We’ve all been told: consume Omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in cold water oily fish, for better health. But we’ve also been warned: with global fish stocks in decline, if everyone consumed the recommended amounts of fish in order to obtain enough Omega-3s, the results would be catastrophic for wild fish. There is also a concern that eating too much of certain kinds of fish may lead to mercury and other heavy metal poisoning. And, we are told that while other food sources, such as flax, for example, contain Omega-3s, they are considered incomplete and are inefficiently converted by the body.
Enter Monsanto: with the collaboration of Solae, the company has developed a soybean that has been genetically engineered to contain the Omega-3 fatty acids. The “GM (Omega) soy,” the company claims, will not only add to a healthier lifestyle (Omega-3s is said to lead to better cardiac health) but that it will stabilize the ocean’s fish population. Unlike other plant based foods containing Omega-3s, it is claimed that the GM (Omega) soy is more efficiently converted by the body. The company is moving forward without much delay in developing and testing foods containing this ingredient in part because of the green light from the Food and Drug Administration which has issued a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) notice for the GM (Omega) soy. And recently the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that it is evaluating Monsanto’s submission of the same GM (Omega) soy product.
And in case anyone wondered, the soy is genetically engineered to be roundup resistant.
Monsanto’s claims about its product, however, are overly optimistic and simplistic.
The company’s self-proclaimed status of savior of wild fish rings false to many ears. As Jill Richardson aptly put it, “I’m sorry, but that’s like inflating the tires on a Hummer and saying you’re doing something to help fight global warming.” The decline of the fish population is a complex problem that is caused by multiple of factors that cannot be redressed with a single solution. Monsanto’s saving the wild fish argument is just as unbelievable as the industry’s claims that GM food will save the overpopulated world from hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported in 2007, for example, that “in 18 … [out of 34 countries], the food crisis is wholly or partially a result of current or recent civil strife or conflict.” Tackling world hunger, therefore, involves first and foremost challenging political systems and improving systems of food distribution but simply growing more (GM) food is not going to solve the issue. Similarly, it is unlikely that simplistic solutions to address the decline in fish populations will be succesful. After all, fish populations are in decline not only because of overfishing, although that contributes to the problem, but also because of water pollution, climate change, habitat loss, and lack or lack of enforcement of local and international laws. Ironically, one of the contributing factors of water pollution (which contributes to the decline of fish populations) is caused by agricultural runoff, which further begs the question of whether growing GM (Omega) soy will hurt or help the declining fish populations.
Monsanto’s health claims concerning its GM (Omega) soy are equally oversimplified and the the quote from Dr. Alexander Leaf, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School on the company’s website, namely, “[i]f it is found that [GM engineered Omega-3] behaves in every way the same as the fish-based fatty acids do, it will be an unbelievable blessing as far as human health care goes,” further underscores the point. Any GM food that has not been evaluated long term and whose impact on the body is yet to be told in the future, cannot be considered, at least at this early stage, a contributor to better health. While it may be true that naturally found Omega-3 may contribute to better health, even that is not the end of the health story. Better health is a result of a combination of lifestyle choices. For example, even where Omega-3s are concerned, a person also needs Omega-6s in addition to Omega-3s, because it is actually the ratio between the two fatty acids that matters. Additionally, better health also means obtaining the necessary vitamins, minerals, exercise, sleep, reduction in stress… you get the picture.
Yet Monsanto’s PR message would have you believe otherwise and its glowing review of its product aims to convince consumers that GM (Omega) soy will solve complex world issues and improve your health, all at the same time. What is disturbing, however, is that the minute the GM product is advertised as good for your health and good for the environment, the tone of the GM debate changes, or rather, muted. There is almost an implict message saying that something that is good cannot be bad and critical analysis of the GM product becomes implicitly anti-environment and anti-health. Lost in the sunshing of the PR message, however, is that the GM (Omega) soy is a GMO and the concerns and unanswered questions raised about GMO are part and parcel of the deal.
It is hard to digest the GM (Omega) soy news without skepticism. When the government policies presume that GMOs are safe and equivalent to their non-modified plants, when much of the research is industry-derived and there are reports of suppression of information that raise concerns about their safety, and when there is no mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs in the United States, this GM (Omega) soy stew shall remain for now in its designated place: off my table.
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