‘Genetic modification’: two confusing and controversial words. Should we be concerned about eating GM foods? Dietitian Lisa Yates investigates.
Imagine you’re a tomato farmer, shopping for seeds. Would you choose?seeds that?grow into plants bearing?fragile, easily-bruised tomatoes, or?seeds for hardier plants, which?produce fruit that are easier to?harvest and transport? Most of us would choose the latter.
Breeding plants or animals with desirable characteristics is a technique farmers have used for generations. Over time, this process modifies the genetic code of the plant or animal,?producing foods such as leaner meats and thicker-skinned tomatoes. So we could say that ‘genetic modification’ (GM) has been a part of farming for centuries.?
GM technologies of today
Today’s techniques for GM generally occur in the lab, rather than solely on the farm, which means that scientists can alter the specific genes of plants or animals, instead of using the trial-and-error process of selective breeding.
Animals and plants that have had their genetic structure altered in some way are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Foods derived from GMOs are known as GM foods.
Additionally, some foods containing GM ingredients, food additives or processing aids may also be called GM foods.
What are the benefits?
GM technology may provide solutions to some of our health and food supply problems:
‘Super’ foods – foods can be developed with enhanced vitamin, mineral and antioxidant levels or reduced saturated fats or allergens. For instance, GM ‘Golden rice’ has been developed with a higher beta-carotene content to help prevent blindness in developing countries (although it’s yet to go into commercial production). Currently, the only approved GM food in Australia with a modified nutrient is GM soybeans, with higher levels of oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fat.
Coping with climate change – if the environment continues to change, plants could be made resistant to pests, diseases, temperature changes and drought conditions.
Preventing food shortages – experts believe the world population will top 9 billion by 2050, so crops and plants that yield greater quantities, while reducing other farming costs, will be advantageous.
What are the criticisms?
Many of the concerns we have surrounding GM foods have already been addressed by the Australian government and other food safety authorities. But controversy still lingers around some issues:
Producing ‘super’ bugs resistant to GM crops – to prevent this, farmers are given ‘best practice’ guidelines about the use of pesticides. Planting non-GM plants around GM crops can also help, as non-GM plants ensure insects can breed, reducing the risk of the insects evolving to become resistant to GM crops.
Producing herbicide-resistant weeds – again, ‘best practice’ guidelines address the best use of weed killers to prevent cross-breeding of GM crops with surrounding plants.
Natural biodiversity being affected where GM crops are grown – this assumes that all plant variations are sexually compatible, which is not the case. Native cotton plants for example, are not compatible with GM cottons, so they can’t cross-breed.
New allergens developed or old allergens accidentally inserted into non-allergenic foods – Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) assesses GM foods for allergens, and if it finds any evidence of them, then that GM product is not approved for sale.
Few long-term studies of the effects on human health – this can actually be said about many conventional food products. So far, GM foods have been consumed in the US for 20 years, with no known side effects.
Higher prices in the supermarket – some people are concerned that GM foods could be more expensive, due to technology, research and safety assessments costs. But similar to conventional products, it’s unlikely that we would purchase these foods if prices were too high.
Which GM foods have been approved for use in Australia?
FSANZ have been approving the sale of GM foods since 1997 – with 40 approved to date. These foods and plants include: soybeans, canola, corn, rice, potatoes, sugar beet and cottonseed. The genetic modification generally involves tolerance to herbicides and naturally produced pesticides, but of these, only GM cottonseed and canola are grown in Australia.
FSANZ employs strict safety assessments to ensure GM foods are safe to consume, and only those approved are available for sale. To date, all GM foods assessed by FSANZ have similar nutritional values and properties to their conventional counterparts. So far, no GM animals have been approved for consumption in Australia, but farm animals can be given GM stock feed, and this must be approved as fit for human consumption before it can be given to animals.
What should I look for on the label?
All foods, food ingredients, additives or processing aids that contain modified DNA or protein from an approved GM food must include the words ‘genetically modified’ in the ingredients list. This allows consumers to choose whether or not they want to purchase GM foods. However, there are a few labelling exemptions:
Highly refined foods that no longer contain DNA or protein from the original approved GM food.
Foods where GM ingredients are present accidentally (although, once found, labels must be rectified) and where it is less than 1 per cent of the final product.
Foods produced for immediate consumption, e.g. takeaways.
On the flipside, ‘GM-free’ or ‘non-GM’ claims are allowed on conventional foods, as long as they are not false nor misleading. Organic foods are expected to be GM-free.
The safety assessments conducted by several government departments, including FSANZ, indicate that approved GM foods in Australia are as safe as their conventional counterparts. But genetic modification is a hotly debated, highly controversial issue, and if you still have reservations about using GM foods, there are labelling laws in place to ensure you don’t consume them. Look for the words ‘genetically modified’ in the ingredient lists on food packages, and choose organic products or foods labelled ‘GM free’.