Genetically Modified Organisms: The truth about GMOs in our food, how they came to be, and health risks they may pose
GMOs, a relatively unknown scientific phenomena only thirty years ago, are now the talk of mainstream media and the new nemesis of the collective alternative food movement. A ballot measure in California deciding whether or not products containing GMO ingredients should be labelled was voted down November 2012, showing that while there is a growing awareness around the subject of consuming GMOs, there is a definite sense of resistance as well. The real issue at hand is the effect consuming GMO foods has on the human body, both short term and long term, and what health risks it poses. Those who support the use of GMOs in our foods see no harm in it, citing a lack of evidence in health risks, viewing the increased harvest levels and lack of pest induced blemishes on produce as major benefits, and often making statements of the necessity of these biotech plants in the quest to end world hunger. Opponents disagree, citing examples of developing countries switching to organic farming and increasing output three-fold, and scoffing at the taste-robbed, nutrient deficient produce found on a GMO plant. For them, not only is taste an issue, but also are serious health complications that more and more people are associating with GMO foods each day. Autoimmune conditions such as Celiac Disease, IBD, and Crohn’s Disease have increased more than forty percent since the widespread adoption of GMO crops in the 1980’s.
Beyond the growing concerns over the possible health consequences imposed by a GMO diet, worries over the environmental repercussions of introducing plants into ecosystems with changes in their DNA that are not found in the natural world continue to grow. Cross-pollination is a natural process in which plants spread their genetic material throughout the environment, and the alterations made to GMO DNA have begun to hijack this system and spread these unnatural genetics into countless other plants. The integrity of the international seed stock is now at risk, as these relentless genetic traits work their way into every strain of the plants we consume, and with major corporations like Monsanto getting patents on seed stock and then prosecuting small farming operations for stealing their product thru cross-pollination, it is becoming more and more difficult for small organic farms to survive.
In the following passages, I will discuss what GMOs are, how they came to be, the evidence of those who support the use of GMOs, and then share evidence about the proven health and environmental risks that, at minimum, require that much more long term research must be done before GMOs are integrated into our food system anymore than they already are, and if total eradication from food products might be necessary. Beyond that, I will discuss the idea that organic agriculture is the answer to ending world hunger, and ultimately what changes need to be made in our food and health systems to promote the health of citizens rather than the profits of corporations.
What are GMOs?
Many people do not know what the acronym GMO means, and even if they are aware it stands genetically modified organism, they lack a full understanding of its definition and purpose. Also known as transgenic, biotech, and more recently conventional, a GMO is any organism whose genetic material has been altered by manmade technologies. These alterations are done to add, remove, or modify traits in the host organism, bonded to their genetic makeup through a process known as gene splicing. GMOs that have been developed include yeasts, bacteria, viruses, animals, and plants. Please note that this piece is discussing only genetically modified plants, currently used in conventional agricultural settings.
Most often these alterations simplify the cultivation process for industrial farming, or increase the overall desirability of the produce to consumers. Changes in genetic makeup for cultivation purposes are by far the most common, largely falling into two groups. Some plants are altered to survive being sprayed with the glyphosate, which is the scientific name for a Monsanto patented weed-killer by the name of Roundup. Others are engineered with components of the bacteriaBacillus thurengiensis (Bt), causing plants to produce a toxic substance that kills any pests that feed on it. According to one source, China has reduced its pesticide use on cotton fields by more than half since their adoption of Bt cotton, showing how effective of a deterrent it can be.
The History of GMOs
The science of genetic modification has become mainstream in the United States, but less than thirty years ago the technology did not exist. The fundamental discoveries that would lay the foundation for the development of genetic modification started with James Watson and Francis Crick’s discoveries concerning DNA in 1953. Charting their discovery of the strange double helix structure, these scientists imparted valuable information to the future scientists who would take the now identified components and DNA blueprints and develop the gene splicing technologies that create the designer crops of today. Flash forward twenty years to 1973, when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen combined their research and efforts to successfully create the first DNA recombinant organism. A recombinant organism is created in a lab and contains genetic material from more than one organism, to create sequences in the DNA that do no exist in the natural world. This marks the creation of the first genetically modified organism.
