There is a growing amount of information about GMOs in recent years that, (genetically modified organisms), appear to confirm serious health and environmental implications due to these ‘novel’ foods.
With that mounting evidence that GMOs may pose a risk, we ask the question: Are GMO foods the next best hope for feeding our planet, or should we follow the example set by consumers in the European Union? The EU voiced an outcry about GMOs which reached such proportions that, in April 1999, virtually all major manufacturers publicly committed to stop using genetically modified ingredients in their European brands.
But on the other side of the GMO debate, there stands proponents that represent big agriculture and chemical industries that tout the overwhelming benefits of GM foods. Are their assertions and claims have any basis that GMOs are completely safe, or is it simply just hype?
Let’s dig a little deeper and take a close look at both sides of the GMO issue and let you decide.
The Case for GMOs
According to the GMO industry, there are many good reasons to use GMOs:
- Reduced need for herbicides
- Reduced need of pesticides
- Reduced greenhouse emissions as GMOs require less tillage or plowing, thus less use of fossil fuels
- Ability to manipulate foods to increase desirable components such as nutrients
- Increased production of food for starving third world countries.
These are certainly worthwhile goals, and humans have been successfully modifying the genetics of their food supply for centuries.
The supporters assert that over a trillion GMO meals have been eaten, thus proving their safety. The problem, of course, is that the new technology is far different from the hybridization and selection methods used in the past.
The big question: “Are GMOs safe?”
The European Union Consumer-Led Revolt
The EU consumer-led revolt against GMOs was triggered in February 1999 when media coverage exploded after top GMO safety researcher, Dr. Arpad Pusztai was called to speak before Parliament and went public with some very alarming research results.
Dr. Pusztai, a highly respected leader in the field with 35 years employment at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, had been given a UK government grant to design the long-term testing protocols that were supposed to be part of the European GM food safety assessment process. When Pusztai fed rats genetically modified (GM) potatoes to produce a supposedly safe insecticide called the GNA lectin, all the animals showed pre-cancerous cell growths, smaller brains, livers and testicles, partially atrophied livers, and damaged to the immune system–with most changes appearing after just 10 days.
Since other rats fed normal potatoes spiked with GNA lectin–even 700 times more GNA lectin than was present in the GM potatoes–did not develop these problems, Pusztai’s results indicated that the problem lay with genetic engineering process itself. And that meant that all GM foods created from the same process, including those already on the market, might produce unintended ill effects.
What happens when researchers step forward with their findings?
According to Pusztai, when he expressed his concerns about GMO foods, he was fired and threatened with a lawsuit if he discussed his research. His 20-member research team was disbanded; the testing protocols were dropped, and a campaign was begun by pro-GM forces to discredit the study. Then an invitation to testify before Parliament allowed Pusztai to tell his story, and all hell broke loose. By April 1999, the protests of informed consumers had convinced manufacturers that GMOs would not sell in the EU, and all agreed to keep GMOs out of their European products, in spite of official approvals by a pro-GM European Commission.
Americans Ill-Informed about GMOs
In the U.S., the Pusztai story got virtually no press, and the U.S. mainstream media has failed to discuss other data suggesting GM foods may pose enormous health risks, including:
- A preliminary study from the Russian National Academy of Sciences finding that more than half the offspring of mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks (compared to 9% from mothers fed natural soy).
- The estimated 10,000 sheep that died in India within 5-7 days of grazing on GM cotton plants engineered to produce their own Bt-toxin pesticide.
- The only human GM feeding study ever published, which shows that the foreign genes inserted into GM food crops can transfer into the DNA of our gut bacteria. This study gives new meaning to the adage, “You are what you eat.” Long after those GM corn chips you munched are history, your intestinal flora may still be churning out the “Bt” pesticide GM corn plants have been engineered to produce.
What agencies oversee GMO production and testing?
U.S. consumers mistakenly believe that, unless the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved each and every GM food through rigorous, well designed, long-term studies, GM food ingredients would not be allowed in our food supply and certainly could not be omnipresent in prepared foods in the form of corn, soy, cottonseed and canola derivatives.
The reality is that the FDA has absolutely no GMO safety testing requirements, and GM ingredients are found in almost all prepared foods that line the grocery shelves in the stores. Unless a processed food contains only organic ingredients, it is highly likely to contain GM ingredients.
Again, no agency oversees or tests GMOs, and because of this, the “research” that supports GMO safety isn’t mandated by any agencies or US government, and the information that may be given is done so in a voluntary basis by the very companies that produce their own GM crops and foods, which has been described by critics as “meticulously designed to avoid finding problems”.
Further down the FDA rabbithole
What’s most astounding is the 44,000 FDA internal documents later made public as a result of a lawsuit revealed problems with GMOs, and the overwhelming consensus among the FDA’s scientists was that GM foods were “substantively different”, so different that their consumption might result in unpredictable and hard-to-detect allergens, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. Agency scientists urged superiors to require long-term studies, but were not only ignored, their statements about possible negative effects of GMOs were progressively deleted from FDA policy statement drafts. Evidence of this FDA activity was presented at a Washington, D.C., press conference in 1999, another story major media didn’t publicize.
