Casting Doubt on the Safety of GM Foods

By J.R. Pegg

September 4, 2003 (ENS) - Jeffrey Smith's view of genetically modified foods is aptly summarized in the title of his new book - "Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating." Many may disagree with Smith's steadfast belief that GM foods are inherently unsafe, but his book raises serious questions as to whether there is enough scientific evidence to argue either side of the debate.

The United States is the cradle of GM - or biotech - crop development. Smith believes that the U.S. regulatory regime for GM foods, developed in the early 1990s at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was driven by industry influence and political collusion, not sound science.

Scientists who raised concerns about the possible health effects from GM foods were ignored, harassed and in some cases, fired, says Smith, who is the founding director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and a member of the Sierra Club Genetic Engineering Committee.

"Internal documents made public by a lawsuit reveal that the FDA's own scientists warned that GM foods could lead to unpredictable toxins, allergies, and new diseases," Smith said. "They insisted that each GM food be subject to long term safety testing before it was approved." Smith

Author Jeffery Smith says GM foods should be immediately banned. (Photo courtesy Jeffrey Smith)
Smith says the agency's political appointees, including a former lawyer for biotech giant Monsanto, overruled the scientists' recommendations. No safety tests for GM foods are required and few have been conducted, Smith said.

In 1992 the FDA issued a policy that said the agency "is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new method differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way," Smith said. "This stands in direct contradiction to the statements made by their own scientists but this is the statement upon which U.S. policy sits."

Smith says that in 1989 the FDA tried to cover up information that indicated a link between some one hundred deaths and thousands of illnesses from contaminants found in a GM variety of the food supplement L-tryptophan.

The oft repeated statement that there is overwhelming evidence that GM foods are safe, Smith said, "is a myth based on politics and economics, not science."

Advocates frequently say that biotech crops have been thoroughly tested and regulated, but Smith says there are less than a dozen animal feeding studies and no published human feeding studies examining the health effects of GM foods.

Most of these are industry studies "designed to avoid finding problems," he said, and independent studies that hint at health problems have been distorted by GM supporters. The process of genetic modification, Smith says, damages the DNA's structure and function and is inherently risky. wheat

Genetically modified crops continue to make many people nervous about the health and environmental implications. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
GM foods that many in the United States and elsewhere eat daily are "in fact dangerous and may be causing health problems in the entire population," Smith told reporters at a press conference today.

"These foods should be banned immediately to protect the health of people around the world," Smith said.

That is unlikely - GM foods are deeply embedded in much of the global food supply and nowhere more than in the United States.

But this supports Smith's contention that economics has played a major role in the rapid adoption and spread of GM foods.

Estimates find that as much as 70 percent of processed food in the U.S. contains GM crops - more than a third of all corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, as are some 75 percent of U.S. soybeans.

It is economics that has turned the United States into the world's most vocal cheerleader for GM crops and has prompted the Bush administration to ask the World Trade Organization (WTO) to force the European Union (EU) to open its markets to GM foods.

The EU has refused to grant import licenses for GM food since October 1998 because many Europeans are worried about possible health and environmental risks.

U.S. officials estimate the EU moratorium has cost its agricultural industry hundreds of millions, including some $300 million a year in corn sales alone.

The United States says the policy violates WTO rules because the EU does not have scientific evidence that there is either a risk to public health or to the environment from GM foods. sprayer

One potential benefit of GM crops could be reduced pesticide use. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy
It is true that many EU scientists agree with the assessments made by the U.S. government, the United Nations and thousands of scientists worldwide that existing GM foods pose little human health concern.

But the EU says that the WTO allows its members to develop their own approval procedures and EU officials say this is what they are doing.

They are moving forward with legislation on traceability and labeling, two issues that have irked Bush administration officials and some supporters of GM foods who believe these requirements would result in higher food costs for consumers and producers.

These policies - and the EU moratorium - have negatively affected global trade, slowed development of new GM crops and contributed to famine in developing countries, according to the Bush administration.

They contend that if the U.S. regulatory system shows GM foods are safe, that should be good enough for the rest of the world.

And therein lies a big problem, Smith says.

The U.S. regulatory system does not have the capability to currently determine whether GM foods are safe, Smith said, adding that his book "refutes the U.S. WTO challenge of European Union's GM food policy."

Smith says the administration's attempt to use famine to push for support of GM food illustrates how distorted the debate has become.

"As concerns and objections to the technology grew, so did the myth," he said. "Now not only are they supposed to be safe and equivalent [to conventional crops], they can also save the world."

If scientists independently reviewed the available studies and examined the theoretical basis for genetic modifications today, Smith said, "these foods would never have been approved."

GM foods should be tightly controlled and tested for a range of potential health effects, including food allergies, before allowed onto the market, Smith said.

The potential for adverse human health effects will grow, Smith said, as GM crops become more complex. Existing GM crops are primarily modified to resist pests or tolerate herbicides, but crops modified for industrial and pharmaceutical use are being developed.

Although many U.S. policymakers may not find much time for Smith's stark warnings, there is increasing evidence that other nations and many consumers are growing wary of GM crops.

The United Nations Biosafety Protocol goes into force on September 11 and it allows nations to ban GM crops based on a risk assessment. The United States is not a party to the protocol. scientists

Scientists are working on an array of new GM crops, including some that could be used to produce pharmaceuticals. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
Most of Europe's largest supermarket chains, along with several major food companies such as Unilever and Heinz, have all banned GM products, and McDonalds and Burger King stopped buying GM potatoes in 2000.

And the biotech industry's efforts to cultivate a market for GM wheat are faltering, as U.S. and Canadian farmers, along with the National Food Processors Association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and food giants General Mills and Frito-Lay have balked at embracing the new biotech crop.

For more information about Smith's book, see