Andreas Späth

A nation of lab rats?

2010-02-03 13:00

I'm not fond of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It's not that I'm anti-technology per se, but before I adopt a new technology, I think it's reasonable to ask a couple of questions: Do I really need it? Who actually benefits from it? And, perhaps most importantly, is it going to do me, anyone else or the planet any harm? Where technology physically ends up inside my body, I feel it's more than appropriate to be cautious.

In recent weeks I've been particularly concerned about the resurgence of reports that eating GMO maize may have detrimental health effects. Last December, a group of French scientists published a re-evaluation of data from a study in which rats were fed GMO maize for 90 days.

The original work was conducted by Monsanto, the multinational biotechnology company, who produce the maize in question and found it to be safe for consumption. The new analysis, published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, revealed that compared to various control groups of rats fed on conventional maize, GMO maize consumption resulted in negative side effects associated primarily with the kidneys and liver, but also the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and blood cells.

The same group of researchers had come to similar conclusions in an earlier study published in 2007. On both occasions, the research data had to be prised out of Monsanto's corporate hands through legal pressure since the company claimed that they contain confidential information which would be of commercial value to its competitors.

These aren't the only instances in which the safety of GMO maize has been questioned:

- In 2000, two British scientists reported that biotech company Aventis had failed to investigate suspiciously high mortality trends among chickens during a GMO maize feeding study.

- In 2005, a German experiment during which rats were fed a Monsanto GMO maize variety for 13 weeks raised concerns over liver toxicity.

- In 2008, the Austrian Ministry of Health, Family and Youth Affairs released the results of a 20-week GMO maize feeding study on mice which showed structural changes in the liver, spleen and pancreas as well as a statistically-significant reduction in fertility.

Whenever such results are publicised the response of the biotech industry and the pro-GMO lobby is as predictable as it is swift and authoritative. The methods, reasoning and conclusions of opponents are called into question and their professional credentials and integrity queried. But these are not simply spurious allegations made by tree-hugging hippies. They are findings published by reputable institutions and in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Why am I so concerned about GMO maize? South Africa is in a special and potentially precarious situation with regards to this particular crop. Genetically engineered maize was first introduced commercially in South Africa in 1998 and today no country outside of North America and Argentina cultivates more GMO maize - some 69% of its entire maize crop.

What makes us unusual, however, is that we are the only major GMO maize producing country in which maize is the staple food of the majority of the population. The average seven-person rural household in South Africa consumes nearly 1.5 tons of maize meal annually.

Are we conducting an uncontrolled health experiment on millions of mostly poor, mostly unwitting people?

Yes, there have been studies that suggest that GM crops are safe both for human consumption and for release into the environment, but severely disconcerting reports to the contrary make their inconvenient appearance at intervals that are far too frequent to inspire confidence in this particular technology.

In Europe, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Greece and Luxembourg have all banned GMO maize on the basis of perceived health and environmental dangers. Concerned scientists are calling for more long-term studies to assess such issues. Available experimental data are too limited and too often produced by the manufacturers of GMOs themselves.

Surely a much more cautionary approach is called for in South Africa, too. It’s not too late for us to reconsider our mielie-growing future.

- Do you agree with Andreas or is he being alarmist? With so much GMO maize already out there... is it simply too late?

Send your comments to Andreas

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