crops were introduced in the US.

What is remarkable is that when researchers employed or connected to the developers of GM foods did studies, no problems were reported. On the other hand, studies undertaken by independent scientists consistently raised concerns. A recently published analysis highlighted this trend. This relationship is common in analyses of other chemicals and foodstuff.

Of even more concern is the fact that feeding studies were extremely short term, with most lasting three months. Crucially, none of them used more than one-third of GM product in the diet. In South Africa we eat unidentified GM white maize as a staple food at levels that may in many cases reach 100% of the diet. The question is: If statistically worrying damage is shown to kidney, liver and other organs when animals are fed one third of their diet as GM products, in studies lasting three months, then what on earth will happen to those of us who eat a diet that is predominantly based on GM maize, every day for years on end?

This is nothing less than a massive, unregulated experiment. To make matters worse this experiment is not being undertaken on a healthy population but one that is doubly compromised: First through most people not eating a sufficient or varied enough diet and secondly because we have the highest burden of HIV, AIDS and TB infections in the world.

There are numerous other studies that have indicated problems from consuming GM crops, even at reduced levels of a third of the total diet. Studies have shown reduced sperm count and even sterility. Researchers have consistently called for further work to be done. All the GM industry does is consistently try to spin itself out of trouble.

This outrageous situation is assisted by our poor regulation of GM food that will only need to be labelled later this year. In other words we have been eating the world’s first GM staple food in total ignorance of the fact. So far not one independent, multi-generational dietary test has been undertaken locally by independent scientists. This amounts to little less than criminal negligence by our government, which has consistently ignored all of these concerns, instead taking the side of an industry with a seriously blemished track record.

Of course this industry insists that the EU and others have produced reports clearing GM crops of any health risk. The fact remains that EU regulators have relied upon exactly the same compromised tests consistently produced by the industry itself. Secondly, the influence of industry within the regulatory regime is significant. This industry has not only routinely misinformed regulators, through supplying tests with skewed statistical data, but it has consistently interfered in the regulatory regime itself.

For instance, the regulations governing GM crops in the US were drafted by the ex-Monsanto head of regulatory affairs, Michael Taylor, who left Monsanto to work in government in order to draft industry friendly legislation. He then returned to Monsanto. He has since returned to government, in what is known as ‘the revolving door’. This is not by any means an isolated case and a similar situation exists in South Africa.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are repeated documented cases of this industry restricting and prohibiting independent testing of its products. This is possible because these products are patented and owned by the companies and permission must be granted for access to various crucial aspects of information in scientific testing, which is consistently refused.

It is not only the inherent dangers associated with GM crops themselves. The most widely grown GM crop in the world, herbicide resistant soy, has been linked to sharply increased levels of the herbicide Roundup, made by Monsanto, which also owns the patents on over 90% of all GM crops grown globally. Monsanto is also rapidly introducing herbicide resistant maize, now being grown in South Africa. Despite claims that GM crops reduce chemical use, we have seen exactly the opposite occurring around the world.

For instance, in Argentina, herbicide use has increased 180 fold in 13 years. In the USA, 174 000 tonnes more are used per year. In Brazil it is up by 95%. Responsibility for the downstream health impacts is not the farmers’ concern but is simply passed onto consumers who are none the wiser. And the risks of these chemicals are increasingly been proven to be as worrying, if not more so, than the concerns about the GM crops themselves.

When the first GM crops were introduced the amount of herbicide residue on food was permitted to be increased by 200 times in the case of the European Union, with similar increases elsewhere. Roundup is linked to serious human health impacts, including damage to embryo and fetus growth (tetragenic impacts) as well as cellular damage, amongst many other impacts on mammals. There are literally dozens of published studies indicating concerns about this chemical. It also affects amphibians, insects, earthworms and soil bacteria that liberate plant nutrients.

Besides these serious concerns, there is a final, glaring inconsistency in the argument that GM crops are required to feed the world. This is the fact that the most widely grown GM crop in the world, GM soy, has consistently been shown to yield less than conventional, natural soy. Despite years of promises of more nutritional or drought resistant GM crops, these promises remain unmet.

Oxfam recently released a report stating that food prices will more than double, from already high levels, over the next two decades. How do we address this problem? We are constantly informed by supporters of GM crops that we must adopt their technology to feed the world. The reality is that conventional plant breeding programmes have achieved far more, at far lower cost, enhancing yield, viral resistance, nutritional improvement and drought resistance.

Fifteen years of growing GM crops in South Africa has demonstrated that the rapid uptake of GM crops has had no impact at all on the amount of food reaching the mouths of the most needy. The only conclusion can be that GM crops are not the solution. More importantly we are playing a dangerous game of genetic roulette with the health of our people.

The four year International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), in its report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads“ indicated that GM crops would at best play a limited role in tackling global hunger. The focus on high-input industrial farming and GMOs has marginalised far more effective agricultural practices. The IAASTD study was funded by the World Bank and several leading UN organisations, and involved over 400 agricultural experts from around the world.

The perverse focus on GM crops over the past two decades has been instrumental in retarding development of urgently needed research. Instead of focussing on the proven, climate resilient and community based food production systems we require to encourage true food security and independence, the political-corporate focus on GM crops has steered us towards reliance on the dependency model epitomised by industrial agriculture, while simultaneously eroding our already tenuous health status.

Every way you look at it, GM crops epitomise the problem, not the solution.

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