Interviews | VOL. 9, ISSUE 52, January-February 2009 |

Dangerous Foods

Prof Smith who has spearheaded a revolutionary industry and consumer movement to remove genetically modified organisms, GMOs, from the US food supply, talks about the dangers that Indian farmers and consumers face from genetically engineered crops and genetically modified foods.

Q. What does the campaign against GMOs entail?

A. The campaign for Healthier Eating in America, coordinated by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), is one of the only viable strategies to remove GMOs from the food supply. Genetically modified crops concentrate on the corporate control of food and increased herbicide use without increasing average yields. They endanger food security, are detrimental to sustainable and organic farming, and trap farmers in a cycle of debt and dependence. But the single greatest motivator for action is the health risk to consumers. Our campaign targets four demographic groups that are receptive to dietary changes – health conscious consumers, parents and schools, faith based groups, and health care professionals and their patients. Within each group, the women, who generally do the shopping for the family, are clearly the most responsive gender.

Q. As awareness levels in the developed countries are higher, how effective has public opinion been in containing export of genetically modified (GM) foods by multinationals?

A. The most effective containment of exports has come from consumers in Europe and Japan, whose knowledge of the dangers of GMOs has translated into avoidance of GM products. The subsequent rejection of GM ingredients by food companies has led to a limited US export of GM crops and derivatives. This has been facilitated by mandatory labelling of GMOs, particularly in the European Union, which alert consumers to GM content.

Q. What are the health risks posed by genetically engineered (GE) foods?

A. GMOs are linked to toxic and allergic reactions in people, deaths of thousands of livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 per cent in the UK soon after GM soy was introduced. In the 1980s, a contaminated brand of food supplement called L-tryptophan killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness and disability in another 5,000 to 10,000 people. The source of contaminants was almost certainly the genetic engineering process used in its production. The disease took years to find and was almost overlooked. It was only identified because the symptoms were unique, acute and fast acting. If all three characteristics were not in place, the deadly supplement might never have been identified or removed. If GM foods are causing common diseases or if their effects appear only after long term exposure, we may not be able to identify the source of the problem for decades, if at all.

Q. Has there been a perceptible impact of GE crops on India’s farming community?

A. Thousands of Indian farm workers who pick Bt cotton by hand are developing allergic reactions. The cotton is engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), which produces a natural insecticide. The reason it is in our crops is that the industry and government say the Bt toxin is completely safe for humans. In its natural state, it’s used in organic agriculture and forestry. They, therefore, claim that Bt toxin has a history of safe use, and doesn’t even interact with mammals; that it’s destroyed in the digestive tract.

But this assumption ignores the evidence. About 500 people in the US and Canada developed allergic reactions when they were sprayed with natural Bt discharged from airplanes. When they fed natural Bt to mice, the mice developed a powerful immune response and damaged intestines. But the Bt engineered into crops is thousands of times more concentrated than the natural form and is designed to be more toxic. When I reviewed the symptoms from the Indian cotton workers, they turned out to be the same symptoms that were described by the 500 people in North America who were sprayed with Bt. The Indian Bt cotton farmers allow sheep to graze on the cotton plants after harvest. According to several shepherds, within five to seven days, one out of every four sheep dies. Thousands of sheep have died in the Andhra Pradesh, and more will be added to those numbers the next year. There are also widespread reports of disease and death among buffalo, who either grazed on the Bt cotton plants or consumed Bt cotton seed or oil cakes.

When I visited Andhra Pradesh, I spoke to a group of women and asked if any of them experienced any reaction to BT cotton crop. After some hesitation, two women stood up and one of them revealed that she suffered from itching. I was also told that women cotton workers are embarrassed to discuss the details of their symptoms, so they don’t come forward.

Q. A chapter in your book says that the risks posed by GE crops/GM foods are greater for women and children.

A.  Pregnant women should most definitely avoid GMOs. A Russian study found that more than half of the babies from mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks, compared to only a 10 per cent death rate for babies whose mothers ate non GM soy.

Q. In your opinion, does India really require GM foods?

A. The US spends three to five billion dollars per year to subsidise the GM crops that no one else wants. They are trying to force other countries to take GMOs to solve their own problems. In developing countries, GM crops are clearly disadvantageous. A study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that GMOs are not appropriate, and that industrial farming practices in general force small farmers and landless peasants off the land. Analysis of Bt cotton in India consistently reveals that it provides far less income compared to farmers growing organic or NPM, non-pesticidal management, cotton. But these more appropriate and healthy systems don’t have corporate champions to promote them.

Q. What would be the best strategy to regulate the introduction of GM food?

A. The best regulation would be to demand a ban on current GM crops and all outdoor field trials. Then India can invest in proper independent studies, which I am sure will confirm our conclusions that the current generation of GM crops is unsafe for humans, animals and the environment.

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