Information Unlimited: All the facts you need to avoid heartache No.16 Genetically modified food

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The Independent Culture
The facts

n At least 60 per cent of processed foods may contain soya.

n 15 per cent of soya is genetically modified.

n MP's in the House of Commons have banned the use of GM food in their restaurants.

n A Mori survey revealed that 61 per cent of Britons regard GM food as unacceptable and 77 per cent support a ban on the commercial growing of GM crops until more is known about health risks and environmental impact.

n All new Iceland and Asda own-label products do not contain GM ingredients.

n The Vegetarian Society has banned the use of GM ingredients from products bearing the society's V approved "by the Vegetarian Society" symbol.

n Tesco is the first British retailer to label all GM ingredients in its own-brand products, including soya oil and lecithin, which do not need labelling under European Union rules.

The good news

Genetic engineering alters the DNA of crops by transferring genes from one organism to another. By genetic engineering food, scientists have extended the shelf life of foods and created crops that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides. For example, fish have a genetic characteristic that helps them survive in very cold water. That gene can now be inserted into a tomato to make it frost-resistant, meaning bigger and better tomato harvests... supposedly.

The bad news

No one is sure about the health effects of eating GM food but there are fears about its safety and its affect on the environment. Though genetically modifying food can eliminate weaknesses in a crop, sometimes it can introduce weaknesses into the food chain too.

Seeds genetically engineered to kill bad pests may kill the good pests too, eg: potatoes which were engineered to kill aphids also killed beneficial ladybirds. If GM crops fail, then they fail in a spectacular way and they could threaten the entire food chain.

In the US, thousands of hectares of Monsanto's cotton seeds failed in 1997 and 1 million acres of GM cotton which was supposed to be resistant to bollworm was destroyed - by bollworm in 1996.

In Nebraska, cattle farmers faced a crisis when their cows stopped grazing because their corn fields had been growing GM corn and they didn't like the taste. Non GM crops cannot be prevented from cross-pollinating with GM crops, meaning that farmers who don't agree with GM have no way of preventing their crops being contaminated.

Last year Guy Watson, an organic farmer from Devon, took the Government to court to stop trials of GM maize crops which were being grown next to his organic sweetcorn. Though the judiciary ruled that the Government acted unlawfully in allowing the trials, they refused to rule that the GM trials should be halted. If the suspected health risks associated with GM are proven, even people who choose to buy organic may unsuspectingly be eating GM food. There is also the risk that the genes will transfer to soil bacteria and then to insects, birds, animals and water.

Health risks

Because GM food has only been around for three years it is difficult to predict its impact, but the recent experience of BSE shows how a relatively small change in food production can have a devastating impact on safety which may take years to show up. Austria and Luxembourg are trying to stop imports of genetically-engineered maize which contains an antibiotic resistance gene. Both countries fear that eating the maize will lead to more resistance to antibiotics in humans and animals. In the US a disease called EMS was eventually linked to a food supplement derived from genetically- modified bacteria. But, 36 people had dead and 1,500 were disabled.

Labelling

Consumers should be allowed to choose whether they want to eat GM food but manufacturers can escape labelling regulations by mixing conventional and GM ingredients. Though 60 per cent of processed food contains soya, because US food producers mix GM soya with regular soya, they don't have to say it's genetically modified on the label. GM soya is found in the following products but it won't be listed on the label

Vegetable protein, hydrolysed vegetable protein and protein isolate which are found in sausages, gravy powder, soups, coffee creamers, frozen desserts, stock-cubes, bacon and ham brine.

Lecithin, an emulsifying agent used to make chocolate, margarine, bread, cakes and biscuits.

Vegetable oil, vegetable fat, hydrogenated vegetable oils are found in many foods including cakes, biscuits, crisps, fast food.

Soya flour, soya flakes, soya milks, soy baby milk and tofu should be properly labelled as should. textured vegetable protein which is found in meat products, meat substitutes and vegetarian dishes.

If you are concerned

Contact your local MP to ask why GM foods are being allowed on to the market without comprehensive testing or proper food labelling.

Ring the Monsanto Soya Information Centre 0345-023288 to ask them why they refuse to segregate their soybeans meaning potential contamination of 60 per cent of the foods we buy.

Write to the manager of your local supermarket and ask them what they intend to do about labelling all genetically engineered foods and ingredients.

Study food labels carefully and buy organic if you can afford it.

Avoid soya-based foods especially soya baby milk.

Useful numbers

Genetics Forum - 0171-638 0606

The Food Commission - 0171-837 2250. The Soil Association - 0117-914 2449. The Consumers Association-0171-830 6000

Recommended reading: `Women Unlimited: The Directory for Life', published by Penguin at pounds 9.99

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