Over the next decade, several major advancements were made in the science of biotechnology. By 1980, scientist Ananda Chakrabarty had created an oil eating bacteria, the product of four unstable bacteria spliced together to create one stable, effective organism that could be used in oil spill situations. When Chakrabarty decided to apply for a patent for this organism, he set off a series of legislative decisions that affect every person in the United States to this day. After receiving a patent for the organism in the United Kingdom, Chakrabarty was initially turned down by the U.S. Patent Office, citing that the patent code provided a provision that restricted the patenting of living organisms. The appeals process for this ruling eventually led to an appeal to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that a “live, human-made micro-organism is patentable,” and Chakrabarty was finally issued the patent. This Supreme Court decision illustrated the federal government’s position on the patenting of genetically modified organisms, which later paved the way for huge corporations like Monsanto to take control of the world’s seed stock with patents, and convert the once largely small farm agricultural industry into an industrial sector. Within two years, the FDA approved the first GMO for human consumption, Genentech’s insulin, which was produced by bacteria specifically engineered for this purpose.
As developments were made in the technology of genetic modification, the United States government realized that some regulation would be necessary. While the White House, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were all in favor of regulation promoting the use of GMOs as consumable crops, as early as 1984 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) insisted on the necessity of risk assessment of potential environmental and health consequences stemming from this technology. Shortly after, the Cabinet Council of Economic Affairs, neither a scientific or environmental agency, was put in charge of the regulation of GMOs, pushing some to speculate that this was done to keep their proceedings out of the public eye, as their meetings took place behind closed doors.
This structure is in stark contrast to Europe, who put their equivalent of an EPA, the Directorate General on the Environment, Consumer Protection, and Nuclear Safety (DG XI), in charge of the evaluation and regulation of genetically modified food products in 1985, only one year after the same position was handed to a private White House committee instead of the EPA. For the DG XI, the main concern was not the income potential found in GMO crops, but the effect that they would have on the natural environment. Testing was the first priority, and strict regulation surrounded it. After over a decade of issues with GMO imports, extensive testing concluding that GMOs are a less quality product and do pose significant health and environmental risks, and a strong outcry from European citizens, in January of 2000 the Union passed legislation requiring the labeling of all food products containing more than one percent genetically modified ingredients. As a result of this labeling, almost no GMO foods exist in the European market today, as companies decided that taking the GMOs out of their products was a more viable option than admitting their products contain them.
The United States has not matched the strides the European Union has made in the regulation of GMOs, and much of this has to do with the mixed feelings surrounding their use. Until the last five years or so, the majority of American were unaware of any of the health concerns now associated with the consumption of genetically modified products, so they only knew this revolutionary food technology for its pest-free crops, higher yields, and more desirable produce. In general, advancements in technology are a good thing, making manual labor a thing of the past, and streamlining every component of its process as efficient as possible. On paper, the concept of genetic engineering sounds brilliant, but fails to account for all the variables of releasing altered genetic material into the environment as well as the human body. The biggest difference between the US and EU approach to this issue that the former is approaching it from an economic perspective, and the latter is from a humanitarian standpoint. These two perspectives are perfect examples of the supporting and opposing sides of the GMO debate.
The Benefits of GMOs in our Food System
For those who support the use of GMOs in our food system, the countless documented benefits are the driving force behind these sentiments. The major issues a farmer faces while cultivating crops for consumption include a variety of weather and temperature related issues, as well as the possibility of any number of pests destroying their bounty. All of these problems can result in loss of crops, partial if not total, leaving the farmer with less income and their consumer base with less fresh produce. In extreme situations, it can lead to food shortages and famine. Transgenic crops can prevent any possibility of these issues, through the use of plants genetically altered to be weather hardy and pest resistant, some engineered to produce toxins that kill by actually burn through the stomach lining of insects feasting on crops, eliminating the need for harsh chemical pesticides.
Besides simplifying the whole farming process, these plants can be engineered to actually make their crops more nutrient rich, a fact that many point to when discussing the worldwide issue of malnutrition, hunger, and starvation. Even the Catholic Church, known to be wary of any scientific alteration of the natural world, openly supported the use of GMOs to feed the world, holding a conference in 2004 called, “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology”. They defend their stance with the fact that humans have been manually manipulating the genetics of plants for hundreds of years, being responsible for the development of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, all through the crossbreeding of various plants for specific traits. With more than ten million people dying from starvation each year, the Church and other supporters believe that GMOs are the answer, and also cite the lack of evidence surrounding health and environmental issues attested to GMO consumption as further proof of its place in modern society.
The Consequences of GMOs in Our Food System
Opponents of GM foods blame the lack of evidence as part of a cover-up and marketing campaign to fool Americans into believing that they are safe to eat, and believe that the lack of long term research on effects GMOs have on the human body and environment before releasing them has made everyone an unwilling guinea pig in an experiment that could potentially change the scape of the the entire planet. The fact that the majority of scientific developments and patents on GMOs are products of Monsanto, the international seed stock corporation, begs people to question GMOs further, as the company has a history of introduce negative toxins into the world, including both PCBs and aspertame. Coupled with the recent studies illustrating all the possible health risks that come with consuming GMOs, and Monsanto’s attempts to silence them, the whole situation gets a little more suspect.
