GMO Myths & Truths

by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan

Myth: GM foods are strictly regulated for safety.

Truth: GM food regulation in most countries varies from non-existent to weak.

“Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” – Philip Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications (the FDA is the US government’s Food and Drug Administration, responsible for food safety).

“Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety.” – US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

“It is not foreseen that EFSA carry out such [safety] studies as the onus is on the [GM industry] applicant to demonstrate the safety of the GM product in question.” – European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

Industry and some government sources claim that GM foods are strictly regulated. But GM food regulatory systems worldwide vary from voluntary industry self-regulation (in the US) to weak (in Europe). None are adequate to protect consumers’ health.

The sham of substantial equivalence

“The concept of substantial equivalence has never been properly defined; the degree of difference between a natural food and its GM alternative before its ‘substance’ ceases to be acceptably ‘equivalent’ is not defined anywhere, nor has an exact definition been agreed by legislators. It is exactly this vagueness that makes the concept useful to industry but unacceptable to the consumer… “Substantial equivalence is a pseudo-scientific concept because it is a commercial and political judgment masquerading as if it were scientific. It is, moreover, inherently anti-scientific because it was created primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests.” – Millstone E, Brunner E, Mayer S. Beyond “substantial equivalence”. Nature. 1999; 401(6753): 525–526.

The US FDA’s approach to assessing the safety of GM crops and foods is based on the concept of substantial equivalence, which was first put forward by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a body dedicated not to protecting public health but to facilitating international trade.

Substantial equivalence assumes that if a GMO contains similar amounts of a few basic components such as protein, fat, and carbohydrate as its non-GM counterpart, then the GMO is substantially equivalent to the non-GMO and no compulsory safety testing is required. Claims of substantial equivalence for GM foods are widely criticized as unscientific by Independent researchers.

A useful analogy is that of a BSE-infected cow and a healthy cow. They are substantially equivalent to one another, in that their chemical composition is the same. The only difference is in the shape of a minor component of a protein (prion), a difference that would not be picked up by a substantial equivalence assessment. Yet few would claim that eating a BSE-infected cow is as safe as eating a healthy cow.

When claims of substantial equivalence have been independently tested, they have been found to be untrue. Using the latest molecular analytical methods, GM crops have been shown to have a different composition to their non-GM counterparts. This is true even when the two crops are grown under the same conditions, at the same time and in the same location – meaning that the changes are not due to different environmental factors but to the genetic modification.

Examples include:

• GM soy had 12-14% lower amounts of cancer-fighting isoflavones than non-GM soy.

• Canola (oilseed rape) engineered to contain vitamin A in its oil had much reduced vitamin E and an altered oil-fat composition, compared with non-GM canola.

• Experimental GM rice varieties had unintended major nutritional disturbances compared with non-GM counterparts, although they were grown side-by-side in the same conditions. The structure and texture of the GM rice grain was affected and its nutritional content and value were dramatically altered. The authors said that their findings “provided alarming information with regard to the nutritional value of transgenic rice” and showed that the GM rice was not substantially equivalent to non-GM.

• GM insecticidal rice was found to contain higher levels of certain components (notably sucrose, mannitol and glutamic acid) than the non-GM counterpart. These differences were shown to have resulted from the genetic manipulation rather than environmental factors.

• Commercialised MON810 GM maize had a markedly different profile in the types of proteins it contained compared with the non-GM counterpart when grown under the same conditions.

GM crops also have different effects from their non-GM counterparts when fed to animals.

US government is not impartial regarding GM crops

The US government is not an impartial authority on GM crops. In fact, it has a policy of actively promoting them. Through its embassies and agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US government pressures national governments around the world to accept GM crops. This has been made clear in a series of diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, which reveal that:

• The US embassy in Paris recommended that the US government launch a retaliation strategy against the EU that “causes some pain” as punishment for Europe’s reluctance to adopt GM crops.

• The US embassy in Spain suggested that the US government and Spain should draw up a joint strategy to help boost the development of GM crops in Europe.

• The US State Department is trying to steer African countries towards acceptance of GM crops.

This strategy of exerting diplomatic pressure on national governments to adopt GM crops is undemocratic as it interferes with their ability to represent the wishes of their citizens. It is also inappropriate to use US taxpayers’ money to promote products owned by individual corporations.

Excerpted from GMO Myths and Truths, an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. Version 1.3b by Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson and John Fagan © Earth Open Source, Earth Open Source functions as a science and policy platform to provide input to decision-makers on issues relating to the safety, security and sustainability of our food system.

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