Scientist raises concerns about GM food safety

Genetic engineering of food plants is risky because “things can go wrong at every stage,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist for food safety at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

Hansen spoke about the risks of genetically modified foods at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California.

Hansen gave an overview of the process of genetic engineering. There are two methods to insert genetic material into a food plant’s DNA. The first involves a “gene gun,” literally a gun that shoots genetic material through the cell walls into the plant’s DNA. The second involves an agrobacterium that invades the cell with the foreign genes. Both methods, said Hansen, are scattershot.

“There is no control over where the genetic material goes. As in real estate, location is important,” he said. The foreign genes could cause mutations to the host genes resulting in toxins or allergens.

“When you insert genetic material, you have no idea what will happen, and the resulting food plant could cause health problems,” Hansen said.

That is why the genetic engineering process is so risky, Hansen said. “There are many unexpected effects.”

In addition, because US government regulations consider GM foods to be “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods, there are no requirements for safety testing.

“The US is one of the few countries that does not require safety testing,” Hansen said. “Proper safety studies have never been done.”
Hansen then discussed several studies indicating health risks with GM foods. In Australia, scientists scrapped plans to genetically modify field peas to kill pests after tests showed that the GM peas caused allergic damage to mice. Scientists took the gene for a protein capable of killing pea weevil pests from the common bean and transferred into the pea. When extracted from the bean, this protein does not cause an allergic reaction in mice. But the researchers found that when the protein is expressed in the pea using genetic engineering, its structure changed from the way it had been in the bean and caused allergic reactions. A more recent study conducted by the Austrian Ministries for Agriculture and Health found that mice fed a GM corn produced fewer litters, fewer total offspring, and more females with no offspring than mice fed conventional corn.

“There was a 20% decline in offspring (in mice fed GM corn),” Hansen said. “There is something going on to have reproductive effects.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report April 2009