GM Food and human health - Devinder Sharma (30/5/2005)

Sahara Samay, the largest selling Hindi weekly, carried the following piece by the Indian trade and food policy analyst, Devinder Sharma, yesterday. Here's the English version of Devinder's article.

GM Food and human health
How safe is your food?
By Devinder Sharma

The genie is out of the bottle. The evidence is now tumbling out. Genetically modified food is not as safe as the policy makers and scientists are busy telling us.

In a shocking disclosure, a British newspaper (The Independent, May 22) reported that rats fed on a diet rich in genetically modified maize developed abnormalities in internal organs and changes to their blood. This raises fears that human health could be put at risk by eating genetically modified foods.

Interestingly, this damaging conclusion is part of secret research carried out by the multinational food giant Monsanto. The study clearly showed that some rats fed on genetically modified maize had smaller kidneys and variations in the composition of their blood, while the rats fed on normal maize were healthy. This was mentioned clearly in the 1139 pages confidential report prepared by Monsanto, the results of which were not disclosed by the company to the European Food Safety Authority.

While Monsanto denies the report saying that it had made the submission before the regulating authorities, it refuses to make the full report public, saying "it contains confidential business information which could be of commercial use to our competitors".

This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the human safety of genetically modified foods. In October 2003, at least 100 residents of a far-flung village in Polomolok town, South Cotabato, in the Philippines, complained of various illnesses. Food specimens drawn from the affected region allegedly showed the presence of Bt toxins.

Bt maize, a genetically modified maize variety containing a gene from the bacteria -- Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) -- was approved for commercial planting in the Philippines in 2002. Samples taken by a Norwegian Institute did show that Bt toxins were allegedly found on the specimens of those tested. But this too was angrily contested by the biotechnology industry and the report was unscientifically dumped.

Rats on the other hand have routinely rejected genetically modified foods in the laboratories. Even the first genetically altered tomato “Flavr Savr” that was released in the market in May 1994, was fed to rodents in the labs as per the scientific norms. The rodents had refused to eat the GM tomatoes containing a foreign gene to make it ripen more slowly. Documents revealed that many of the rats that ate the GM tomato developed lesions in their stomachs. For unknown reasons, researchers did not examine tissues elsewhere in the digestive tract. They also did not provide an explanation as to why seven of the forty rats that were fed with GM tomatoes died unexpectedly within two weeks.

This reminds of the earlier efforts to crush the damming evidence provided by Dr Arpad Puztai. His conclusion that rats fed on genetically modified potatoes suffered serious damages to their immune system had set the river Thames on fire. Instead of examining the scientific findings, the scientific community led by the Royal Society ganged together to discredit Dr Puztai.

In another experiment, researchers at the University of Cornell in America observed that the caterpillars of monarch butterfly when fed with genetically modified corn suffered varying degrees of ailments, and were crawling more slowly than usual. Scientists concluded that 44 per cent of the caterpillars died after being fed continuously with the GM corn pollens. None of those exposed to non-GM corn suffered. Those fed on normal corn pollen turned into butterflies.

Such was the furore over this report that the mainline scientific establishment ran down the way the experiments were conducted. But the point missed was that this was probably the only experiment in the world where a university was trying to see the negative impact of genetically modified crops. This experiment alone cost the university anything between US $ 2 to 3 million. No university in the world has this much of money to find out what is wrong with GM foods. So whatever is being pushed into the market, and much of it is now available in super malls, is untested for human health.

This raises the obvious question. Why are the companies trying to force genetically altered foods to an unsuspecting population? Why are they shying away from making public the results of the research trials? Why are our politicians so keen to take the unproven technology? Why are our scientists blindly pushing in a risky technology, which like chemical pesticides, can take a heavy human toll, pollute the environment and destroy the ecology?

It all began when Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska in the United States, tested on behalf of the seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred in early 1995, a new soybean which was evolved with a gene from Brazil nut. To his surprise, Taylor found out that the transferred protein was indeed responsible for Brazil nut allergies, a potential danger because people with allergies to nuts would not know when eating soybeans. Pioneer immediately halted the research project. And yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States did not consider it appropriate to examine the GM food products for safety before approving them. It has now been revealed that the FDA actually was trying to push the biotechnology products ignoring warnings from its own scientists.

Only one British Ministers, Mr Michael Meacher, an Environment Minister in Tony Blair government, dared to stand up and question the veracity of the company data. Knowing well that the British Environment Minister was not a supporter of the GM technology, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had maintained a file on his activities. He was finally removed. The underlying message was clear. No politician should question whatever is being developed by the biotechnology industry. Such is power of the biotech sector that politicians and top scientists all over the world refrain from even voicing concern.

Approving such experimental foods is gambling with the health of the nation. The number of Bt cotton varieties that the Indian Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) have been approving every other month too have an impact on human beings. In India, Bt cotton (it is the only GM crop commercialised so far) is sure to find its way into the cotton seed oil that is consumed widely. But while more than a dozen other genetically modified food crops are getting ready for the market, has the GEAC learnt a lesson from this startling expose and will it make all its reports on human safety public?

The nation would like to know how and why approvals are being granted to Bt crops without knowing the impact it will have on the human health. After all, no government body can be allowed to play havoc with human health and the environment. #

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