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Is GE food safe?

Page - February 1, 2007
Most genetically engineered (GE) crops are processed into food for humans and animals – but are they safe to eat?

Questions are being raised about the safety of GE food

Genetic engineering can have unexpected and unintended effects because the process is imprecise and random. Inserted genes may disrupt natural genes, be unstable in their new environment, or function differently than expected.

GE crops do pose a health risk. Scientific evidence has proven that GE plants involve possible health risks.

The random insertion of a foreign gene may disrupt the tightly controlled network of DNA in an organism. The gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value.

Genetically engineered plants contain genes from bacteria, insects and viruses which have never been part of the human diet. No information exists about their allergenic properties. The allergenic potential of such exotic, introduced gene products are uncertain, unpredictable and untestable.

In addition many of the GE crops which are already grown on a commercial scale contain genes which are resistant to antibiotics used for the treatment of diseases in both humans and animals.

These genes are unnecessary to the development of the GE plants themselves and could severely undermine the effective treatment of diseases if the antibiotic resistance is transferred to bacteria which are harmful to human and animal health.

Long-term effects on human health unknown

The lack of proper and long-term testing of GE organisms has been highlighted by well respected scientific bodies such as the Royal Society of Canada and the British Medical Association (BMA).

In 2004, the BMA - which represents 80 percent of British doctors - released a report on GE food, which points at the possibility of allergies resulting from the consumption of GE foods.

The British doctors conclude that "there is a lack of evidence-based research with regard to medium and long-term effects on health and the environment."

There are a growing number of cases that cast serious doubts over assurances by the genetic engineering industry, and certain governments, that GE foods are completely safe and that consumers have cause for concern.

Illegal GE corn contaminates food in US, EU, Japan and Korea

In September 2000, a GE maize variety called StarLink was found in corn taco shells and other foods in the US, and over 300 corn products had to be withdrawn from the market. Traces of StarLink corn were also found in corn-based foods in Japan and Korea.

StarLink, which produced the Bt protein, Cry9C was only approved for animal feed and industrial purposes as there were concerns that the Cry9C protein could cause allergies because it shares characteristics of other allergens.

Mice show allergic reaction after being fed GE peas

In November 2005 Australian researchers published a paper showing that GE peas triggered allergic reactions in mice. Small and unexpected changes in the GE protein were found to be the cause of the allergies.

Rats show negative health effects after eating GE maize

In January 2006 the European Commission approved a GE maize type known as MON 863 produced by the US biotech company Monsanto. The authorisation was given in spite of scientific research showing negative health effects in rats that had been fed on it during feeding trials.

In comparison with a group of rats that were fed non-GE maize the rats fed on the GE maize had significantly different levels of white blood cells and kidney weights.

Potential dangers of GE rice

Bt63 a genetically engineered variety of rice, which is being considered for commercialisation by the Chinese Government, contains a toxin called Cry1Ac.

Little work has been done on this toxin but a peer reviewed study into Cry1Ac found impacts on mice and the lead scientists have expressed concerns regarding possible impacts on the human immune system.  

Untested and risky

The long-term implications for human health of eating GE food are not known (and have not been investigated).

There is no basis upon which it can be claimed that the GE foods on supermarket shelves are safe to eat. Furthermore, several cases illustrate that the genetic engineering industry and the regulatory authorities are not able to control the spread of illegal GE ingredients into the foodchain.

What are Bt crops? Are they dangerous?

Genetically engineered BT crops are designed to be resistant to an insect pest. Such crops are created by inserting a synthetic version of a gene from the naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), so that the plants produce their own Bt toxins to destroy pests.

Insect resistant Bt maize, cotton and potatoes have already been grown extensively on a commercial scale, particularly in the USA, and many other Bt crops are under development (e.g. oilseed rape, rice and tomatoes).

Evidence suggests that the rush to commercialise Bt crops could have serious consequences on the environment and on human health.

For instance, official scientists in several national administrations in Europe advised their governments that the genes contained in transgenic maize, in particular those conferring antibiotic resistance, will pose real threats to human and animal health and the environment.