What is a GMO and Why Should You Care?

hypodermic needles stuck in fresh tomatoes

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Did you know that over 70% of foods in your grocery store contain Genetically Modified (GM) ingredients? The most common foods that are genetically modified, or “engineered,” include corn, soy, canola, sugar beet, and cottonseed oil, which can be found as ingredients in almost all non-organic packaged foods, and even in the food in most restaurants.

Additionally, the vast majority of GM corn and soybeans are grown to feed livestock—meaning the GMOs are incorporated into animal tissue and ingested at a much higher rate by humans than if we ate the corn or soybeans directly.

So, unless you eat organic all the time, without food labeling, you will inevitably participate in the great Genetic Modification experiment being perpetuated on us all, whether we like it or not.

What is a GMO Anyway?

There’s a lot of confusion about what is a genetically modified (GMO) food, and biotech companies like it that way. Let’s clear things up right now.

Humans have been manipulating, modifying and, yes, you could say “engineering” crops for as long as we have been doing agriculture. For the first 9,800 years (or so) that we have been farming, we did genetic modification by observing plants that had traits we liked (taste, color, size, drought resistance, pest resistance, etc.), and selecting and saving their seeds to plant for ourselves under protected conditions.

By careful selection and cultivation over the millennia, humans “engineered” corn, wheat, tomatoes, apples, and almost all of the foods we eat today from tiny, barely edible, wild predecessors.

Farming as we know it is a product of genetic manipulation.

Just in the last century or so, we started using specialized tools and controlled settings like greenhouses to get around the difficulties and randomness of wild selection and open-air pollination. Hence, hybrid seed breeding was born.

While hybrids (crosses between related but genetically different plants) occur in Nature all the time, they are often random mutations that don’t necessarily benefit the plant—or other species like us that might eat them. But in modern hybrid seed production, the crosses between genetic material are specific and controlled.

The advantage of growing hybrid seed compared to inbred, open-pollinated lines comes from the ability to cross the genetic materials of two different, but related plants to produce new, desirable traits that can’t be produced through inbreeding two of the same plants. Most of today’s livestock and companion animals were created through crossing different breeds to create hybrids—from Guernsey cows to hairless cats to the Labra-Doodle!

Although hybrid seeds cannot be saved since their offspring will not have predictable traits (which creates problems for subsistence farmers), a whole new world of food crops became available as a result of hybridization, including Canola, sweet corn, canteloupes, seedless watermelons, “burpless” cucumbers, as well as tangelos, clementines, apriums, pluots and other unique foods.

In fact, in addition to edible novelties, today’s high-tech forms of hybridization are helping us breed all sorts of drought and pest tolerant plants that are helping us survive and adapt to a changing climate.

“GMO” is NOT Selective Breeding

The term GM foods, GE foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created using the latest molecular biology techniques. However, modern Genetically Modified crops are nothing like open-pollinated, heirloom varieties or even high-tech, hybridized seeds. In both open-pollinated and hybrid seeds, we have always been breeding crops that were genetically able to breed, like two types of pear, or two varieties of squash, or two breeds of dog.

Unlike seed selection or hybridization, GMO technology allows us to “play God” in a way that even Mother Nature hasn’t dared. With sophisticated lab techniques, we can now manipulate and combine the DNA of species that could never, ever breed in nature—like fish and tomatoes, or bacteria and corn.

Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.”

When people call something “GMO”, they are specifically referring to a patented plant created using recombinant DNA technology.

With GM techniques, we can grow rice that contains pharmaceutical drugs in every cell of the plant, we can grow soy and corn that can survive gallons of toxic chemicals dumped on it, and we can force cows to produce twice as much milk as they were ever meant to, requiring widespread use of antibiotics to deal with udder infections.

Notice a theme here? None of it is to grow food in a healthy, natural or sustainable way. All of it is to foster more use of chemicals and drugs.

What a brave new world. Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should.

GMO crops are truly Franken-foods, and have no precedent in nature. Some people believe GMOs are Abominations. Whatever you believe, don’t believe for one second that GM crops are anything like other forms of seed manipulation or hybridization. Only GMO crops cross the species barrier, making them the biggest ecological experiment ever conducted on the planet.

More on GMOs

Why Should You Care?

On May 19, 2009, the American Academy Of Environmental Medicine called for an immediate moratorium on Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs), stating that “GM foods pose a serious health risk.” Citing several animal studies, the AAEM concluded:

“There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects… GM foods pose a serious health risk in toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health.”

