Genetically modified (GM) foods are already in our food supply. They are most likely in your pantry and are being consumed by many people. Most products are not labelled as being genetically modified or containing GM ingredients for reasons I will go through shortly. The regulators who monitor GM crops and the import of GM ingredients, deem these foods and crops to be ‘safe’, however we do not know what the long term effects are. It is your choice whether you consume GM foods through the choice of food you buy. This blog here is just to promote awareness on our food supply and those made with GM ingredients, so that you can make a conscious decision about what you put in your body.
GM crops arose as a ‘solution’ to the world’s agricultural problems, but we really have enough food to feed the world…it is just unevenly distributed and there is also so much food wastage in the world. There are many issues with GM crops – with the farmers, us consuming them, the effects on the environment, and with these major corporations playing god and interfering with our food supply and mother nature.
So let us firstly look at what GM actually means….
What is a Genetically Modified (GM) food?
A GM food is one that is made from a GMO or includes ingredients that are GM, e.g. soybeans, canola oil.
GM ingredients are commonly found in processed foods but are often highly refined so don’t need to be labelled (more on that soon).
What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?
According to the Gene Technology Act 2000 (Ref 1), it states that a GMO is:
1. An organism that has been modified by gene technology; or
2. An organism that has inherited traits from an organism, where the traits occurred in the initial organism because of gene technology.
Therefore, a GMO is one that has had its genetic code deliberately changed, where particular characteristics are identified and the genes are transferred from one species to produce a benefit for the producer or the consumer, e. herbicide tolerance, higher crop yields, improved nutritional value, pest resistance (Ref 1,3,5,7).
Which crops in Australia are GM?
In AU, there are three GM crops grown: cotton, canola and safflower. GM carnations have also been approved for growing or importing into Australia. Other crops are undergoing field trials, including GM banana, barley, rye grass, mustard, sugarcane and wheat (Ref 7).
Some GM crops have also been approved for stock feed to be fed to livestock. This includes canola, cotton and safflower (Ref 2). Some GM grains (canola, maize/corn and soy) are occasionally imported into Australia for use as stockfeed but are not licenced to be grown and so must be treated to prevent germination by the importer before being distributed to farmers and fed to livestock (Ref 2).
An interesting point to notes is that animals that are fed with GM feed are not themselves considered to be genetically modified. Therefore, the food products (e.g. meat, milk, eggs) derived from an animal which has been fed GM feed are not regarded as GM foods and are not required to be labelled (Ref 4). However, we need to remember that we are what we eats eats.
All GM seed imports must be approved by the Dept. of Ag. Some GM grains are also imported into Australia for processing into food for human consumption, e.g. maize to make starch, syrup and flour, and canola to make oil. These uses are regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) (Ref 2).
What assessments are done to show the safety of GM crops?
For each GM crop, the risks are assessed by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and are only approved for field trials when the Regulator is satisfied that the trial was able to be managed in a way that protects people and the environment (Ref 2).
While only canola, cotton, safflower and carnations are approved for commercial release in Australia, there are approximately 80 different types of GM crops grown worldwide. Most of these GM crops are canola, soybean, maize and cotton. Other GM commercially released crops include papaya, potato, squash and tomato. Australia has strict import conditions for GM crops including what can be imported and the strain of GM crop (Ref 2).
What assessment are done to show the safety of GM foods?
Australian and imported GM foods are assessed for their safety and labelling requirements by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) under the Food Standards Code (Ref 6). Assessments are conducted on a case-by-case basis. FSANZ look at risks that arise as a result of the altered genes, risks that come with the intended or unintended use of the product, and if any conditions of use are needed to enable the safe use of the food. It must be shown to be as safe and nutritious as its conventional counterpart (Ref 6).
AU currently allows the following foods produced using gene technology: canola, corn, cotton, Lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugarbeet. There are specific GM lines that are permitted and all imported products must conform to the regulations (Ref 7).
How are GM foods and ingredients labeled on food products?
