The truth about genetically modified food

tassie gmoThe truth about genetically modified food

Genetic modification is creeping into our crops.

Genetic modification is creeping into our crops. Source: istock

IT’S accused of causing cancer, destroying the environment and storing up devastating health risks for our children.

Genetically modified food is a source of great controversy, yet most of us are eating it every day. If you cook with canola oil, snack on biscuits and chocolates, drink soy milk or eat tofu, you’re probably tucking into “frankenfood”.

Soy bean is one of the biggest crops that uses genetic engineering globally, which means its DNA is manipulated in a lab and reinserted. As much as 90 per cent of soy is GM, and soy is used for lecithin, which goes into many different foods. Canola and cotton are major GM crops in Australia, and while you may think you don’t eat cotton, oils derived from it are present in many vegetable oils.

Imported food is even more likely to be genetically engineered. Chips, tacos, fried foods and confectionery are likely to contain GM corn or potato from the US, American maize tends to be GM, and so does sugar beet, often used as a sweetener.

So should we be concerned?

Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out about the importance of labelling GM food.

Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out about the importance of labelling GM food. Source: Getty Images


Some food experts say there simply hasn’t been enough research into the potential long-term effects of GM foods on humans.

Stephen Leeder, emeritus professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Sydney, told “A lot of GM crops are engineered to tolerate 10 times the normal level of herbicides. Those herbicides have been demonstrated to be carcinogenic. Resistance is bred into the weeds so you need new herbicides or higher doses to keep them at bay.”

As for the risks from GM foods themselves, Prof Leeder said that remained an open question. “No one can say with confidence that it has no effect.”

Jessica Harrison from GM Free Australia Alliance told that Australians were concerned they didn’t know what they were eating, or feeding to their children.

“Around 60 per cent of our processed foods can contain GM ingredients,” she said. “It’s never been proven safe. Corn is 90 per cent GM in the US, and if that’s used in Australian-manufactured biscuits or bread, no labelling is required. The government doesn’t believe we deserve to know.”

She said short-term tests had shown GM foods could cause liver problems and affect reproduction and the immune system. While these results have not been conclusive, she believes there needs to be a freeze on GM products until thorough, long-term studies are completed.

But with the US pressing ahead with genetically engineering crops such as apples and potatoes, that may be hard to enforce. “It’s a Pandora’s box,” said Ms Harrison.

Genetically modified crops are banned in Tasmania and South Australia.

Genetically modified crops are banned in Tasmania and South Australia. Source: News Corp Australia


All GM food sold in Australia has been approved as safe to eat by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

“Regulators take a cautious approach when assessing their safety for human consumption,” says FSANZ on its website. “Each new genetic modification is assessed individually for its potential impact on the safety of the food. To date, we have identified no safety concerns with any of the GM foods that we have assessed. Other national regulators who have independently assessed the same GM foods have reached the same conclusions.”

Most Australian canola, for example, is modified to be resistant to a herbicide called Roundup, and it says this has a very low toxicity to humans, and that the carcinogens identified by the World Health Organisation are very low-level.

Professor Ian Godwin from the University of Queensland School of Agriculture and Food Sciences says GM food can actually be better for the environment than the alternatives.

“Nearly all genetic modification is to make the crop herbicide resistant,” he told “Then you can use ‘no-till agriculture’, meaning you don’t spend the time or use the diesel fuel tilling the soil to get rid of weeds. Farmers save money and less water evaporates, so you save water.”

If you don’t have to turn over the soil, the “stubble” of crops can remain in the ground, so there’s less topsoil run-off taking sediment and herbicides into the water and the sea — one of the things damaging the Great Barrier Reef.

Prof Godwin says that while insects and weeds may become more resistant to increased levels of herbicides on GM crops, farmers can use different ones each year to minimise this effect. “However we look at it, agriculture is some kind of biological warfare, against weeds, fungi, bacteria,” he said. “That puts pressure on organisms to fight back.”

Greenpeace activists labelling baby formula as genetically modified at a Sydney Woolworth

Greenpeace activists labelling baby formula as genetically modified at a Sydney Woolworths. Source: Supplied


For some objectors, it’s not just about safety concerns, but about the practices of firms using GM technology. For example, the cost of GM seeds is significantly higher than for non-GM seeds, and companies manufacture them with a “terminator gene” that means they cannot reproduce.

“I see it as industrial corruption,” said Prof Leeder. “Others might see it as good business.”

Genetically modified foods are largely produced in wealthy countries rather than those that could really benefit. “A crop that could thrive in saltwater could be great in sub-Saharan Africa,” added the professor. The only problem is, they couldn’t afford it.

If genetic engineering is used in manufacturing, but the DNA is removed before a product hits the shelves, it doesn’t need to be labelled as GM. Meat from animals who have eaten such crops is also not labelled GM.

“They want to know if genetic modification was used in the process because they’re concerned about social and economic factors,” Heather Bray, a senior research associate from the University of Adelaide, told

“Somebody who’s concerned about corporate behaviour of a company like Monsanto [a major GM producer] may want to limit their association with the technology they own. They might be concerned about the pesticides they use.

“People don’t make decisions on what to eat based only on science. There’s a lot of pressure on people to consider the impact of what they eat, and this is part of a food system people are being encouraged not to support. This is about transparency and trust, not risk.”

Dr Bray said anyone who was concerned could either stick to fresh foods, none of which are currently GM in Australia, or look for products certified as organic in Australia. Many organisations encourage consumers to demand clear labelling.

Organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic status because of GM canola on neighbouring p

Organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic status because of GM canola on neighbouring properties. Picture: Danella Bevis Source: Supplied


GM foods are steadily creeping into our food system, but there has been a pushback. South Australia and Tasmania both have a ban on GM canola, because they believe there is a market advantage in being GM-free, and can charge a premium on these exports.

A farmer from Western Australia lost organic certification for 70 per cent of his farm due to contamination from GM canola on a neighbouring farm. Steve Marsh, from Kojonup, sought $85,000 in damages but was instead ordered to pay court costs of about $804,000 to his neighbour, Michael Baxter.

Monsanto helped pay the legal costs of Mr Baxter’s defence.

Genetically modified food clearly offers certain benefits. If food can be produced more cheaply, using fewer resources, that’s a good thing for the consumer and the environment.

Australians are typically more concerned about food additives, pesticides and herbicides in their food than genetic modification, but there are links between the issues. Ultimately, people want the choice.

Unfortunately, labelling laws around GM look unlikely to change, as experts looking at the area say it is too difficult to monitor whether genetic modification has been used in producing a product. You cannot test for that at point of sale.

As usual, all eyes are on China. With GM rice about to become the norm for the world’s biggest exporter of the crop (alongside Vietnam), farmers around the world will start feeling the pressure to do the same, to increase productivity and profitability.

It could be hard to hold back the tide.

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