We have all become the unknowing guinea pigs of an uncontrolled experiment with the food we eat. Today, through biotechnology, scientists are mixing and matching bits of DNA cutting a gene from one kind of organism and splicing it into another species hoping to make an improved plant or animal; corn genes in rice, chicken genes in potatoes, firefly genes in tobacco (yielding a plant that glowed in the dark), human genes in mice, sheep, fish and pigs (producing a pig that was cross eyed, had crippling arthritis a strangely wrinkled face and high blood pressure).
Also human genes are now being used in crops such as canola (rapeseed). Often genetically engineered crops are grown in fields adjacent to conventional crops, increasing the likelihood of cross fertilization. The truth is, no one knows what the long term effects releasing this new genetic material into the food chain, or indeed the environment, will have.There is no benefit to us, the consumers, from this food: it won’t taste any better, it won’t be healthier, and it won’t cost less. The only profits from this kind of experimentation go to the large companies producing these products.
Even more disturbing is that you may never know whether or not you are eating genetically altered food because there is no law forcing manufacturers to tell you. What’s more, since genetically engineered soya and maize now comprise around 2 per cent of all crops, and are not kept separate from the rest of the harvest, many foodstuff producers would not be able to tell you whether or not they are using genetically engineered food in the first place. Basically, unless you are able to buy organic products guaranteed not to have been genetically tampered with you will never know whether what you are eating has been altered or not.
In the UK, tomato paste made from genetically altered produce and foodstuffs containing genetically engineered soya are already being sold on supermarket shelves. The tomato paste is clearly labelled, but products containing genetically engineered soya are not. Genetically engineered maize is currently being used for animal feed.
In America, food producers have taken to genetic engineering with even more enthusiasm and are resisting attempts to keep genetically engineered soya separate from natural soya. No testing and no labelling is currently required for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
What’s more, laws framed to protect multinational corporations from criticism mean that it can be very difficult for individuals and, perhaps more importantly, the media, to publicly question the safety of genetically engineered food, without a scientific basis for doing so. Since no research has been done into the safety of genetically engineered food opponents are in a perpetual catch 22. In at least 11 American states “food slander” is a civil crime.
Genetically modified foods have been implicated in increased resistance to antibiotics and growth of super bugs. In the US the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of genetically engineered growth hormone for injection into milk cows the first genetically engineered food product approved by the FDA. Cows given the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) will produce more milk. However with the increased milk production comes an increase in the rate of mastitis in cows. As a result cows are given more antibiotics which are then passed on to consumers.
Genetically engineered food has also been associated with increased incidence of allergies most recently when a strain of soybean was spliced with the Brazil nut.
In response to pressure, the European Commission has finally agreed a package of proposals on the regulation of genetically engineered food. Nevertheless most foodstuffs will still have no labelling requirement primarily because they will be deemed as being “equivalent” to conventional foodstuffs. Many genetically engineered additives, flavourings and processing aids are also explicitly excluded from labelling. This means that only about 5-10 per cent of processed foodstuffs will be labelled.
Foods with characteristics which raise ethical or safety concerns for certain people will be labelled. For example, if foods normally eaten by vegetarians contain genes of animal origins, or foods contain genes from known allergens such as nuts, then these will be labelled.
Unfortunately for the rest of the population, the commission does not require that suppliers separate genetically engineered and conventional produce.
Since food producers will not know, the most accurate labelling consumers can hope for is something along the lines of: “May contain a genetically engineered organism.” So much for consumer safety and choice.