GM foods and ingredients (including food additives and processing aids) that contain novel DNA or novel protein must be labelled with the words ‘genetically modified’. GM labelling is not about safety. It is about helping consumers make an informed choice about the food they buy (Ref 4).
Therefore, if an ingredient has been GM, the statement ‘genetically modified’ would be found on the label either next to the name of the food (e.g. ‘genetically modified soy beans’), or in association with the specific GM ingredient in the ingredient list (e.g. ‘soy flour (genetically modified)’). If the food is unpackaged, then the information must accompany or be displayed with the food
Many processed foods, including imported foods, contain GM ingredients but these do not need to be labelled as such. According to the AU Food Standards Code, the requirement to label a food as genetically modified (i.e. consists of, or has an ingredient, food that is a genetically modified food) unless:
The GM food has been highly refined where there is no novel DNA or novel protein.
The GM food is a substance used as a processing aid or food additive.
No novel DNA or novel protein from the substance remains present in the food.
The GM food is a flavouring substance that is present in the food in a concentration of no more than 1g/kg of food.
The GM food is unintentionally present in the food.
The GM food is present in an amount of no more than 10g/kg of each ingredient.
The GM food is intended for immediate consumption and is prepared and sold from food premises (restaurants, take away shops, caterers) and vending machines.
The decision not to label these foods was made because the composition and characteristics of these foods is apparently exactly the same as the non-GM food. These foods are typically highly refined foods, such as sugars and oils, where processing has removed the DNA and protein from the food, including novel DNA and novel protein (Ref 4).
Some labs are able to test for the presence of novel DNA in GM foods and this will determine if products need to be labelled as GM. However, when novel DNA is not detected, the foods do not need to be labelled. People buy these products not knowing they contain GM ingredients (even if they are highly refined). We do not know what effects these foods will have on people. We only have to wait and see.
Some food manufacturer’s claim ‘GM free’ or ‘Non-GMO’. These claims are voluntary and are subject to relevant fair trading laws in AU and NZ which prohibits representations about food that are, or likely to be, false, misleading or deceptive (Ref 4). There are no lists of GM foods, however, most imported and processed foods contain GM ingredients.
What are the issues and impact of using GM seeds to farmers and to the land?
GM seeds puts farmers into financially vulnerable situations, especially in developing countries (Ref 6). Under normal conditions, farmers would save seeds for crop regeneration. However, Monsanto prohibits farmers from doing this. In India, there was over 300,000 farmer suicides over the past two decades with suspected links to the cottonseed seed’s commercialisation by Monsanto (Ref 10).Monsanto had control over the farmers as they removed their alternative incomes, increased production costs, and farmers had fear over crop failure (Ref 10).
It is also crazy to have a number of major companies having control over our food supply (the major Biotech companies are Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Monsanto, Bayer, ChemChina, Syngenta). It is just asking for trouble as whoever has control over our food supply has control over us.
There is also the issue of how the GM seeds affect the land, what the crops are sprayed with as GM crops are still sprayed, as well as drift that can occur from GM crops to conventional and organic crops.
What are some of the health concerns associated with GM foods?
Allergic reactions that may occur when the genes of one allergic food is transferred to another food. For example, in 1996, when an allergenic Brazil nut gene was transferred into a soybean, the allergenicity from the Brazil nuts was transferred too. It wasn't approved for market and, since then, no allergenic proteins are not allowed to be transferred into a GMO (Ref 6).
Where genes from GM plants can unintentionally escape into other crops including organic crops (Ref 6).
Due to the resistance of GM crops, new pathogens, super bugs and diseases could emerge (Ref 6).
Gene transfer of antibiotic resistance due to antibiotic resistant genes used as markers when creating GMO’s (Ref 5, 6). However, not all GM foods contain antibiotic resistant genes. They can be removed or alternative marker genes are used (e.g. herbicide tolerance).
Possible higher chemical residues due to the types of herbicides used (Ref 5).
What are the long term effects of consuming GM foods?
