Government funded TV program discusses GM food risks but gives no scrutiny to those who speculate about hazards.

posted in: Syndicated | 5

Australian government funded TV program The 7.30 Report has just run an item about a purportedly new risk in GM food. To discuss this risk, the program featured an abundance of voices from antitechnology organisations but gave no effective scrutiny of their scientific arguments or credentials.

The object of The 7.30 Report discussion was a the new variety of corn bred by cross pollinating different existing corn varieties so that it contains eight different agriculturally advantageous traits. This is the so-called SmartStax corn. This contains six different protections against insect damage and two different versions of herbicide tolerance.

SmartStax corn is a genetically modified food product so that component varieties of SmartStax corn have each been tested to ensure that they are completely equivalent to the non-GM parental variety in terms of nutritional and other effects on animals.

ABC TV quotes a representative of the Adelaide-based organisation Institute of Health and Environment Research saying that this new corn is akin to a cocktail of drugs in terms of its hazard potential. The words polypharmacy effect are used, presumably meaning that the corn is like a cocktail of drugs.

What is missing from this discussion is an analysis of whether a food is a drug.

Staple foods and drugs are fundamentally different*.
Corn is a food staple, and is digested to its harmless and nutritionally valuable component parts in the digestive canal. Drugs on the other hand, are not digested to small harmless components, but enter into into the body as novel chemicals which very definitely do have an effect on some target or other inside the body. That’s why they are called drugs: because they have an detectable and proven effect on how the body works. Indeed, they are extensively tested to ensure that they do have a pharmacological effect on animals and humans. Tests on genetically modified foods are the opposite: they are tested to see that they have no effect.

So when we get to examining this idea that a corn that is bred to contain eight traits is like a cocktail of drugs, we can’t find any logic to confirm that  the analogy makes sense. Food is not a drug; it is digested in the digestive canal to harmless nutrients and the eight traits in this corn are not substances that enter the body. Drugs on the other hand are known into into the body and it is indeed possible for these drug chemicals to interact with one another. Genetically modified foods are tested to make sure they have no effect on the body, at least in terms of observable effects on animals in experiments carried out over 90 days of testing.

It is interesting is that the physical resources or labs of Institute of Health and Environment Research quoted by The 7.30 Report do not feature in the TV program. They would be extremely newsworthy. It is in fact difficult to find out where the facilities of this institute are. All the GMO Pundit can find is a post office box in Adelaide as their only identifiable physical facility in Australia. You’d think that ABC TV would be more transparent about the missing credentials of an organisation they represent as having significant research abilities.

Institute of Health and Environmental Research facility, Kensington Park, South Australia

Although this was a TV program about risks in of corn food components,  there was no discussion of one very real chemical risk of any food component derived from corn and other cereal crops. This is the possibility that the corn had spoilt by mould and contains the potent toxins that can be produced by mould fungi. One of these chemicals found in corn is called fumonisin, and fumonisin is a potent toxin that can cause liver and throat cancer. Unfortunately, insect damage to corn can increase the likelihood that the corn is contaminated with fumonisin or similar mould toxins. Since the SmartStax corn has multiple protections against insect damage is it is highly unlikely to contain any of the dangerous fungal toxins that can occur when crops are damaged by insects – as they often are in the practical field conditions .

Thus the balance of probabilities would seem to be that the multiple genetic protections present in this corn would decrease the likelihood of it being harmful due to the presence of fungal toxins, and it is in that sense safer and better protected against possible hazards than non-genetically modified corn.

The intriguing thing is, none of the organisations that are campaigning against GM-foods ever want to talk about this aspect of food safety, even though they are fully aware of it. It is a pity that the ABC TV didn’t see this issue as an item suitable for discussion in their program.

* Added Note:
Here is a link and a quote from a website section of the Australian regulatory agency  Therapeutic Goods Administration (otherwise known as the TGA). This agency regulates drugs in Australia. The legal definitions of therapeutic goods (which includes includes drugs)  and foods are mutually exclusive. Legally, drugs cannot be foods and vice versa.

How do I determine whether my product is a ‘therapeutic good’?
In ordinary circumstances, the main issues which the TGA considers initially are:

What is this product/substance for? Is it for therapeutic use in humans?
Is it in the Food Standard or has a tradition of use as a food?
Is it exempt or excluded under the provisions of the Act?
The formal definition (from the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989) is as follows:

“therapeutic goods” means goods:

that are represented in any way to be, or that are, whether because of the way in which the goods are presented or for any other reason, likely to be taken to be:
for therapeutic use; or
for use as an ingredient or component in the manufacture of therapeutic goods; or
for use as a container or part of a container for goods of the kind referred to in subparagraph (i) or (ii); or
included in a class of goods the sole or principal use of which is, or ordinarily is, a therapeutic use or a use of a kind referred to in subparagraph (a)(ii) or (iii);
and includes medical devices and goods declared to be therapeutic goods under an order in force under section 7, but does not include:

goods declared not to be therapeutic goods under an order in force under section 7; or
goods in respect of which such an order is in force, being an order that declares the goods not to be therapeutic goods when used, advertised, or presented for supply in the way specified in the order where the goods are used, advertised, or presented for supply in that way; or
goods (other than goods declared to be therapeutic goods under an order in force under section 7) for which there is a prescribed standard in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code as defined in subsection 3(1) of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority Act 1991; or
goods which, in Australia or New Zealand, have a tradition of use as foods for humans in the form in which they are presented.

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.