We’ve all heard that GM foods are here, in Australia, right now, and that we should avoid them. But what are GM foods, why are they such a concern and how do we avoid them? We asked the lovely Elsa Evers from the Truefood Network to spell it out for us in this two-part series…
GM canola in Australia. Image via The Age
Who has a vivid memory of the things they ate as a kid? Let me think back… there were stained tongues from ten cent Red Skins at the swimming pool, which later ended up glued to the sunscreen bottle in the bottom of my swimming bag; Curly Wurlys at recess – I always went straight to the joke on the wrapper before the chocolate; crumpets with loads of butter and vegemite. Who remembers ice-magic? Or ‘FADS’ because they couldn’t call them ‘FAGS’ anymore?
I could natter nostalgically on this topic for ages but there is a point to this story. How do you know what’s in your kid’s food? Or what if you’re a big kid who wants the joke and the full ingredient list? I’m talking about genetically modified (GM) foods sneaking their way into food products unlabelled despite health and environmental concerns. That’s right, most GM ingredients aren’t labelled in Australia because our laws contain loopholes that mean manufacturers often don’t have to list GM ingredients. But first…
Why GM... Separating the facts from the myths
From the moment of the discovery of GM technology (back in 1972), scientists saw both dangers and potential benefits. Supporters proposed that GM technology could solve the world’s hunger issues. They said (and continue to say), that the technology presents a method of producing more food with less chemicals, producing ‘functional food’ (e.g. golden rice), and producing food in areas not otherwise suited to cultivation (areas of drought, for instance).
Critics argued (argue) that the world is hungry because of political issues, and that GM technology is dangerous because we simply cannot predict its long-term environmental and health implications - because it involves releasing ‘live’ organisms, that wouldn’t normally occur in nature, into the environment where they cannot be controlled or recalled.
Despite these concerns, GM food trials were given the go ahead, and the first GM food to become commercially available was a tomato in the US, in the early 90s, called the FlavrSavr (which completely bombed because no-one wanted to eat it, and it didn't grow well commercially. It isn't available anymore).
In fact, to date, GM technology has not delivered any of its proposed benefits (touted by the big companies that are behind it). On the contrary, GM crops are presenting big problems for the environment and for human health.
GM crops, for instance, have dramatically increased the number of chemicals being used on crops (eg. Round-up), and created weed-resistance problems in the US due to the over-use of chemicals, which has led to the use of harsher chemicals such as 24-D.
In the case of GM’s ‘functional food’ child Golden Rice, one would have to consume 12 times more golden rice than the rice that people usually eat in their diet to reach the required amount of vitamin A, which would lead to more dietary deficiencies than benefits. We need to promote diverse diets and enable people to grow their own healthy food, not make them dependent on patented products which will reduce the amount of good, healthy and diverse food options.
Furthermore, there has been no success in developing drought-resistant crops. Drought resistance is achieved through a number of complex genes and traits working together in a way that humans know little about. We would be much better off investing in non-GM techniques such as Marker Assisted Selection to create traits such as drought resistance, but the insistence that GM is the solution to every man's problem is driving investment away from this more effective, yet less sexy (and not patentable) R&D.
So, who is behind GM anyway?
In Australia, Monsanto is the ONLY company that produces commercially available GM seeds. Syngenta and Bayer, two other chemical companies, are trying to push into the market, but at the moment it is solely dominated by Monsanto.
These companies also conveniently produce agricultural chemicals including herbicides and pesticides. Monstanto, for instance, has developed GM crops (such as soybean crops) that are resistant to their own brand herbicide spray (RoundUp), which could easily be perceived as a clever ploy to sell more product. RoundUp has been the cause of many health problems around the world, but beyond that, when companies have the ability to patent nature, then this is cause for concern. We should also ask ourselves if it is a good idea to have so much of our seed production controlled by so few companies.
Which foods are GM in Australia?
GM ingredients in food in Australia can include:
• imported corn: found widely in processed foods, often listed on the label as corn starch, corn flour, corn oil or minor ingredients such as maltodextrin.
• imported soy: soy is included in up to 60% of all processed food, and can be listed on the label as soy flour, soy oil or minor ingredients such as lecithin (soy lecithin).
• local and imported canola: including canola oil, which is found in a variety of processed foods such as margarine, and canola meal, which can be fed to livestock including chickens, pigs and dairy cattle.
• local and imported cottonseed products: ingredients derived from cottonseed are not always easy to identify on food labels, as they are often listed simply as ‘vegetable oil’, or ‘thickener’.
It's clear GM foods are something we all need to think about, largely because whilst they are here and in our food supply, as consumers we can decide to do something about it. Pop back tomorrow for Part 2 of our GM series, in which Elsa chats more about labelling of GM in Australia and about the environmental and health implications of GM foods, as well as what we can do to avoid them.
Read Part 2 of our GM series here, exploring how to avoid GM foods in Australia.