The quality of food produced locally and of imported food items should be of the utmost importance to us. The public should be demanding on issues related to the use and control of chemical products in agriculture. The development of extensive organic farming is a key factor in avoiding health problems arising from lack of control of pesticides and genetically modified seeds or animal feed.
If anything, one should be wary of bulk import of seeds, soybeans, corn and other items produced by multinationals on the American continent and in other places which experiment with genetically modified foods (or GM foods). The biotech industry worldwide tends to adopt the same strategy as big pharma. The safety studies conducted by the biotech industry are often dismissed by critics as superficial and designed to avoid the identification of problems. Unintended changes in the composition of products in which foreign genes have been inserted are not divulged to the public.
Recently, we heard about the import of soy from a South American country. Are the authorities concerned about the quality of the product and the risk of it being a Monsanto GM product? The Indian Council of Medical Research identified a long list of potentially dangerous side effects of GM foods that are not being evaluated. It called for a complete overhaul of existing regulations.
What happens in the US and the UK is that scientists who have discovered incriminating evidence are threatened, denied funding or tenure, or fired. Scientists have warned that GM foods in general might create unpredicted allergies, toxins, antibiotic resistant diseases and nutritional problems.
A UK government-funded study demonstrated that rats fed with a GM potato developed potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, partial atrophy of the liver, and inhibited development of their brains, livers and testicles. When the lead scientist went public with his concerns, he was promptly fired from his job after 35 years of service and silenced with threats of a lawsuit. It speaks volumes of the power of biotech lobbies on blanket approvals given to hazardous food produces.
As for the GM soy, the process of inserting a foreign gene damages a section of the soy’s own DNA and might create a new, potentially dangerous protein. Experiments carried on mice showed problems with liver cell formation and pancreatic functions. What is hazardous is that if the novel protein created by the inserted foreign gene in soy is allergenic or toxic, it may affect consumers in the long term even if after they give up eating GM soy.
We do hope that canned tomatoes, corn and other products are GM-free. In some countries, consumers demand that that their food supply be GM-free, and manufacturers comply. Are we really strict on food safety in Mauritius? Soft drinks may also contain ingredients that are not natural and are harmful to our health. Consumer complacency and a lack of awareness might lay to the advantage of unscrupulous manufacturers and importers, who carry on with a most lucrative business at the expense of public health.
The government plans to give lands to small planters and if these lands can be used to promote organic farming, diversify vegetables, experiment with other types of lettuce, for instance, and grow wide-scale fruit trees, it will to the benefit of everyone. Unhealthy food habits have already taken a toll on public health though the Health ministry has, especially since the 1980s, not spared any effort to raise public awareness on the issue and introduce the appropriate public health measures to contain the situation.
Most Mauritians cannot afford pleasures which fleece their bank account. Food is a common pleasure shared by everyone; so let it be natural and healthy.
* Published in print edition on 6 March 2015