Questions about the safety of GM crops valid

Over the past few years, communities from all over Hawaii have come together to question the safety over the planting of experimental genetically modified crops and about the large amounts of pesticides that are applied to grow them – some in close proximity to schools and communities.

The agrochemical industry has responded in a predictable manner with a well-funded public relations campaign and by greasing the wheels of power in government, media and academia.

To design an effective PR campaign, the agrochemical industry is drawing upon many decades of experience in defending the safety of an alphabet soup of dangerous products such as asbestos, Agent Orange, atrazine, benzene, bisphenol-A, dioxin, Dursban, PCBs and even silicone breast implants.

To understand why real concerns exist about the health and environmental safety of GM crops, it is important to demystify or deconstruct some of the claims made by the agrochemical industry:

* Contrary to industry claims, no scientific consensus exists about the safety of genetically modified crops.

* The vast majority of the 1,600-plus studies cited by the industry to claim safety have little or nothing to do with the health safety of GM crops. Also, most of the long-term studies cited by the industry don’t have the sufficient number of samples or the statistical power needed to detect differences between treatments.

* Contrary to industry claims, few independent studies have evaluated the safety of GM crops and no post-marketing studies have been conducted to determine whether GM crops have had an adverse health or environmental effect.

* In the real world, the intensive use of pesticides and the planting of GM crops are co-mingled. Safety exposure studies thus need to consider together both the presence of pesticide residues and of the genetic mutations on the crop.

* The promise of jobs, rewards or other economic enticements is considered to be an unethical practice, according to public health and medical standards, when introducing experimental drugs or vaccines to impoverished rural communities. The enticement principle also applies to field workers exposed to toxic chemicals and to novel experimental genetic mutations.

* The economic concept of opportunity costs has not been brought into the value equation for the GM seed industry. Without assessing external costs to society, the GM industry claims an annual value of about $10,000 per acre from the land it owns or leases. Yet we have not considered the opportunity cost of not growing high-value environmentally friendly crops with per-acre annual revenues of over $150,000.

* No evidence exists that GM crops will be effective in feeding a hungry global population. For example, hunger in the U.S. has escalated despite the extensive adoption of GM crops over the past 15 years.

* Several problems with GM crops are well-documented, including the use of more pesticides, the prolific spread of pesticide-resistant superweeds and superbugs, billions of dollars lost to farmers due to GM contamination, the monopolization of the food supply and the adverse effect of pesticides on both health and the environment.

Another favorite strategy of the agrochemical industry and its supporters is the attempt to marginalize and to characterize those who question the safety of genetic modification as outsiders, anti-science or even as anti-farming. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Concerns about safety have actually brought communities together, with simple requests about disclosure, transparency and accountability.

The food safety movement has also been mischaracterized as “anti.” A more accurate description would be to characterize the movement as “pro” – pro-healthy and wholesome toxic-free diets, pro-small family farms, pro-Aloha, pro-aina or land stewardship and pro-protection of future generations.

* Hector Valenzuela, Ph.D., is a professor and crop specialist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.