GM foods – are producers fighting an uphill battle?

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Widely viewed as either a breakthrough in scientific research or a dangerous experiment, genetically modified foods are not exactly shy of media attention.

Unapproved genetically modified wheat from GM giant Monsanto was recently detected in a field in Oregon. The discovery resulted in both Japan and South Korea suspending wheat imports from the US, and further fuelled the debate surrounding the safety of GM seeds.

Executive director of the US Centre for Food Safety, Andrew Kimbrell said Monsanto has placed the US wheat industry at grave risk and that it must be held responsible.

Over 90 percent of corn and soybean crops in the US are genetically modified. New labelling laws which will require the mandatory labelling of foods that contain GM ingredients, are seeing food manufacturers across the country struggle to source conventional ingredients to replace GM varieties in fear that sales will dwindle once food is properly labelled.

But what does this mean for Australian food manufacturers and producers? What GM crops are grown in Australia? What are the laws surrounding GM labelling? And are genetically altered seeds as dangerous as protesters make them out to be?

If GM foods are perfectly safe, like GM giant Monsanto says, then why would the US industry be so opposed to mandatory labelling?

GM seeds, what are they all about?

GM seeds have had specific changes introduced into their DNA which resist the effects of pests and bacteria that can cause damage or ultimately kill a crop. There is a general consensus from many scientists that GM crops are safe and pose no greater threat to human health than conventional varieties.

By manipulating the genetic make-up of foods, scientists are able to select the most desirable characteristics of a plant, (ie, pest resistance or high yield) for breeding the next generation.

GM foods boast a host of benefits: they’re hardy, inexpensive and a practical solution to feeding the world’s ever growing population. 

Research is also in the works to create drought-tolerant plants that require less water to grow, making them ideal for changing climatic conditions and well suited to a number of Australia’s drought prone regions.

Despite these positive attributes, many members of the public and scientific community are actively questioning the validity of studies into the safety of genetically modified foods.

Bad press

Numerous studies have claimed that GM crops and associated herbicides can lead to anything from cancer to Parkinson’s and other serious ailments in both humans and animals.

A recent study conducted by Australian and US researchers found that pigs that were fed a diet of genetically modified grain showed significantly higher rates (20 percent) of stomach inflammation than pigs who were fed conventional feed. The study, which was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, was conducted over 22.7 weeks using 168 newly weaned pigs in a commercial piggery located in the US.

Earlier this year, a peer reviewed report published in the Scientific Journal of Entropy concluded that residues of glyphosate -a key ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup – has been found in food. Roundup is designed for use on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM crops which have been engineered to withstand the herbicide.

Evidence in the report suggests that glyphosate and indeed Roundup, could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers.

In addition, over two million people participated in a worldwide protest against GM giant Monsanto in late May highlighting the alleged dangers of GM foods and the environmental damage caused by their production.

Mandatory labelling in the states

So far in the US states of Connecticut, Vermont and Maine, at least one chamber of the state legislature has given the go-ahead for bills that will require the mandatory labelling of foods that contain GM ingredients, with similar legislation pending in over 24 other states, as reported by the New York Times.

US retail giant Whole Foods Market, has also added pressure by refusing to sell any GM produce or processed foods in any of their stores by 2018, unless they’re labelled accordingly.

A pressing concern for many businesses is the process involved in switching from GM to non-GM certified produce. The cost for conventional, non-GM ingredients is far higher than that of genetically modified crops and produce in the US.

Approximately 90 percent of US corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets are genetically modified and farmers that are willing to make the switch to non-GM will need to sacrifice a lot of time before they’re able to harvest, as the soil may not be immediately suitable for non-GMO certification.

 “There’s a transition period required,” said Richard Kamolvathin, senior vice president at Verity Farms, which sells  meats, grains and other products derived from conventional crops, as well as natural soil amendments.

“You don’t just stop growing GMO seed and then start growing non-GMO seed,” he said.

Taste and consistency of product is another factor that needs to be considered when making the switch, as the product will need to be tried and tested to capture the same flavours and mouth feel as the original GM ingredients.

GM foods in Australia

According to the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand website (FSANZ), all genetically modified foods intended for sale in Australia and NZ must undergo a comprehensive safety evaluation and will not be approved for sale unless they are deemed safe for consumption.

Foods in Australia must be labelled if they contain GM ingredients, however if a GM ingredient is highly refined, (ie cooking oils and sugar) they do not have to be labelled.

The decision to not label highly refined products is based on the notion that processing removes DNA and protein from the food, resulting in GM foods holding the same composition as non-GM varieties.

Currently, Australia does not permit the sale of GM fresh foods including fruit and vegetables. 

GM crops grown in Australia include: 

  • Canola – used in margarine spreads, dairy blends, tinned food and snack foods
  • Cotton – used to create cotton seed oil which is widely used in cooking as well as cottonseed meal which can be used as stockfeed
  • The CSIRO was trialling GM wheat in the ACT and received warnings from a number of scientists stating that the modified crops could pose a significant health risk to humans and other animals

GM foods imported into Australia:

  • GM soybean products (including soy lecithin, additive 322) – used widely in processed foods including confectionery, breads, potato chips and spreads as well as in stockfeed for pigs and poultry and supplements in dairy cattle
  • GM corn products – cattle feed, corn oil, cornflour and corn syrup used extensively throughout processed foods and may also be used as a snack food
  • GM potatoes – fresh potatoes cannot be sold in Australia, however GM potatoes can be used in processed products
  • GM sugar beet – used as sugar in a variety of imported processed foods

So where do we go from here?

There is no doubt that many consumers and members of the scientific community have concerns over the commercialisation of genetically modified foods. As the debate continues to gain momentum, food processors that choose to avoid GM ingredients will hold a powerful marketing edge over their GM competitors.

While highly refined GM ingredients do not legally have to be labelled here, the terms ‘GM free’ and ‘Non-GM’ make it clear to consumers which food processors choose to use conventionally grown ingredients, while raising questions about those that don’t.