Consider these alarming facts:

  • More and more doctors are prescribing GM-free diets. Dr. Amy Dean, a Michigan internal medicine specialist, and board member of AAEM says, “I strongly recommend patients eat strictly non-genetically modified foods.” Ohio allergist Dr. John Boyles says “I used to test for soy allergies all the time, but now that soy is genetically engineered, it is so dangerous that I tell people never to eat it.”
  • World renowned biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava reviewed more than 600 scientific journals, and concluded that “genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a major contributor to the sharply deteriorating health of Americans.”
  • Among the population, biologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute warns that “children are the most likely to be adversely effected by toxins and other dietary problems” related to GM foods. He says without adequate studies, our children become “experimental animals.”[2] In the US population, the incidence of low birth weight babies, infertility, and infant mortality are all escalating.
  • AAEM states, “Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation,” including increase in cytokines, which are “associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation”—all on the rise in the US.
  • GM soy and corn each contain two new proteins with allergenic properties,[4] GM soy has up to seven times more trypsin inhibitor—a known soy allergen,[5] and skin prick tests show some people react to GM, but not to non-GM soy.[6] Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50%. Perhaps the US epidemic of food allergies and asthma is a casualty of genetic manipulation.
  • In the first nine years after the large scale introduction of GM crops in 1996, the incidence of people with three or more chronic diseases nearly doubled, from 7% to 13%.[9]

Pesticide in Every Bite

About half of all GM crops have been genetically engineered to produce their own built-in pesticide. Engineered to contain Bacillus thuringiensis in every cell of the crop, when bugs bite the GM plant, the poison splits open their stomach and kills them.

The Bt-toxin produced in GM plants is thousands of times more concentrated than natural Bt spray used by some organic farmers. It is designed to be more toxic,[3] it has properties of an allergen, and unlike the spray, cannot be washed off the plant.

The only published human feeding study done on GMO foods revealed what may be their most dangerous problem. The gene inserted into GM foods transfers into the DNA of bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function.[7] This means that long after we stop eating GMOs, we may still have potentially harmful GM proteins produced continuously inside of us.

Put more plainly, eating corn chips produced from Bt corn might transform our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories, possibly for the rest of our lives. Destruction of our gut flora leads to a host of health problems, including autism, autoimmune disorders and psychological problems.

But if the threat to human health weren’t enough, because Bt-engineered crops contain pesticides in every cell of their being, many of the insects they were made be resistant to have developed resistance of their own. Much like the antibiotic-resistant bacteria created by over-use of antibiotics in industrially produced livestock, a new generation of “Superbugs” is starting to infest our crops, requiring the use of even more toxic pesticides.

And Monsanto promised that GMOs were supposed to reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides!

The sad truth is that U.S. corn acreage has undergone a ten-fold increase in average insecticide and herbicide use since GM corn was introduced. Since 2007, the average acre of corn has more than three systemic insecticides, including neo-nicotinoids, which are strongly associated with widespread bee deaths and colony collapse disorder. Compare this to the early 1990s, when only an estimated 30-35 percent of all corn acreage were treated with any insecticides at all!

And to add injury to insult, BT-engineered pollen and corn pesticides also drift to neighboring crops and weeds, devastating natural ecosystems (and even organic farms) as far as the wind can blow.

Now With More Poison Than Ever!

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup, which is used on all genetically engineered “Roundup-Ready” crops, which have been genetically altered to withstand otherwise lethal doses of the chemical. Roundup-Ready GMO crops are the most popular GM crop, and are very heavily doused with glyphosate multiple times a season to eliminate weeds.

Unfortunately, pollen never stays in one place, and Roundup resistance has started to appear in other species. Not only has pollen drift and over-spraying created Roundup-Ready “superweeds” that severely damage tractors, but these new weeds require the use of even stronger, more toxic herbicides to eliminate them—like 2-4-D, a main component in Agent Orange that has been strongly associated with cancer and birth defects.

What is Monsanto’s response to the predicted failure of Roundup Ready crops: To develop 2-4-D resistant GMO crops!

Some people never learn. Or maybe, Monsanto just doesn’t care who dies so long as they profit.

The astronomical increase in the use of glyphosate (or Roundup) herbicide has also been shown to deeply affect the health of the soil, killing the good soil flora that crops need to resist disease, uptake minerals and synthesize vitamins, and promoting the growth of harmful funguses and other plant pathogens. This not only affects the nutrition of the food we eat, but also the long-term health of our precious cropland itself.

Glyphosate is easily one of the world’s most overlooked poisons. Despite Monsanto’s billion-dollar PR campaigns, Roundup was proven neither safe, nor biodegradable in a lawsuit in France. In fact, glyphosate has been classified as a probable carcinogen.

And unfortunately, this carcinogen can now be found in the bloodstream of most Americans, and in virtually every waterway in the country.

Research published in 2010 showed that glyphosate, which works by inhibiting an enzyme called EPSP synthase that is necessary for plants to grow, causes birth defects in frogs and chicken embryos at far lower levels than used in agricultural and garden applications. The malformations primarily affected the skull, face, brain and spinal cord.

Studies also strongly suggest that the glyphosate that these crops are doused with can cause human cancer and birth deformities; both of which are occurring at greatly increasing rates in areas where spraying is done. Sterility and miscarriages are also increasing among GMO farmers and farm workers worldwide.

