GM food products:What are the risks?

A new Greek-language guide to the issues surrounding genetically modified (GM) organisms in the food chain has just been released, bringing together research from a number of studies undertaken abroad and detailing the situation in Greece. Written by Vasso Kanellopoulou, a graduate of Columbia University and a journalist with extensive experience reporting environmental issues, the guide includes articles by Dr Tassos Kourakis of the Thessaloniki Medical Association and lawyer Giorgos Balias and an interview with Dimitris Kouretas of Thessaly University’s Biochemistry and Biotechnology Department. Kourakis has also authored the only scientific book in Greek on GM products. An interview with Myrto Pispini of Greenpeace Hellas on the consumer situation as it stands in Greece is particularly interesting. Pispini explains that although very few foodstuffs sold in European (including Greek) supermarkets are produced using GM organisms, these organisms have actually spread throughout the food chain because of the widespread import of GM animal fodder, chiefly soya and corn. Meat, dairy products and eggs from animals fed with these products do not have to be identified as such. Pispini cites Agricultural Development Ministry figures showing that between the time new legislation was introduced in April 2004 on the import of GM products, and the end of that year, 282,716 tons of GM soya and 20,565 tons of GM corn were imported to Greece. «According to all indications, these quantities constitute 50-60 percent of all imported soya. The fact that not all imported soya for use in animal fodder is genetically modified, is… due to opposition from consumers and to those animal fodder industries that have listened to them,» wrote Pispini. According to Greenpeace, consumer protests, along with the EU’s requirement that all GM foods be identified as such, are the reason no food products bearing these labels have been seen in Greek supermarkets. The influence of public opinion is something that frequently comes up in the book, as does the influence of the media in encouraging their use. Kanellopoulou refers to a 2002 study by the writer Jeffrey Smith (quoted in Smith’s book «Seeds of Deception») showing the existence of an overwhelming bias in favor of GM food on the part of America’s 13 largest newspapers and magazines. Arguments touted in favor of the use of GM organisms in the food industry (such as increased productivity, reduction in use of pesticides, the relief of famine and higher nutritional value) and the approval given to them initially in the US, says Kanellopoulou, did not include references to the problems that emerged in animals used in the initial trials, nor were the reservations expressed by members of the American Food and Drug Agency (FDA) made widely known until the Nelson GE Awareness Group filed a suit in 1998 to have these documents made public. These arguments are also explored in the interview with Kouretas. He refers to the attacks on scientist Arpad Puzstai, whose research found, contrary to expectations, dangerous health effects from the consumption of genetically modified food. Kouretas also mentions findings regarding Monsanto’s GM corn variety MON863, which had received initial approval but in later scientific studies was shown to have a high degree of toxicity. The same regulations apply in Greece as in the rest of the European Union, with the exception of a variety of GM rapeseed (colza or canola), the cultivation of which has been permitted in the rest of the EU since 1998, and 10 varieties of GM corn (MON810), permitted in the EU since 2004. As for how to tell whether one is eating meat or dairy products from animals fed with GM organisms, there are no official sources to reference. Greenpeace publishes a consumer guide to food found to contain GM organisms, but this is currently being revised and expected to be reissued within a month. The problem with these animal products, Pispini said, is with the large quantities of soya and corn consumed by livestock animals throughout their lives, in contrast to humans. «In many cases, both generally and in Greece, the consumption of soya constitutes over 20-25 percent of the daily diet for animals such as pigs and chickens, with cattle it is 10-15 percent,» she said. Some products to look out for in the supermarket are byproducts of soya, corn and rapeseed. The major culprits are flour, oils, emulsifying agents such as lecithin (E322) and monodiglycerides (E471), starch, glucose, fructose, dextrose and sorbitol (E420). Pispini urges consumers to read the fine print on products to see whether they refer to GM content, and if so, to make their objections known to the store management. «In Europe, whenever such products have appeared, it has been consumer protests that have resulted in the products being removed from the shelves,» she said, pointing out that in the US, Argentina and Canada – the three countries that produce most GM organisms – the authorities refuse to allow these products to be identified. «Metallagmena: to parelthon, to paron kai to agnosto mellon» (Genetically modified organisms: the past, the present and the unknown future), by Vasso Kanellopoulou, Evonymos Ecology Library, Athens 2006.