by Martha R. Herbert
BOSTON – Today the vast majority of foods in supermarkets contain genetically modified substances whose effects on our health are unknown.
As a medical doctor, I can assure you that no one in the medical profession would attempt to perform experiments on human subjects without their consent. Such conduct is illegal and unethical. Yet manufacturers of genetically altered foods are exposing us to one of the largest uncontrolled experiments in modern history.
In less than five years these companies have flooded the marketplace with thousands of untested and unlabeled products containing foreign genetic material. These genetically modified foods pose several very real dangers because they have been engineered to create novel proteins that retard spoilage, produce their own pesticides against insects, or allow plants to tolerate larger and larger doses of weed killers.
Despite claims that these food products are based on “sound science,” in truth, neither manufacturers nor the government has studied the effects of these genetically altered organisms or their new proteins on people–especially babies, the elderly, and the sick.
Can these products be toxic? Can they cause immune system problems? Can they damage an infant’s developing nervous system? We need answers to these questions, and until then genetically altered ingredients should be removed from the food we eat.
As a pediatric neurologist, I especially worry about the safety of modified foods when it comes to children. We know that the human immune system, for example, is not fully developed in infants. Consequently, pediatricians have long been concerned about early introduction of new proteins into the immature gut and developing body of small children.
Infants with colic are often switched to soy formula. Yet we have no information on how they might be affected by drinking genetically engineered soy, even though this product may be their sole or major source of nutrition for months. Because these foods are unlabeled, most parents feed their babies genetically altered formula whether they want to or not.
Even proteins that are normally part of the human diet may, when introduced too early, lead to auto-immune and hypersensitivity or “allergic” reactions later.
Some studies suggest that the epidemic increase in asthma (it has doubled since 1980) may have links to early dietary exposures. The behavior problems of many children with autism and attention disorders get worse when they are exposed to certain foods.
Yet as more unlabeled and untested genetically engineered foods enter the market, there is no one monitoring how the millions of people with immune system vulnerability are reacting to them and the novel proteins and fragments of viruses they can contain. In fact, without labeling, there is no possible way to track such health effects. This is not sound science, and it is not sound public health.
The biotech industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say there is no reason to test genetically modified foods, because they are no different from the products of old-fashioned plant breeding.
Never mind that chicken genes are being put in apples and genes from fish are being used in strawberries. Yet because of the way genes are inserted into unrelated organisms, they have the potential to disrupt other areas of essential genetic information.
We have no idea what these effects may be, or what form the disruptions may take. We don’t know because no one has studied these questions in depth, and biotech corporations are not required to conduct thorough health analyses as a precondition for putting genetically engineered products on the market.
Finally, there is the question of antibiotic-resistance genes.
Biotech corporations put these genes into genetically modified foods as “markers” to see if the alien genetic material has successfully penetrated the cell’s defense system. If the sample resists an antibiotic, the gene has invaded the new organism.
Manufacturers use this technique purely for convenience, cavalierly ignoring the potential health risks from breeding more virulent antibiotic-resistance germs.
Scientists know that in nature antibiotic resistance genes can pass from one organism to another. If such genes take up residence in our bodies, many of the currently available drugs such as ampicillin, an often-used antibiotic, could become useless.
Before we produce and market untested genetically altered foods, we need to conduct a complete, thorough, long-term, and independent evaluation of all of these novel organisms. And we need to label foods containing altered genes. As pediatricians often advise parents, “better safe than sorry.”