Kyra Xavia investigates how genetically engineered ingredients sneak into our food unlabelled, and offers tips to avoid eating them
Like many Organic NZ readers you may be a conscious consumer who makes informed decisions about the food you eat. Unfortunately you may also be ‘eating in the dark’ because most consumers in New Zealand ingest genetically engineered food (GE or GMOs) whether they want to or not.
In the late 1990s GE food suddenly appeared on supermarket shelves in developed nations around the world without the public’s knowledge and consent.1 Since then, despite consumer concerns, warnings from respected scientists, geneticists, doctors and environmental experts along with scientific studies identifying numerous problems,1,2,3,4, 5,7,8,9 GE food still remains inadequately tested, monitored and (in New Zealand) labelled.
Our food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) does not test GE foods.5 Instead it relies on evidence provided by the companies that release it, for example Monsanto and Bayer. Once on the market, companies are expected to monitor adverse effects of their products and inform government regulatory authorities of any problems.5 It’s obvious who benefits most from this system.6
‘Substantial equivalence’ – natural-ish?
All GE foods on the market today have been approved using a safety assessment called ‘substantial equivalence’ (SE). SE requires that a GE food be ‘grossly similar’ to its natural counterpart.5,7 This is based on the assumption that similarity grants safety, ignoring the fact that GE technology bypasses natural laws and species boundaries to create novel foods that have never existed before.
Substantial equivalence is a simplistic approval method because a GE food can be almost completely identical to its natural counterpart (far more than required by SE), yet can contain unexpected harmful substances. Using SE these substances can go undetected.5,7
Many of the fundamental assumptions made by the biotech industry and regulatory bodies about GE have proved to be incorrect. If genetic engineering were a precise and safe technology that never gave rise to unexpected substances these assumptions would be valid, however this isn’t the case, and foods approved in this way cannot be considered safe.1,2,7,9
How safe is GE food?
Genetic engineering can cause the appearance of unexpected harmful substances in food such as poisons, mutagens (substances causing genetic changes that may be harmful) and carcinogens (substances causing cancer).1,7 DNA instability is a common feature and the damaging effects of genetic engineering cannot be predicted or controlled.1,7
Genes can be transferred between GE food and bacteria in the human gut (horizontal gene transfer) after a single meal.1,2 It is also possible that animal products will contain GE derivatives that can be directly ingested by humans.1,2,3 The use of promoter ‘switches’ can cause the over-expression of genes, which can result in cancer.1,3,4 Most foreign genes used in GE crops are not natural but synthetic, and their differences have been ignored.1
Many of the foreign proteins used in genetic engineering have never existed in food so it is impossible to know beforehand, without extensive food safety assessment, if it is safe to eat food containing such proteins. Very complex procedures necessary for detecting them in GE foods. Yet they are often not required by regulators and therefore not used by developers.1,7,8,9 The rules for safety assessments of GE foods were designed to facilitate rapid approval.1, 5,7
GE labelling is a joke
For research purposes I spent an hour in a large supermarket and could not find one item with a genetically engineered ingredient listed. Considering that up to 70% of processed foods now contain GE ingredients, this doesn’t add up. A line from the movie ‘Food Inc’ came to mind: ‘The food industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about the food you eat because then you might not want to eat it’.
In New Zealand, most GE food products escape labelling: refined products such as oils, sugars, starches, alcohol and additives derived from GE crops, and animal products derived fully or partly from GE feed, such as meat, eggs, milk, fish, honey and bee pollen. Products made using GE bacteria, enzymes and fungi, such as sugars, alcohol, sauces, cheese, amino acids and vitamins are also exempt. GE canola, corn, soy and cottonseed oil can be listed vaguely on labels as ‘vegetable oil’. GE canola, corn and soy oil and/or soy lecithin are used in most processed foods.1
FSANZ exempts these items on the basis that no DNA or protein remains in the final product, but this is incorrect.5 Proteins can cause food allergies, and proteins are present in oils which is why people allergic to peanuts can also be allergic to peanut oil.
Under current FSANZ regulations, manufacturers can legally state they do not use GE in their products.5 Unlike New Zealand, Australia and the US, EU regulations demand that genetically engineered food and feed is labelled, irrespective of whether there is GE DNA or protein in the final product.