There is pre-market safety assessments done on GM crops to ensure that the GM food is comparable to its conventional counterpart in terms of health risks and benefits. Because of this, it is assumed that any long term effects from the consumption of GM foods would be low. There has been no post market monitoring to assess the long term human health impact of consuming GM foods (Ref 5). It is also difficult to specifically link GM foods to certain illnesses and diseases as often these can be cause by numerous impacts, and could be a response from a number of reasons on the body (Ref 5).
There are currently no official mechanisms within Australia and New Zealand for monitoring the long-term impacts of GM foods. In Australia and New Zealand, as in most other countries, the responsibility for post-market monitoring is covered by an ongoing duty of care on the part of the developer. The developer is expected to monitor for existing and emerging risks that may be associated with its product and notify regulatory authorities whenever new information is uncovered. (Ref 5). This has a huge implication, as the developer is responsible for ensuring the product is safe but how are we to know what studies have been done to ensure this? How do we know what the long term effects are? In these cases, it is us who are the guinea pigs.
FSANZ has stated: ‘To date, gene technology has not been shown to introduce any new or altered hazards into the food supply, therefore the potential for long term risks associated with GM foods is considered to be no different to that for conventional foods already in the food supply. As a consequence, FSANZ does not consider that long term studies are generally needed to ensure the safety of GM foods’ (Ref 5).
Hmmmmm…..am I the only one who has an issue with this?
What about seedless fruits I can hear you ask? Are they also GM?
The answer is no. Seedless watermelons are hybrids which are made by crossing plants together – a diploid plant (has 2 sets of chromosomes) with a tetraploid plant (has 4 sets of chromosomes) which results in a fruit producing a triploid seed (3 sets of chromosomes) which results in the production of seedless watermelons. Here there is no selection of particular genes as with GM products. Seedless watermelons still need to be pollinated (Ref 8). This is different to GM crops.
So what are the best ways to avoid eating GM foods?
Surveys conducted have shown that most people want to know if their foods contain GM ingredients. People should be able to make the choice if they want to eat GM foods or not, and everything should be clearly labelled. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Therefore, the best ways to avoid eating GM foods and foods containing GM ingredients is to:
Eat whole organic foods. Organic foods prohibit the use of GM ingredients. However, organic products are not always tested for the presence of GMO’s, it is nearly impossible to be totally confident that no GMO’s are present (Ref 6). However, buying products that are certified organic is the safest way when seeking non-GMO foods.
Avoid GM ingredients such as wheat, corn, soy, potatoes, canola.
Avoid processed foods which most likely contain GM ingredients.
Check ingredient lists and see if they contain any of the GM crops listed above.
For me, playing around with genes means we don’t really know what the effects will be over time. We are playing around with Mother Nature. GM foods are not natural. Their genetic material has been changed and we do not know what the effects will be in years to come.
What are your thoughts on GM crops? Do you have any issues or worries over eating GM foods? Do you actively avoid GM foods? Let me know your comments below.
1. Record of GMO Dealings. Australian Government. Department of Health. Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. 2017. http://www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/Content/gmorec-index-1
2. Genetically modified (GM) crops in Australia. Australian Government Department of Health – Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. 2018. http://www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/content/9AA09BB4515EBAA2CA257D6B00155C53/$File/11%20-%20Genetically%20modified%20(GM)%20crops%20in%20Australia.pdf
3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. General Information about GM Foods. 2016.
4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Genetically modified (GM) food labelling. 2016.
5. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Safety Assessment of GM foods. 2016.
6. Potter, A. 2016. Are you eating genetically modified food? https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/food-warnings-and-safety/food-safety/articles/are-you-eating-gm-food
7. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Schedule 26 Food produced using gene technology. 2018.
8. American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. Where does seedless watermelon come from? 2017. https://www.agfoundation.org/news/where-does-seedless-watermelon-come-from.
9. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Standard 1.5.2 Food produced using gene technology. 2018.
10. Thoman, G. & Tavernier, J.D. (2017). Farmer-suicide in India: debating the role of biotechnology. Life Sci Soc Policy, 2017 Dec: 13: 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5427059/