Last month, we asked whether you thought Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) should be banned in Europe. Most of your comments argued that, yes, GMOs posed a public health-risk and should be banned immediately. Not everybody, however, was quite so hostile. Sacha, for example, left a comment arguing that:
[...] If you eat, let’s say, a chicken, you don’t incorporate the animal’s DNA into yours! And the industrial food we eat has already been genetically modified by cross fertilisation without being labeled as GMO…
But what can really be dangerous is the chemicals ingested with food, like pesticides or additives, which may change your OWN genes, in addition to their carcinogenic properties, or their effects on reproduction. Surprisingly, GMO opponents totally overlook these aspects…
Indeed, a recent study suggests that some GM crops might even have health benefits and be good for the environment, because they use less pesticides and allow natural insect predators to thrive. So, are GM foods really a danger to public health?
On its website, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies two potential public health risks from GM foods:
The potential to provoke alergic reactions (“allergenicity”)
The possibility that genes could be transferred from food into cells in the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (“gene transfer”). In other words, whilst eating a chicken won’t turn you into a chicken, might there be a risk that individual genes will be incorporated?
The WHO points out that GM foods are all tested for allergenicity (whilst most foods developed through traditional methods are not), and that “no allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market“. In terms of gene transfer, the WHO doesn’t dismiss the possibility completely, but advises that the probability of transfer is low. The WHO concludes that:
GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.
In our last post on GMOs, this is essentially what the two MEPs we interviewed told us: there are reasons to be cautious about GMOs, but health risks are not chief among them. Nevertheless, in the comments, health concerns seemed to be the number one reason you distrusted GMOs.
Last month, Debating Europe attended an event organised by our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe, on the rise of the bio-based economy. We spoke to Dutch social democrat MEP Judith Merkies and asked her to react to some of your comments. We began with a comment from Vicente, who suggested a problem with GMOs that was unrelated to potential health risks:
Genetically modified food is only a problem because behind them are Dow Chemical and other big corporations that could tie-up farmers to them. If genetically modified foods did not have patents and were free for all, I would not have a problem at all.
We put this comment to Judith Merkies MEP for her response. She answered that the real problem was not so much one of patents, but rather the problem of feeding the rapidly growing population of Earth (predicted to eventually reach, and perhaps even exceed, nine billion people). However, she questioned whether we really need GMOs to accomplish this, or whether simply changing our diets so they include less meat might make GMOs irrevelant.
Ultimately, though, isn’t it best to let consumers themselves choose which approach they prefer? Kali, for example, argued that:
Everything should be appropriately labeled so we can choose; until then, stick to organics, and fight to keep organic food standards tough.
Would this solve the problem, by letting people themselves decide whether they supported GMOs in the supermarkets? Judith Merkies MEP agreed, and argued that: “We must be critical and not believe all the dreams that we are usually exposed to by all kinds of advertorials about nano or bio or everything new.”
What do YOU think? Do people understand the science behind GMOs? And do we need GMOs to meet the challenges of a growing population? Or would cutting down on our consumption of meat make GMOs uneccessary? Perhaps, through strict food-labelling, it should be down to individual consumers to decide what they prefer? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Judith Merkies is a Dutch social democrat MEP with the centre-left Labour Party.