If you've paid even a little attention to food industry news, you know there's huge concern over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in our food supply. It's estimated that more than half of America's processed grocery products contain gene-altered ingredients. Since at least the 1990's we've been consuming genetically modified enzymes primarily in breads, cheeses, sodas, and beers. Today, the primary genetically modified (GM) food crops are corn, soybeans, and potatoes.
What does all of this really mean? Is there a real threat to health? Won't GM crops help us feed a planet with dwindling resources?
It's easy to get confused by arguments from both sides of the proverbial fence. We hope our basic, 5-point primer on GM foods helps you become a more informed consumer:
GE or GMO: What's the Difference?
"Genetically Engineered" (GE) and GMO are used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Confusion arises because the USDA defines a GMO as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification.
Genetically engineering food is different from the way plant breeders make selections for plant traits between two cultivars. When a plant breeder (organic or conventional) selects a trait like disease resistance found in one plant and uses that trait to enhance another plant, that creates a hybrid. In this case, the plant breeder has encouraged the same kind of selections that might occur in nature. Breeders also monitor the plants for effects on specific characteristics including quality, nutrient density, and productivity. This is the true application of the term "genetically modifying organisms".
A GE crop is one in which a single gene or combinations of genes from one organism are artificially forced into the DNA of another organism (a crop). Essentially, the natural boundary between two species is broken in order to create a new life form (i.e., foods) with more desirable traits.
For example, to get cold-weather hardy tomatoes, you can splice the DNA from salmon, which has those genetic features and transfer it into the tomato. This yields a larger crop when the weather is less than favorable. The problem? Tomatoes would never naturally contain those fishy genes.
But far more than fish genes are being spliced into crops. According to Jeffrey Smith, President of the Institute for Responsible Technology, "GM plants, such as soybean, corn, cottonseed, and canola, have had foreign genes, such as bacteria and viruses forced into their DNA. These have never been in the human food supply."
Therein lies the problem with food that has been genetically modified outside of nature's boundaries: The genetics of a plant, not only affect its color, taste, yield and nutrient quality, they likely affect the way that food goes to work in the human body.In the interest of larger crop yields, profits for big biotech companies, and claims that GM foods will 'feed the world,' we have no proof that these foods are safe and no data to indicate the short or long-term effects on human health. And, people are still starving around the world.
"Even if the transgene itself is not dangerous or toxic, it could upset complex biochemical networks and create new bioactive compounds or change the concentrations of those normally present. In addition, the properties in proteins may change in a new chemical environment because they may fold in new ways. Further, the potential toxic or carcinogenic effects could have substantial latency periods." - The Need for Greater Regulation and Control of Genetic Engineering: A Statement by Scientists Concerned About Trends in the New Biotechnology (1995)
What are the Health Concerns of GMO Food?
GM foods do not undergo regulated testing in the United States. Much of what we know comes from independent scientists conducting animal studies (and the so-called unbiased studies from big biotech). However, scientists and politicians in other countries believe the threat to health is real-GE/GM crop cultivation is now banned by 38 countries worldwide (28 in Europe).
Medical professionals claim there are health effects potentially linked to eating these foods. In her article for the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Martha R. Herbert, a pediatric neurologist wrote: "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... Yet manufacturers of genetically altered foods are exposing us to one of the largest uncontrolled experiments in modern history."
Potential Health Effects:
- Introduction of new allergens into crops could result in increased rates of allergies and allergy-related health conditions.
- Bacteria in our guts could pick up antibiotic-resistant genes found in many GM foods that have been spliced with antibiotics.
- Animal studies indicate GM foods may cause toxic effects on the liver, kidneys, pancreas or reproductive system.
- Animal studies show that DNA in food can travel into organs throughout the body, even into the fetus.
- The risks to children and fetuses may be greater because their digestive and neurological systems are not fully developed.
Why are food genetics being manipulated?
There are two primary traits that have been added to crops: herbicide tolerance, which lets the farmer spray weed-killer directly on the crop without killing it, and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. These outcomes have no proven health benefit to humans, There is, however, economic benefit for biotech companies such as Monsanto, which develops (and owns the patent to) the weed-killer that farmers use on crops and we use in gardens (e.g., Roundup aka glyphosate). The company has been accused of everything from hiding research on the real health effects of glyphosate used on crops around the world to knowingly producing products that threaten biodiversity and cause cancer.
To date, six bio-tech giants are actively lobbying against the U.S. public's demand for GMO labeling on foods. And yet, legislators continue to protect citizens as demonstrated by California's recent decision requiring Monsanto to label Roundup as carcinogenic.
Resources for learning more about GMOs, Monsanto, and health implications are listed below.
- Six Easy Ways to Avoid GMO Foods in Your Shopping Bag.
- GMO FAQ.(also has non-GMO shopping tips, education, training resources)
- Harvest of Fear. PBS/Nova/Frontline Special Report.
- New GMO Studies Demonstrate Genetic Non-Equivalence [of foods]. United Kingdom Institute for Science in Society.
- Poison Plants. Scientific American Online.
- Pandora's Pantry. Mother Jones Online.
Image Attribution: Kerdkanno/bigstockphoto.com