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Are you eating genetically modified food?

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By: Andreas Späth 2012-11-06 07:03

Are you consuming food made using genetically modified (GM) crops? You probably are, even if you’re not aware of it.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group recently conducted an interesting investigation. Using 2011 data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, they estimated that average Americans consume more than their body weight – 193 pounds or about 87.5 kg – in GM food every year.

The South African government along with much of our agriculture industry has been as enthusiastic about genetic engineering as their US counterparts. This remains the only country in the world that allows GM varieties of its national staple food – white maize – to be grown commercially. In the 2011/2012 season approximately 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa was GM.

So, unless you’re extremely vigilant or on an organic-only diet, chances are pretty good that you are eating your share of GM food on a regular basis, since maize and its by-products find their way into a surprisingly wide variety of food.

Exactly what the human health implications are remains a very controversial topic. In September, a French study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal argued that rats fed on GM maize and exposed to Monsanto’s Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide which is routinely sprayed on this maize, increased the rate of premature death in the animals compared to control groups.

They also claimed a significantly raised incidence of cancerous tumours and severe kidney and liver damage. The variety of maize used, Monsanto’s NK603, has been approved in South Africa since 2002 and is extensively planted as yellow and white maize.

As soon as it was released, the study was simultaneously embraced by GM critics and branded as inadequate and deeply flawed by pundits of the technology. What remains a fact, however, is that precious little independent, large-scale and long-term research into the human health effects of GM crops has ever been conducted anywhere. We continue to be our own guinea pigs in this area.

The detrimental environmental impact of GM crops is less contentious. For years, one of the biotech industry’s main selling points has been the promise that GM crops would reduce the use of toxic pesticides.

Some GM crop varieties are engineered to release their own insecticide, supposedly reducing the need for farmers to apply synthetic equivalents. Others GM crops are designed to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup. In this case the idea is that limited applications of glyphosate would be sufficient to control weeds while doing no harm to the crops themselves.

There are now increasingly worrying signs, however, that nature is beating the genetic engineers at their game. In September, a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, showed that herbicide use in the USA increased by 239 million kilograms or about 11% between 1996 and 2011, because weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, some developing into so-called superweeds.

Statistics on pesticide use in South Africa are difficult to come by, but data from the UN show that glyphosate imports have risen from 12 million litres in 2006 to 20 million litres in 2011.

Last month also saw researchers from Iowa State University release the results of a study which indicates that western corn rootworm, an insect very destructive to maize plants, has developed resistance to Monsanto’s insecticide-producing YieldGuard variety of GM maize. In the past, this pest, which feeds exclusively on maize, was largely controlled by the age-old technique of crop rotation with farmers alternating their plantings of maize with other crops, like soybeans. As insect resistance to GM crops increases, we can expect the use of toxic insecticides to rise as well.

There is some good news for consumers who want to steer clear of GM food though. On 9 October, the Department of Trade and Industry published a draft amendment to the regulations that govern the labelling of GM food in South Africa. If it’s approved – and let’s hope it is – all imported and locally produced goods that contains 5% or more GM components or ingredients have to be labelled as “contains genetically modified ingredients or components”, giving South Africans the option to choose if they want to support this technology or not.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is interviewed on her views relating to Proposition 37, the Californian ballot initiative to make GMO labeling mandatory, and about GMOs as a whole.

Santa Monica – Shiva has fought for changes in the practice and paradigms of agriculture and food. Intellectual property rights, biodiversity, biotechnology, bioethics, genetic engineering are among the fields where Shiva has contributed intellectually and through activist campaigns.
Trained as a physicist, Shiva is the founder of Navadanya, “a movement which aims to protect nature and people’s rights to knowledge, biodiversity, water and food,” by creating community seed banks among other things.
Uprising host Sonali Kolhatkar spoke with Shiva in the backyard of a private home in Santa Monica on October 30, 2012.
Shiva discusses labeling of GMO products, as well as how a genetically modified organism is created. She covers the various scientific studies which have been run to show the dangers of GMOs. She also talks about the pressure that Monsanto, together with the US government, places on governments, including India, and why so many thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide.
Extracts from the interview read as follows:
“I think Proposition 37 is an opportunity for both the US citizens – and I put the US citizens first – and the US government to catch up with the rest of the world. Europe has had mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food from the early part of around 2003.
“India has just announced mandatory labeling beginning first of January 2013. And this is out of a case we filed in 2006 saying every citizen has a right to know what they are eating and a right to choose. …why should the government and the industry be scared of just putting there, ‘This has GMOs,’ if they are not worried about what GMOs do and they are not worried about how much facts they are suppressing in the process of pushing GMOs on unwilling consumers, not getting the full information.”
“What is the science of genetic engineering? It is really not a science; it’s a technology of shooting a gene that doesn’t belong to a plant through two means. One is a gene gun and one is an agro bacterium, a plant cancer. You don’t know where it’s landing; you don’t have the science of prediction. You don’t know what it is doing. You don’t know if it is getting absorbed, that was why you add anti-biotic resistance markers. You know the plant is not expressing it so you add super virulent viruses to pump up the expression. They’re called promoters. So, you have a bundle of toxic risky genes.”
“All of the real science tells us there is a phenomena called horizontal gene transfer in nature, when vertical is where your genes are taken from your parents, it’s offspring to offspring. Horizontal is when it moves across species. We know the bacteria in our food hybridize with the bacteria in our gut. We know the viruses in our food hybridize with the viruses in our gut. We know, in spite of them saying the BT toxin doesn’t last, new studies in Canada show it has been found in the blood of pregnant women and in the fetuses they’ve given birth to.”
“A new study in France, a two year feeding study shows high levels of mammalian cancer. A similar study had similar results, in Russia in the Academy of Sciences. These are independent scientists with absolutely no involvement in any business industry interest. They are what we call public scientists.”
“UK government asked Arpad Putzai, one of the most eminent scientists to do a study on GM foods, way back around 98′ and he did it. He was actually a promoter of genetic engineering, but when he did the study, he found the results; the rats he had fed had shrunken brains, enlarged pancreas and a collapse of immunity. He went to his director and said if this has happened with three months of feeding rats, what will happen to a lifetime of feeding human beings, we should inform the public. They did, went all over BBC immediately, this is what we’ve been told, a call from Monsanto to Tony Blair to get rid of the top scientist who had left Hungary for freedom. And he said I had more freedom in Hungary than in corporate ruled England. That freedom is what the US is losing and US citizens are losing as corporations take over our science, our decision making, our food systems and our seed.”
“So Proposition 37 is not an insignificant proposition. It is in a way a reflection of the larger debate in this election. Will money run it or will the people’s democratic votes run it? Will democracy in America be of the people, by the people, for the people or is it going to be reduced to of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations? In which case, you have corporate rule and corporate rule means corporate dictatorship and corporate dictatorship as Mussolini said is Fascism, the convergence of political power with economic power. Very dangerous moment, but also a moment that pushes us to take action for freedom.”

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