University City

March 8, 2013

Advocates at UNC Charlotte warn about genetically modified foods

Speaker at UNCC says failure to regulate genetically modified foods is reckless

The two-dozen people who sat in UNC Charlotte’s movie theater filled less than one-eighth of its 209-seat capacity, but that didn’t matter to Pamela Watson.

She’s one of the organizers who arranged the screening of “Genetic Roulette,” a documentary depicting the consequences of genetically modified foods.

“It really only takes a small number of people to request that things be different,” said Watson, a registered nurse for the past 34 years in Charlotte. “There’s a tipping point.”

Watson helps lead the Charlotte branch of the Tipping Point Network, a national advocacy group that educates communities on what members believe are the hazards of genetically modified foods. To date, the network, coordinated by the Institute for Responsible Technology, has 127 chapters across the country.

Most genetically modified foods derive from plants whose DNA is altered when scientists introduce a gene from a different organism into them for an added benefit.

When researchers injected corn with Bacillus thuringiensis – a bacterium naturally found in soil with traits that kill insects – they created a type of corn plant that didn’t need pesticides.

Scientists have also been able to successfully introduce genes from drought- and disease-resistant organisms into other crops, such as sugar beets, soybeans and cotton. The appeal of faster crop growth, higher yields and little expense for chemicals to treat insects and disease quickly took hold with many farmers.

But a growing number of people are becoming concerned about the safety of GM foods. While the FDA considers them just as safe as conventional foods, the federal agency doesn’t test them. It relies on the majority of scientists who have. And they claim that studies show there’s no evidence genetically modified foods are harmful.

Watson is among the many who believe that lack of regulation is reckless, and the scientists pushing GM food safety are concerned with their own agendas.

“They’ll tell you the science isn’t there,” Watson said of the studies on GM food safety. “But the correlation is. When genetically modified foods were introduced, things started changing: the incidence of breast cancer, asthma, allergies and autoimmune diseases. All of those have increased within the time frame.”

Watson is not claiming GM foods should take all of the blame, just that they should be investigated further.

GM foods aren’t new to grocery store shelves in the United States. Tomatoes were the first to come to market in 1994, although they’ve since been taken off the shelves because they didn’t sell any better. Today, most of the sugar, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are GM crops.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the U.S. leads other countries in GM crop growth: 171 million acres of GM crops were grown in the U.S. last year.

But a growing number of countries have begun to either ban the import of GM foods or ban the growing of them on home soil. Peru, Japan, Russia, France, Ireland and Egypt are among those countries with restrictions.

Other countries are passing laws that require products with GM ingredients be labeled so consumers can make their own decisions. Australia, New Zealand, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, India, Chile and South Africa require labeling for products containing GM foods. Efforts to pass laws to label GM foods have failed in the United States.

India became the latest country to require labels on GM products, passing a law that took effect in January.

It’s a step in the right direction, said Kiran Uppalapati, a Ph.D. candidate studying electrical engineering at UNC Charlotte.

Uppalapati is also a member of AID Charlotte, the campus chapter of the Association for India’s Development. The organization in part brings recognition to negative effects of GM foods in India.

When Uppalapati returns to India in December, he plans to join the growing movement to return the country to conventional farming.

“You’re introducing a chemical into the system that is supposed to kill the bug, but it’s getting into our food,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to stop in India.”

Watson met Uppalapati last month when he joined the Tipping Point Network in Charlotte. Both hope that, if they can educate enough people about GM foods, they can cause a stir to either eliminate such foods or, at the very least, campaign for better regulation of them. They know they have a lot of ground to cover before that’s accomplished.

“Most people are just not aware,” said Watson.

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