The same companies that carefully avoid including GM ingredients in their European products are feeding GMOs to ill-informed consumers in the US. Most Americans know so little about GMOs that, although virtually all of us have now, albeit unwittingly, eat GMO foods the vast majority of processed foods contain derivatives from the four major GM crops: soy, corn, cottonseed and canola, only about 1 in 4 realize it.
How are GMOs created?
The way GMOs are created disrupts the plant’s DNA in unintended, potentially harmful ways. In genetic engineering, a single gene is removed from one organism and forcibly inserted into another. First, scientists identify the gene they want and analyze its sequence. (If the source gene is to be taken from bacteria, some of its sequence has to be rearranged because bacteria produce certain amino acids using a code different from the one used by plants).
After figuring out a working gene sequence, engineers add a promoter sequence at one end of the gene to turn it on (the most popular one in GM crops being CaMV 35S, which forces the gene to constantly churn out the protein), and a terminator sequence at the other end (which tells the DNA to stop). Lastly, scientists add a marker gene, usually one that confers antibiotic resistance, so they can later douse the plant cells with antibiotics, killing off normal cells and revealing those that have been genetically modified. This combination of gene sequences – called a “gene cassette” – is then multiplied into millions and inserted into target plant cells via one of two primary methods, both of which trigger a wound response the cell.
Other methods of GMO insertion
One method employs a bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens), which normally infects a plant by inserting a portion of its own DNA into the plant’s DNA and then causing the plant to produce tumors. Genetic engineers remove the tumor-creating section of this bacterium’s DNA and replace it with the desired gene cassette, so the bacterium “infects” the plants with the foreign genes instead.
The second method uses a gene gun. Scientists coat millions of particles of tungsten or gold with gene cassettes and blast them into millions of plant cells, only a few of which incorporate the foreign gene cassette.
In either of the two delivery forms, the next step is the application of the antibiotic to which the gene cassette confers resistance. Most of the plant cells die, but a few – the ones in which the transgene has inserted – survive. These are developed into plants that researchers can duplicate by making clones through tissue culture or harvesting the seeds.
Each plant grown from a gene insertion is unique because where the transgene ends up integrating itself into the host DNA is uncontrolled and cannot be reproduced. For this reason, the possible consequences to the plant’s DNA are different with each insertion, so all plants developed from a specific insertion are collectively referred to as an “event.”
In sum, genetic engineering artificially combines genes from different species and forcibly inserts them into unknown and random locations on the host genome. The procedure, which disrupts the precise orchestration of thousands of genes that has evolved over millennia in the normal plant’s genome, is highly mutagenic. We now know that genes, like nutrients, do not work singularly, but as part of highly integrated networks. Plus it introduces bacterial genes for drug resistance along with strong promoters to express the foreign proteins at high levels in all parts of the plant.
How to Go Non-GMO
- Organic foods are not allowed to contain GM ingredients. Even the small percentage of non-organic ingredients allowed in foods labeled organic is not allowed to contain GMOs.
- If you are traveling to Europe, no worries, GMOs are banned in EU foods. In the United States and Canada, however, GM foods are not only legal, but are unlabeled, so avoiding them can be challenging.
- Carefully read the label if purchasing prepared or processed foods, vitamins, prepared or processed foods to make sure the main food additives are not included, such as soy, corn and their derivatives.
- Most generic vegetable oils and margarines used in restaurants and in processed foods in North America are made from soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed—the four major genetically engineered crops. Avoid these oils, unless they are organic or labeled non-GMO. Choose any other oil, e.g., olive, sunflower, or safflower.
- Check the list of ingredients for GM enzymes, additives, sweeteners, soy and/or corn derivatives. Genetically modified bacteria and fungi are used in the production of enzymes, vitamins, food additives, flavorings and processing agents in thousands of foods on the grocery shelves as well as health supplements.
- Flavorings such as vanillin and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which is derived from corn and soy, can also come from GM sources. Xanthan gum is another product that may be derived from a GM process.
- Aspartame, the diet sweetener, is a product of genetic engineering.
- Honey can be produced from GM crops. For example, some Canadian honey comes from bees collecting nectar from canola. This has shut down exports of Canadian honey to Europe.
What the production of GMO crops and foods points to is a product that has zero accountability, zero safety testing by the very agencies that are supposed to keep the public from harm, and the immeasurable unintended negative consequences that GMO possess.
Except for organic foods, the entire American food supply has been systematically hijacked by chemical companies, not bent on trying to feed the world; not providing healthy alternatives, but rather for profits that they reap from the chemicals that are used by thousands of farmers that grow GMO crops.
These chemical companies have essentially created a destructive product, from the degradation of microorganisms in the soil, to the food we buy and eat. Perhaps only in decades to come will we ever be able to reverse the damage that GMOs have caused. In fact, unless GMOs and this technology isn’t kept in check, the very existence of all species of living beings and our planet may be in jeopardy for many future generations to come.