To appreciate the health concerns that many scientists have about GM foods, it helps to understand the basics of the GM process. Therefore, let us first summarise this. (More detail can be found on the GM science page).
Plant cells contain thousands of genes. Genes interact together like a tightly knit team, each gene influencing the expression of many other genes on the DNA strand. Not only do genes influence each other, but the wider ecology also influences the functioning of genes. The system is remarkable! The total number of interactions between all these genes, and between the genes and the environment is phenomenal. Scientific knowledge is not able to capture all these complex interactions. Only a few bits of the whole are appreciated by present day scientific knowledge.
The genetic modification of foods involves the transfer of a gene usually from another organism into the food, in order to give that food a new characteristic (e.g. herbicide resistance; or the ability to resist an insect etc.). Since genes interact together, the insertion of this new gene can disrupt the normal functioning of other genes. Additionally, for current commercialised crops the position of the new gene is not properly controlled and it ends up in a random position on rhe DNA strand.
The disruption of neighbouring genes can lead to unpredictable effects, which may be outside of the normal framework for that particular plant. The two unpredictable effects from GM food that present most direct risk for humans are the production of new toxins and new allergens.
Yet, regulatory frameworks around the world which are meant to assess the safety of GM crops have major flaws, opening the door for the public to become guniea pigs in an uncontrolled experiment for which we have not given our consent.
Existing Legislation: A Flawed Approach
Regulatory agencies responsible for food safety have a flawed approach to assessing the safety of GM foods.
“The basic framework for assessing the safety of GM food is thus flawed, firstly on the basis that the scope is too narrow, and secondly because what is assessed is largely done by the companies themselves.”
In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration has a relatively casual approach, with premarket testing being voluntary and too limited.
In Europe, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) does require some testing, but rodent feeding trials are only done over the medium term (90 days) and are not compulsory.
Also, both EFSA and FDA rely on studies conducted or commissioned by the companies that produce and profit from GM foods! (See GMO Myths and Truths p.23-26, and p.42 )
The basic framework for assessing the safety of GM food is thus flawed, firstly on the basis that the scope is too narrow, and secondly because what is assessed is largely done by the companies themselves. The degree to which the companies control the research and how this power has been misused has been outlined here: GMO Myths and Truths p. 29-34.
“Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption”… including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. They conclude, “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects.” “The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies.”
It further calls on:
“…Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks.”
A Wider Perspective of the Research Landscape
Two independent animal studies are worth exploring here as they can enlighten us further about the landscape of GM research:
In 1998 Dr Arpad Pusztai, an eminent scientist, conducted a study published in the Lancet. The study suggested increased damage to the gut of rats fed potatoes genetically modified to produce a lectin, compared to rats that were fed either: a) non-GM potatoes or b) non-GM potatoes supplemented with the lectin without being genetically modified.
This led Puztai’s team to conclude that the GM process itself was responsible for the damage. His reseacrh indicated that the GM process can cause effects beyond the production of the substance coded for by the new gene, and that these effects could have serious health implications. Curiously, when Pusztai first announced his results, he was gagged. He was also accused of being confused. It later became public knowledge that he was not.
A French study, published in 2011 by Food and Chemical Toxicology, which was the first long term peer reviewed, feeding trial done on a GM food (as well as on Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide), showed that the usual 90 day feeding trials for testing GM foods are inadequate. In the paper, which had the effect of a bombshell on the GM industry, harmful effects such as large detectable tumours in rats, tended to take more than 100 days to arise. This means they would escape detection through the shorter 90 days trials (required by the European Food Safety Authorities).
Whilst there are a few inconsistencies in the results, the study is a landmark one in that it highlights that current regulatory system is inadequate, and although not mentioned in the study, it is implicit that due to the increased time and resources necessary to detect potentially harmful effects, the necessary framework for assessing the safety of GM foods has financial cost implications.
A fundamental question that arises is this one:
Does research on GM crops show sufficient cost-benefit outcomes that we can sincerely argue for continuing to finance them at the expense of other approaches, or should we instead favour far more promising approaches that carry far less risk?
(See GM hunger page: Yields and Landmark Study.)
“What kind of food production do we want, one that works for people and the wider ecology, or one that puts corporate profit first?”
A followup question is this.
What kind of food production do we want, one that works for people and the wider ecology, or one that puts corporate profit first?
Beyond the Material: The Spiritual Dimension
On the one hand, we can consider food as something physical. While this is useful, we may also accept that what we eat has a spiritual dimension. We might appreciate that food is more than the sum value of its combined material, or nutritional products.
In this light, food prodcued and cooked with love and humility, with respect for the interconnectedness and oneness of creation, will naturally provide us with more of an essential spiritual nourishment. A diet of food, grown in a way which undermines wholeness will surely starve us of it, a mistake that would be detrimental to our spiritual well-being and our ability to be God-conscious, a foundation for good health.