In Argentina alone, where Roundup Ready soy grows on 56% of all cropland, 190 million liters of glyphosate are sprayed annually, which is leading to not only serious illness among the population but to widespread deforestation, because trees are among the many plants killed with widespread, indiscriminate spraying. Experts warn that in 10 to 15 years, rates of cancer, infertility and endocrine dysfunction could reach catastrophic levels in Argentina. But few people are listening.

All of This Was Predicted

Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had warned about all these problems even in the early 1990s. According to documents released from a lawsuit, the scientific consensus at the FDA was that GM foods were inherently dangerous, and might create hard-to-detect allergies, poisons, gene transfer to gut bacteria, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged their superiors to require rigorous long-term tests.[8]

But the biotech industry has a very powerful lobby, and the White House (under Clinton, Bush AND Obama) has ordered the agency to promote biotechnology anyway, going so far as to appoint Monsanto executives to chief positions at the FDA who have denied knowledge of scientists’ concerns and declared that no safety studies on GMOs are required!

Just trust us, they say.

If what many independent scientists are saying is true—even at the FDA itself—and Genetically Modified foods are indeed contributing to the rise of allergies, autoimmune conditions, autism, cancer, reproductive problems, or any other health problem now plaguing Americans since they were introduced, we may never know for sure. Biotech companies like Monsanto have bought our government on both sides of the aisle.

And because of patent restrictions, you can’t even study GMOs without permission from the patent holder, which effectively prevents any unbiased science from ever seeing the light of day.

So, What Can You Do?

Due to lack of labeling, many Americans are still unfamiliar with what genetically modified foods are. Nobody should be treated like a lab rat, especially our children. As a first step, we must demand the labeling of foods that contain GMOs, so consumers can make an informed choice.

To avoid GMOs at the grocery store, print out and use the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, created by the Institute for Responsible Technology. Share it with your friends and family, and post it to your social networks. You can also download a free No GMO iPhone application, available in the iTunes store by searching for ShopNoGMO at the site.

Your BEST strategy, however, is to simply buy 100% Certified Organic products whenever possible, because these do not allow genetically engineered ingredients. Alternatively, you can buy whole fresh produce and meat from local farmers you trust not to use GMOs or toxic chemicals.

The majority of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) you’re exposed to are in processed and packaged foods, so by cooking from scratch with whole foods, you can be sure you’re not inadvertently consuming something laced with GMO ingredients.

If even a small percentage of people actively choose non-GMO brands, the food industry will likely respond as they did in Europe—by removing all GM ingredients. The personal really is political.

Resources

  1. https://www.aaemonline.org/gmo-pressrelease.php
  2. David Schubert, personal communication to H. Penfound, Greenpeace Canada, October 25, 2002.
  3. See for example, A. Dutton, H. Klein, J. Romeis, and F. Bigler, “Uptake of Bt-toxin by herbivores feeding on transgenic maize and consequences for the predator Chrysoperia carnea,” Ecological Entomology 27 (2002): 441–7; and J. Romeis, A. Dutton, and F. Bigler, “Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Cry1Ab) has no direct effect on larvae of the green lacewing Chrysoperla carnea (Stephens) (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae),” Journal of Insect Physiology 50, no. 2–3 (2004): 175–183.
  4. See L Zolla, et al, “Proteomics as a complementary tool for identifying unintended side effects occurring in transgenic maize seeds as a result of genetic modifications,” J Proteome Res. 2008 May;7(5):1850-61; Hye-Yung Yum, Soo-Young Lee, Kyung-Eun Lee, Myung-Hyun Sohn, Kyu-Earn Kim, “Genetically Modified and Wild Soybeans: An immunologic comparison,” Allergy and Asthma Proceedings 26, no. 3 (May–June 2005): 210-216(7); and Gendel, “The use of amino acid sequence alignments to assess potential allergenicity of proteins used in genetically modified foods,” Advances in Food and Nutrition Research 42 (1998), 45–62.
  5. A. Pusztai and S. Bardocz, “GMO in animal nutrition: potential benefits and risks,” Chapter 17, Biology of Nutrition in Growing Animals, R. Mosenthin, J. Zentek and T. Zebrowska (Eds.) Elsevier, October 2005
  6. Hye-Yung Yum, Soo-Young Lee, Kyung-Eun Lee, Myung-Hyun Sohn, Kyu-Earn Kim, “Genetically Modified and Wild Soybeans: An immunologic comparison,” Allergy and Asthma Proceedings 26, no. 3 (May–June 2005): 210-216(7).
  7. Netherwood et al, “Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract,” Nature Biotechnology 22 (2004): 2.
  8. See memos at www.biointegrity.org
  9. Kathryn Anne Paez, et al, “Rising Out-Of-Pocket Spending For Chronic Conditions: A Ten-Year Trend,” Health Affairs, 28, no. 1 (2009): 15-25
  10. Label GMOs.org
  11. Institute for Responsible Technology
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