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Enough evidence to show that GM foods are harmful for human health

Dec 19, 2014

In reality, there is no scientific evidence to prove that genetically-modified foods are not harmful for your health, writes Devinder Sharma.


New Delhi: In a scientific study sponsored by the US National Institute of Health, researchers at the Washington State University have found in 2014 that there is always a possibility that you may develop kidney problem, ovarian disease and obesity for no fault of yours. Even if your grandparents were exposed to the pesticide Methoxychlor three generations back, you can suffer the consequences now.

In another study, Paul Winchester, a professor of clinical Paediatrics at Indiana University's School of Medicine, and also a practising neonatologist at the Riley Hospital for Children, found in one study that baby rats exposed to Atrazine, an herbicide that is banned in European countries, were born with no birth defects. But they developed problems including infertility, kidney and prostate problems, cancer and shortened lifespans as adults - and passed them on to their offspring.

Atrazine, a persistent pesticide, is widely used in India.

This study published in 2009 is shocking indeed. So far we were made to believe that the harm pesticides cause is immediately apparent. But Dr Winchester's study goes much beyond and explains how pesticides can have long-term problems in humans. Unaware of the long-term impact of some of the pesticides, I thought it would be useful to share this disturbing news report. I am sure you will agree on the urgent need for more long-term studies to ascertain the effects of pesticides before the approval for its application is given.

Why I am talking about the long-term hitherto unknown health impacts of chemical pesticides is in the light of a recent statement that Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar made in Parliament claiming that there is no scientific evidence to say that genetically-modified foods are harmful to the soil, environment and human health. Genetically-modified crops produce their own toxins within the plants and therefore are a kind of a biological pesticide. The point I am trying to make is that if the harmful impacts of chemical pesticides are now being unearthed after some 70 years of its extensive use worldwide, isn't it too early to give a safety certificate to genetically modified foods, and the harm they do to your health?

In reality, there is no scientific evidence to prove that genetically-modified foods are not harmful for your health. What Prakash Javadekar did not tell Parliament was that the all-powerful GM industry has so far ensured that there is only one human clinical trial so far. In other words there are no medical experiments conducted so as to ascertain what damage to human health can be caused by GM foods. If you don’t want to know how harmful GM foods are, how will you know the harm it can cause to your health?

Let us say that tomorrow you go to a hospital complaining of a severe pain in your stomach. The doctor can go on experimenting with all kinds of medicines but there is no way to find out whether the pain is linked to a GM food you ate. This is because there is no analytical investigation procedure perfected by the medical science to assess or quantitatively measure the presence of a foreign gene in your body and what changes it can cause.

Ever since Dr Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland in 1998 found that GM potatoes when fed to rats in laboratory caused lesions in the gut wall of the animal, all those scientists who dared to publish the negative results of such scientific experiments were at the receiving end of the powerful GM lobby. Instead of conducting more scientific studies to know more about the dangers and thereby clear the mist, most of these scientists were suspended, gagged and eventually lost their jobs.

Nevertheless, let us look at some of the research studies that point to the hidden health dangers that you need to know. After all, it’s you and your family’s health that is at stake.

1.     In one of the only three long-term studies on GM crops, undertaken at Urbino in Italy, scientists         found that rats fed with GM Roundup Ready Soy continuously for 24 months showed significant         changes in liver, pancreas and testes.

2.   In 2012, Prof Gilles-Eric Seralani at the University of Caen in Normandy in France published a     research paper that created a scientific uproar across the globe. In this landmark study, he fed       rats for two years, which is the normal lifespan of rats, with GM corn treated with a popular weed killer Roundup. The result was shocking. These rats developed mammary tumours, much bigger in size than what we normally see, and also liver and kidney diseases. This was the first time a study had been conducted on rats for their full lifespan, which corresponds to about 80 years in human life. Normally, scientific feeding trials are conducted for 90 days, like in India, which corresponds to about 20 years of human life

3.   A long-term multi-generational feeding study for the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety in 2008 showed GM food causing low fertility and significant drop in body weight of the rats.

In another study conducted by a Russian scientist Dr Irina Ermakova, rats fed with GM soya showed a high mortality rate, stunted growth and had smaller body organs compared with the normal healthy rats fed on normal diet. Many such studies conducted by the GM companies Monsanto and Aventis also showed similar results which were later swept under the carpet.

Interestingly, the only published human clinical trial conducted at the University of Newcastle in 2004, showed that the transgenic gene passed through the human stomach and small intestines. In other words, as I said earlier, whether it causes insinuating pain in your stomach or not is something that has never been ascertained. This study was conducted for the Food Standard Agency in Britain.

I had therefore expected Prakash Javadekar to launch a comprehensive scientific study to know of the health and environmental impacts of GM crops before jumping to a hasty conclusion. Since there is no crisis on the food front that India is faced with, there could have been no better opportunity to silence the critics as well as to build confidence among the consumers about the safety of GM foods by launching a long-term multi-generation study. After all, if chemical pesticides impacts can be passed on to third generation, we need to be sure that GM foods do not cause health damage to our grandchildren.

Devinder Sharma is an agriculture and food security expert.

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