Another genuine concern is high pesticide and herbicide residues in GM foods. This is due to the fact that some GM foods are designed to take on more pesticides and herbicides than usual (known as “roundup ready” crops) so that the farmers can kill off weeds and pests without harming their plants.
Due to this resistance, these crops end up getting higher doses of these chemicals than their conventionally bred counterparts get.
Transfer of antibiotic resistance is also listed as a side effect of GM foods. This occurs when antibiotic resistant genes from GM plants are transferred to gut bacteria in the human body, hence the potential to create bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotics.
Although this phenomenon is possible, the odds of this happening are low as researchers have pegged the probability to between 1:1012 and 1:1027. It is,however, still a concern worth noting.
The risk of contamination of non-transgenic crops with transgenic pollen is another concern. This is purely legal as organic farmers who farm close to GM farmers can no longer be certain that the foods they have labelled “organic” are really what they claim them to be due to contamination with pollens from GM farms, hence causing these organic farmers to make losses.
In countries such as Ghana where labelling of GM foods is not mandatory, a legitimate concern is the lack of consumer rights, as it is fair enough for people to at least know what they are eating.
And of course, what most consider as the most valid argument of anti-GM advocates is “unintended consequences” which is always the case with every new technology.
At least if you know the consequences you are dealing with (e.g. in the case of allergenicity), you can try to prevent or contain it. But what if there are greater unforeseen consequences that we do not have the knowledge currently to identify and contain?
There are some concerns, however, about GM foods that are not backed by evidence or stem from inconclusive data or controversial events.
One very controversial one dating as far back as 1999 is the concern that GM is destructive to the environment. This was sprouted by an observation that monarch butterfly caterpillars, when exposed to GM pollen from Bt-corn, died off, hence the conclusion that GM was leading to their extinction.
A risk assessment study in 2001, however, concluded that this was negligible. If the broader picture is that farmers need to ward of pests from their farms and in the process end up killing off some of the butterflies, then of course the argument is neither here nor there as both species (man and monarch) need to survive.
Another concern not backed by enough evidence is cancer. In an era where there is the belief that everything “artificial” causes cancer, this assertion may not necessarily be a misplaced one. It is important to note, however, that the true “causes” of cancer are yet unknown.
There are certain factors that may increase the risk of getting certain types of cancers spanning exposure to radiation, smoke, lifestyle choices and of course elements of the diet such as additives and preservatives.
As it stands now, there is no evidence that consuming GM foods leads to any type of cancer whatsoever.
It will take years of carefully controlled clinical studies for scientists to properly determine the causes of cancer and even many more years for GM foods to be identified as one of the causes if they indeed are.
Just like the cancer argument, some other concerns that are not supported by evidence are indigestion, organ damage and infertility.
Yet, another argument being advanced is that GM leads to poor nutritional value of food so that if you take, for example, the same weight for a conventionally bred food, say soybeans, and compare to a GM soybeans, you would have lower nutrient levels in the latter.
As mentioned earlier, GM can be done to deliberately improve the nutrient content of some foods. This, therefore, is more of fiction than fact.
Is there a middle ground to this GM Debate?
The GM debate is as sharply divided as politics in Ghana, with almost 50 per cent of the population on either side and just a few fence sitters.
It is shocking to note that even among scientists there is no consensus as to the safety of GM foods. This is due to a number of factors, among them being insufficient data on the safety or otherwise of GM foods, lack of political will to take a clear stand, sensationalism from the media stirring up confusion in the minds of everyone (including the scientists), ethical issues bordering on consumer rights (labelling of GM foods in particular) and the question of whether
GM foods should be patented.
Owing to this, some countries have tried to put systems in place to help both scientists and consumers. Ghana, for example, passed its Biosafety Act 831 in 2011 that clearly states the guidelines for the manufacture of GM foods so that before a variety of crop is introduced into the market, it would have undergone several safety checks.
Positions of some key associations
Even with the constraints mentioned earlier that have made it impossible to either reject or fail to reject the assertion that GMOs cause more harm than good, some groups of scientist have positions on the issues.
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in their 2006 position statement on agricultural and food biotechnology emphasise the importance of biotechnology in improving food and nutrition security and encourage the availability of such products on the marketplace.
With the exception of Australia, all other position statements from dietitians across the world seem to toe the line of the American one. The Public Health Association of Australia in 2007 clearly opposed GMOs.
Stating their identified health risks, they called for a moratorium until there was clear evidence that GMOs were safe.
What some Ghanaian Dietitians are saying
The Ghana Dietetic Association currently has no position on GM foods. For the purposes of this paper, a survey was conducted between September 18, 2014 and October 24, 2014 among 20 dietitians (45 per cent male, 55 per cent female), most of whom had a Master’s degree (70 per cent) and had practised for between 1-3 years (80 per cent).
Forty-five per cent of the respondents acknowledged that GM foods had benefits. Interestingly, 45 per cent also admitted that GM foods had health risks associated with them. When asked if Ghana was not well-equipped to manufacture GM foods that can compete on the international market, 50 per cent of them agreed.
And for the ultimate question, “Should GM foods be banned in Ghana?” 30 per cent said yes, 15 per cent said no and the rest were indifferent.
These results show that even among dietitians in Ghana, there is no clear consensus as to whether to accept GMOs or not.
Varied views expressed by these dietitians included enforcement of laws to ensure public health safety, continued discussions in a non-political, sentiment-free environment, advocacy for consumer rights (making labelling mandatory), continued public education on GM foods (benefits, risks and other options available to consumers) and going organic as a country.
The way forward
Your dietitian can only give you the facts about GM foods as they are, and that’s that, unfortunately.
As a consumer, what you can do is request for education and update yourself with whatever information that comes up. You can also take it upon yourself to create the habit of reading food labels.
Be, however, assured that this may not necessarily help you abstain from GM foods, as Aisha, your favorite “waakye” seller by the street next to your office probably uses GM beans to make her “waakye”; “waakye” that unfortunately can never be labelled.
Keeping a little backyard garden and growing your own organic food (operation eat what you grow) can be a sure way of saving yourself the anxiety of not knowing what you are consuming.
But really, in this era of skyscrapers and paved floors, are we rethinking the fact that we have made it virtually impossible to connect to nature in the way we did before?
Who knows? Maybe GM foods are an end-product of man’s desire to conquer nature, and a necessity for this our ever so evolving and fast-paced world.
By: Ruthfirst Eva Ayande & Frank Hayford
Date: Friday, 23 January 2015