Surveys show that most Americans want GM food products to be labeled as such, but so far the food industry is getting it’s way—a way that critics say leaves consumers in the dark. Earlier this year rice modified to contain human proteins gained approval for large-scale planting, and is taking root in Kansas despite the controversy. The announcement created quite a stir when it hit the media.
When it was given preliminary approval in March, the USDA opened the proposal up for public comment. Of the more than 20,000 comments they received, only 29 were positive. The USDA approved it anyway. It’s safe to say that most people don’t like the idea of GM foods, but are their concerns based on fact or fiction?
The truth is that at this point, no one really knows for certain what kind of risks bioengineered food could potentially pose for humans and the environment. Food manufacturers and biotech companies say they’re safe and don’t want to have to label foods as GM due to a public perception that they say is misinformed. However, the FDA does not require genetically engineered foods to be safety tested like they do for new drugs and food additives before they are sold to the public for consumption.
Currently all member nations of the European Union, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand among other countries require the mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. The result is that majority of food manufacturers in those countries completely avoid GM ingredients.
In the US and Canada, however, it is estimated that over 70 percent of the foods in grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada contain genetically engineered ingredients mostly in the form of corn and soy products. Most Americans, even those who shop at “health food” stores, end up consuming GM foods without ever realizing it.
In 2006 the USDA received 14 requests for outdoor plantings of GM crops expressing pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds. Of those fourteen, ten have been granted, three are pending and one was withdrawn. Some of these resulted in plantings in 2006, while others were planted this year confirmed USDA public affairs specialist Rachel Iadicicco.
Lisa Archer, grassroots coordinator for the Safer Foods-Safer Farms campaign says that although the government doesn’t regulate GM foods, some individual companies are beginning to do on their own.
"There are quite a few companies out there that have made this transition. Frito-Lay, for example, is sourcing non-GM ingredients, Gerber baby food is also sourcing non-GM ingredients, [and] there are many others," Archer says.But companies that use GM food ingredients still far outweigh those that avoid it. In December 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also deemed meat and milk from cloned animals and their offspring to be safe to eat. Industrial factory farmers are expected to be able to sell steak or milk from cloned animals or their offspring with no labeling required by the end of the year.
"Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats," the FDA risk assessment concludes.
"We have looked very, very closely. There's just not anything there that is conceivably hazardous to the public health," said Stephen F. Sundlof, the FDA's chief of veterinary medicine.Critics are quick to point out that scrutinizing “available data” may not cut it, since there is no history of humans eating cloned animals, or drinking milk from cloned animals, to draw upon.
Opponents of food from clones are also quick to note that the animals do harbor subtle molecular differences in their DNA as a result of having been produced from a single parent.But whether or not GM or cloned foods pose any health risks, some question the economic sense of using cloning to make super-productive dairy cows, for example, in the first place. Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America points out that U.S. farmers already produce more milk than Americans can drink, and the government must buy the surplus.
"Since 1999, dairy support programs have cost taxpayers over $5 billion," she notes.Other recent studies have concluded that organic food crops can out-produce conventionally grown crops and are a viable option for feeding the world’s population. The real question may not be if bio-engineered foods are safe or not, but whether they are even needed in the first place.
Posted by Rebecca Sato