« Who is a Levite? | Gene Expression Front Page | Fun with statistics »
August 19, 2004

NAS 2004 report: GM food safe!

[crosspost from geneticfuture.org]

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a report (available as a book, or as a free download from here) which says that genetically modified food is no way substantially different from non-GM food. It says that GM foods, just like regular foods, carry risks. The report admits that GM technology can cause these risks to pop up in unlikely places (e.g. GM insect-resistant celery that gives farm workers severe skin rashes) but stops short of saying that GM food is in any way less "safe" than non-GM food.

More specifically, the NAS report says that the substances that compose GM food can't be meaningfully distinguished from the substances in ordinary food. As such, the FDA is basically discouraged from treating GM food in a different way than regular food when it comes to safety.

Generally speaking, this report doesn't alarm me in any way. It puts forward the point of view that most reasonable science-minded folks hold, that GM food doesn't contain weird never-before-seen toxins, and that anyone who thinks that GM food is going to kill us is being a little foolish.

Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to promote GM food labeling. There are a lot of reasons we should require GM food to be labeled as such. For one thing, there are a lot of folks who don't want to help finance companies that are participating in the GM food industry. While GM food is probably safe for us, it's too early to tell whether or not it's going to mess up our ecosystem. Many consumers would like to vote with their dollars, and spend their money on traditional foods instead of jumping head-first into GM technology.

Also, while GM food is probably safe for most of us, it does risk killing a few of us. A while back, someone had the idea to improve the nutritional quality of soybeans by creating a transgenic soybean -- borrowing 2S albumin production from Brazil nuts. As it turned out, if you were deathly allergic to Brazil nuts, you would also be deathly allergic to this soybean. Consider the dilemma of someone who fears Brazil nuts. You grow up knowing that you're deathly allergic to Brazil nuts, and you learn how to avoid them and products that contain them. How would you cope if GM soybeans containing your allergen entered the market, but weren't labeled as such? Soybeans are everywhere, from baby food to breakfast cereal to McDonald's hamburgers.

So while a GM soybean is not "substantially different" from non-GM food, that is, while it doesn't contain weird proteins that we've never dealt with, that doesn't mean it's such a safe food that it doesn't require special FDA attention and labeling.

[Richard Caplan, U.S. Public Interest Research group] cites as a major weakness in the report its discussion of the potential allergenicity of genetically engineered crops. While the report authors agree that allergenicity should be evaluated "in every case" and that improvements to the current system are known and have been thoroughly discussed, it fails to call on the FDA to institute a mandatory pre-market assessment according to commonly accepted protocols like the one laid out by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization.

U.S. PIRG has long supported a system that requires foods to be labeled if they contain genetically engineered ingredients, which would help to accomplish a recommendation of the report that the government should require that food labels include "relevant nutritional attributes so that consumers can receive more complete information about the nutritional components in GM foods introduced to the marketplace." The report also calls for a significant increase in transparency of data submissions, which would help remove the large cloud of secrecy surrounding whatever testing is done on genetically engineered crops. For example, a Monsanto study recently reported in Le Monde appears to show deleterious effects on rats in a feeding study of genetically engineered crops, but the company has failed to release it, claiming it as confidential business information.

"The fact is these foods are on our dinner tables right now," concluded Caplan. "Unfortunately there remains much work to be done to improve the system of oversight for genetically engineered food crops, and it starts by changing the current voluntary system at FDA to a mandatory one."
-- Environmental Media Services

Posted by canton at 10:52 AM