Are Our Food Imports Safe?
Many alarming agricultural issues, including the now infamous Mad Cow disease, have made vegetarianism look increasingly attractive. But, consumers beware - even plants are under suspicion these days.
There is growing concern, especially in Europe, that certain foods that are being exported from the USA may be unsafe. Genetically modified (GM) plants are at the centre of this controversy. Genes determine the specific characteristics, which can be inherited, of any living organism and these plants have had that genetic material modified, or ‘engineered’. Since the 1970s techniques have been developed which allow transfer of a gene from one organism to another or the modification of the genetic code within an organism. Over the last few years this technique has moved beyond the research stage. Genetically modified crops are now being commercially produced and there are many more in the pipeline. Soybeans and corn, for instance, have been given genes that make them resistant to the herbicide ‘Glyphosate’ and tomatoes have had their genes modified to give them a longer shelf life.
Genetically engineered soybeans have passed safety standards in USA, Canada and Japan, but consumer organisations in many other countries are sceptical of these tests and are boycotting genetically modified foods. European governments are, so far, resisting banning these foods but they are facing strong lobbies calling for a moratorium on the production and sale of genetically modified foods to allow time for further independent testing and to assess long term effects on humans and on the environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct those tests and trials because so many concerned people are willing to risk jail sentences in their determined attempts to destroy these crops whenever they are planted. Supermarkets that can guarantee that their goods are not genetically modified are winning customers and the GM food-producing biotechnology giants are not getting the sales they had expected
Meanwhile, the USA is still exporting genetically modified foods that include tomato paste, vegetarian cheese, corn and soybeans. Considering the fact that Trinidad and Tobago imports over 75,000 metric tonnes of soybeans annually as well as processed foods that contain soybean or its derivatives, it seems likely that we will be exposed to these foods very soon -- if it is not happening already.
If respected agencies such as the USA Department of Agriculture tell us these foods are safe, why worry? It appears that opponents of this technology do have legitimate fears about many aspects of this issue. In the first place, genetic engineering is not a precise science. Altering one gene may give you more than you bargained for, because other genes, and other characteristics, may be affected or there may be side effects that are not immediately obvious.
Side effects, such as the production of toxic contaminants or allergic reactions, have already caused some genetically modified foods to be removed from the market or prevented their commercialisation entirely. There are also concerns that wildlife eating genetically modified crops could be affected by them, with far-reaching effects on many delicate food chains. This view gained considerable support when a British TV programme reported that a diet of genetically modified potatoes had affected test rats by stunting their growth and damaging their immune systems. Subsequent information coming from the research institute involved, stating that the results of two experiments had been regrettably ‘confused’ and that the scientist who made the report had been dismissed, did nothing to boost public confidence: thousands of British consumers saw that as an attempt to cover-up dangerous information.
When GM crops are produced in the field several risks exist -- even for those crops passed as safe food for consumers. An obvious danger, for instance, in the case of herbicide-resistant crops, is that producers may increase their use of herbicides, which will now be applied directly onto the crop, making the corn or soya toxic. The excessive use of chemicals will certainly increase run-off pollution into waterways and the chemical may remain in the soil to be taken up by other plants, reducing valuable biodiversity.
A genetically modified organism could mutate in unpredictable ways and genetically modified plants can cross-breed with nearby non-modified relatives, leading to randomly altered species. We cannot know where that could lead, but one possible scenario is that we could inadvertently create populations of unmanageable, herbicide-resistant weeds. Various suggestions are being made to counter this concern. ‘Buffer’ zones around fields of genetically modified crops have been suggested, but the results from trials on oilseed rape, indicate that the buffer zones may have to be as much as two miles wide. Techniques that ensure either that the crop cannot propagate or that its seeds cannot germinate may have to be built in to genetic engineering programmes, but this would be a disadvantage for farmers who save crop seeds for future planting.
In fact, GM food has not yet been convincingly shown to be higher yielding or better quality or even to command a premium price. It may be interesting to researchers but it appears to have no great advantages to farmers or consumers so why are we taking these risks? Are commercial motives overriding good sense? Apart from practical concerns, major ethical questions arise with these developments -- similar to those posed by cloning -- relating to how far we should go in altering nature’s plan. Supporters of these techniques argue that the possibilities of using genetic engineering to beneficial ends outweigh the risks. For example, it is argued that genetic modification could be used to increase agricultural yields to feed the world’s growing population, although the counter argument here is that we can produce enough food to feed the world but it is the distribution, not production, that is the real challenge. In human medicine genetic modification may certainly offer the means of correcting defective genes and may eventually eradicate major diseases. On the other hand, should we be pursuing a potentially useful technique that could very well open the door to genetic accidents or even abuse of that technology?
In Trinidad and Tobago our immediate concern must be whether we are importing any of these foods without being aware that they are genetically modified. Preliminary enquiries indicate that it is difficult to distinguish genetically modified foods from non-modified food because, apparently, no legislation exists to ensure that these foods are identifiable and adequately labelled. Appropriate legislation should be addressed urgently. Trinidad and Tobago consumers must, at the very least, have the choice of whether to use or to reject genetically engineered foods. There is a very real danger that these foods may be dumped on an unsuspecting public if we are not adequately prepared. - Dr. Pamela Collins, ET Member - 21st May 2001