Why GE food should be clearly labelled
There are still no long-term toxicological, neurological, metabolic, endocrinological, developmental or reproductive studies of GE foods,1 and ingestion of GE food is not the only concern. Inhalation of pollen, flour, and contact with certain GE crops can also cause health problems,1,5 but without adequate labelling and monitoring how can exposure to these foods be traced? Human experience with GE foods is limited and due to the widespread infiltration of GE food it is now almost impossible for scientists to compare the health of people who have and have not been eating it.1,7
There have been no studies that say GE food is safe to eat, and weighty scientific reasons for very careful testing have been ignored.1,7
It’s worth noting the FSANZ is required by law to meet three primary objectives:
- the protection of public health and safety;
- the provision of adequate information relating to food to enable consumers to make informed choices; and
- the prevention of misleading or deceptive conduct.6
If GE can only be successful if it is hidden, unlabelled in our food, consumers should be very suspicious and very concerned.
“Any scientist who tells you they know that GMOs are safe and not to worry about it, is either ignorant of the history of science or is deliberately lying. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be.” – David Suzuki, geneticist.
- Jeffrey M. Smith, Hard to Swallow: The dangers of GE food – an international expose, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2003
- Ho, MW, Traavik, T, Olsvik, R, Tappeser, B, Howard, V, von Weizsacker, C and McGavin, G, ‘Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases’, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, 10, 1998.
- Rob Edwards, ‘GM expert warns of cancer risk from crops’, Sunday Herald, 8 December 2002,www.robedwards.com/2002/12/gm_expert_warns.html#more
- Traavik, T and Heinemann, J, ‘Genetic Engineering and Omitted Health Research: Still No Answers to Ageing Questions’, TWN Biosafety and Biotechnology Series 7, Third World Network, Malaysia, 2007
- Louise Sales, ‘Eating in the Dark’, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, October 2008
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991, Section 10(1).
- Mae-Wan Ho, Ricarda A. Steinbrecher, ‘Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of The Joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology and Food Safety Report’, www.psrast.org/fao96.htm
- Conversation with Prof. Jack A. Heinemann, molecular biologist and director of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI), University of Canterbury, New Zealand, 26 May 2010
- Conversation with Dr. Elvira Dommisse, former GE scientist for Crop & Food Research, Lincoln, New Zealand, 24 May 2010
—— —— ——
How to avoid GE in food
- Buy certified organic food, eat from your own garden, and swap fruit and veges with neighbours. This is the best guarantee against GE in your food.
- Shop at farmers markets. Get to know your growers and producers. www.farmersmarkets.org.nz
- Avoid processed foods, as they often have hidden GE sources (unless they are organic or declared non-GE).
- Download a GE Free Food Guide 2010, www.truefood.org.au/truefoodguide (the Greenpeace GE Free Food Guide is currently being updated).
- Ask companies to supply products from GE free animals.
- If a product you enjoy lists vegetable oil as an ingredient, call the manufacturer and ask them to be specific about ingredients.
- Invest in wholefood supplements such as dried acai or acerola berries, New Zealand seaweed and kelp and cod liver oil.
- Join a community garden.
- Join Out Of Our Own Backyard: www.ooooby.ning.com
- Encourage your children’s school to start an organic garden.
- Join a seed-saving group in your area: www.seedsavers.org.nz.
- Invest in heirloom or heritage seeds: www.koanga.org.nz.
- Join your local Transition Town and find out what your community is doing for sustainable solutions:www.transitiontowns.org.nz.
- Stay informed about GE: www.gefree.org.nz, www.organicnz.org, www.madge.org.au/safefood.php,www.responsibletechnology.org
DVDs to watch
- Food Inc
- The Future of Food
- The World According to Monsanto
Books to read
- Hard to Swallow by Jeffrey M. Smith, 2003
- Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith, 2003
- Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey M. Smith, 2007
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 2007
Warning: may contain GE!
The following ingredients may be made from GE canola, corn, cotton or soy.
Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Hydrolysed vegetable protein
Soy oil / soya bean oil
Sweeteners made from corn
Glycerin / Glycerol / Glycerides / Glycerol monooleate
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
Invert sugar (colorose or inversol)
Soy protein extract
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
Vitamins / supplements
A number of GE enzymes are used in food production. The list below contains some enzyme brand names.
Beers, wines, fruit juices
Pectinex Ultra SP-L
Pancreatic Trypsin Novo (PTN)
Novomyl (to preserve freshness)
GE labelling exemptions
- Bee pollen, eggs, fish, honey, milk, meat and animals fed GE feed.
- Products that contain less that 1% of GE ingredients.
- Takeaway and restaurant foods do not require labelling, and takeaway food may be cooked in GE vegetable oil.
GE ingredients may also be found in baking powder, infant formula, meat substitutes, protein powders and sugar-free chewing gum.
Kyra Xavia is a freelance writer, photographer and qualified nutritionist, naturopath, herbalist, homeopath and aromatherapist. Researching this article motivated her to provide important information about GE food which you can read at www.euphory.com