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Food and Agriculture

Q&A: Health Impacts of Genetically Modified Foods Still Unknown

IPS correspondent Julia Kallas interviews RENEE SHARP, lead author of the report ''Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food''.

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 20 2012 (IPS) - In 1994, genetically modified produce, in the form of tomatoes, first appeared in grocery stores in the United States. Numerous other types of produce have been genetically modified since, and consuming them has become common practise. But because the phenomenon is so recent, the long-term effects of eating such foods remain unknown.

A range of issues surround genetically modified food in the United States, including overconsumption, a lack of long-term health studies and government intervention, and lax labelling laws, said Renee Sharp, California director and senior scientist for Environmental Working Group, in a new study entitled ”Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food”.

In the study, the Environmental Working Group analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It found that every American eats an estimated 193 pounds of genetically engineered food annually. By comparison, the typical adult in the United States weighs 179 pounds.

Renee Sharp is the California director and senior scientist for Environmental Working Group. Credit: Julia Kallas/IPS

IPS correspondent Julia Kallas spoke with Sharp spoke about the study’s findings, the rapid growth of genetically modified foods in the United States, and the role of the government in labelling these products.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Can you briefly talk about the report ”Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food”? Now that the report is out, what you expect the government to do?

A: Americans are eating their weight in genetically engineered (GE) food each year. Environmental Working Group’s calculations show that, on average, people eat an estimated 193 pounds of genetically engineered food annually. Yet the typical adult weighs 179 pounds.

These figures beg the question, if you were planning on eating your body weight of anything every year, wouldn’t you want to make sure it was safe to eat?

Shockingly, there are virtually no long-term health studies that have been conducted on the consumption of genetically engineered food. We want to see the government conduct these tests, and allow independent scientists the power to do the same – power they don’t have now because the companies making the genetically engineered seeds control what studies are conducted.

So what can consumers do in the meantime? Not much – unless they demand GE food to be labelled. At least then consumers will know whether or not their food contains genetically engineered ingredients and can decide for themselves if this is what they want to buy for themselves and their families.

This basic right-to-know issue is only going to become more important in the future, as consumption of GE food is expected to grow substantially over time.

We are urging Californians to vote YES on Proposition 37 – the Mandatory Labelling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative – so they can decide for themselves whether they want to buy GE food.

Q: Why does the United States lag so far behind the rest of the world on the labelling question? And what actions must the government and policymakers take to change this?

A: Monsanto, Dow and other companies that make and sell GE seeds have an incredible amount of power and influence in the U.S. government.

Government and policy makers need to listen to the millions of citizens who have petitioned to label genetically engineered foods and give people the right to know what they are eating.

Q: Why has the genetically engineered food industry emerged so quickly in the past decade?

A: The makers of GE seeds have made a lot of false promises – that they are going to feed the world, decrease pesticide use, save farmers money – but they have failed to do any of these things. There is not any more food, pesticide use has actually increased, and they are ruining small farmers while fostering the growth of super weeds, which make traditional farming practices impossible.

Since there isn’t any mandatory testing (no federal testing, no long term studies, the companies who are making the profits off of the seeds only have to test) it has been relatively fast to get these seeds to market.

Q: Can you briefly talk about Proposition 37 in California, which will be voted on in November? What would it mean for the rest of the country if it passes?

A: It would mean that people in California would have the right to know what is in their foods and make a choice if they want to feed their families food that have genetically engineered ingredients.

If Proposition 37 were passed, it would also help the rest of the country because California represents about 12 percent of the country’s food market and it is unlikely that companies will create one label for California and a different label for the rest of the country.

Q: Do you think there is growing momentum for a genuine national movement to more seriously consider where our food comes from, as illustrated by the recent “pink slime” scandal, in which Beef Products, Inc.  filed a lawsuit against those who labelled an additive in its ground beef as “pink slime”?

A: Yes! Absolutely. The fact that this proposition is on the ballot is proof of that.

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  • jeffrey_dach_md

    GMO Food – The Greatest Threat to Health in the History of Western Civilization

    Jeff Smith’s book, Seeds of Deception, compiles 20 years of data on the health risks of genetically modified foods from scientists such as Arpad Pusztai and Trudy Netherwood who reported that feeding GMO food to laboratory animals resulted in thousands of sick, sterile and dead laboratory animals. The greater health issue is the increasing food allergies resulting from consumption of GMO food in the US. While American consumers remain oblivious, GMO Foods have been introduced into the US food supply without safety testing or even labeling. Already 80% of our US food supply is GMO, affecting corn, soy, cotton seed oil and canola oil. Many civilized nations have banned GMO Food. The British Medical Association has asked for a moratorium on GMO foods.

    Jeffrey Dach MD

  • Dr Quintero

    Thank you Julia, for your article. The problems of genetically modified foods are obvious, and logical. Nature is perfect, if left alone and not commodified. Monsanto and other Multi-Nationals do not support transparent labelling on food products so consumers can make informed choices. Neither do they support independent research into their genetically engineered seed. We encourage and, in America, demand independent research into areas that affect our lives. Don’t food and agriculture have the greatest impacts on the broadest population? Isn’t food one of the areas that most drastically affects our lives? Yet we tend to remain quiet on the topic. The only way to bring about change in this, is for each of us to make local changes. Policy won’t change while big companies are working closely with governments. But local initiatives like Sustainable Yogic Agriculture is garnering the support of tens of thousands in India, and receiving support from local government. Once something has changed from being an initiative to a movement, it quickly becomes a revolution and no-one can stop it. This is really the way to bring about change. Starting with you. And me. First.