One example is the story of English scientist Arpad Pusztai, who went on British television and spoke about the dangers of consuming GMOs following an experiment with rats and GM potatoes, delegated to him by his employer, the Rowett Institute. Following his television interview, Pusztai was suspended, his work confiscated, and later fired, and the Rowett Institute issued a statement saying he analyzed the wrong data despite it being his own, and also said the harmful potatoes were never intended for food production, despite Pusztai saying otherwise. It is important to note that the whole experiment was being funded by Monsanto, who had just endowed the Institute with more than two hundred thousand dollars.
In a 2004, a study was conducted in France where rats were exposed to corn sprayed with Monsanto’s weed killer RoundUp Ready, corn that was genetically altered to withstand RoundUp applications, and a control group fed non-GMO corn. The results were shocking, within two years more than half of the test subjects exposed to RoundUp and GMO’s had developed tumors, as many as three on an individual rat. More than 90% of these tumors developed in their mammary glands, the equivalent of a woman’s breast or a man’s testicle. According to the University of Washington breast cancer in women has tripled since 1980, and with no other explanation many believe that there is a direct relationship between consuming GMOs and increased risks of certain cancers. Besides cancer, many attribute the increase in autoimmune diseases, infertility, gastrointestinal problems, accelerated aging, and many other conditions to the sharp rise in consumable GMO products released on the market, without any labeling indicating the change.
The environment also has suffered as a result of GMO crops taking over rural America. Across the midwest super weeds have begun to take over, developing those same herbicide resistant traits found in GMO crops, which are forcing additional genetic engineering to the plants, as well as the use of harsher and harsher chemicals on the crops. This is a result of cross pollination, and not the only negative it creates for farmers. When genetically modified plants cross pollinate plants in the natural environment, they are spreading the genetic alterations that were made to to GMO plant. While some scientists say genetic engineering is a delicate science, others suggest it is more a game of trial-and-error, and often the genetic makeup of a plant sustains collateral damage from these alterations, and the consequences of this is so far unknown. As the traits pass throughout the natural environment, we begin to see a type of genetic pollution that cannot be contained.
The biggest issue that most have with the widespread adoption of genetically modified crops is the lack of research into the longterm effects GMOs have on organism at all levels of the food chain. It is almost impossible as an American to avoid consuming GMO products on a daily basis. The livestock consumes GM corn and potatoes, the cows are shot up with RgBH, and anything containing sugar or corn syrup, which is almost every processed food, all contain GMO ingredients. To expose an entire population of people to a technology like genetic modification before even beginning to understand the ramifications sounds ludicrous, but in a capitalistic society who values money over everything, people are bought and numbers are massaged by those with the deepest wallets, and the GMO regulation was passed with almost not protest. Throughout history people’s ignorance has been taken advantage of by corporations and the government, but the the invention of the internet brought an information revolution with it, and for the first time in history people could access information from all over the world at the click of a button. This is when the government lost control of what information was being fed to the American citizens, and also when the anti-GMO movement really took off.
The Organic Movement
Throughout the United States there is a solid, if sparse, network of small business organic farmers who continue to fight for further regulation and eradication of GMO crops in their areas. As people become more aware of the repercussions of consuming GMOs and more doctors prescribe GMO-free diets, the organic industry continues to expand and become a larger part of the market, increasing about twenty percent annually. These farmers believe that the farming practices that have been used for centuries provide the perfect structure for a bountiful, nutrient rich harvest. Rotating crops, composting, using cover crops, and introducing pest predators are all practices that help create a good environment for an organic crop. These are the practices that are essential in ending world hunger, not the implementation of GM crops in developing countries. Although many believe that GM crops return higher yields, new research indicates that organic crops are actually the big producers, and do so at a lower cost and lower environmental impact. Beyond these positive, it also reduces erosion, improves soil fertility, and promotes biodiversity.
Whether or not non-GMO, organic farming is the solution to world hunger, it is clearly a topic that needs much more research by scientists and awareness by everyone. The startling lack of conclusive evidence about consuming GMOs makes little sense in a world that seems to have an explanation for everything. The bottom line is that GMOs are consumed by almost every American on a daily basis, and there seems to be a clear correlation between increased GMO consumption and increased instances of cancer and other debilitating diseases. Monsanto’s attempts to quiet their own scientists and having provided no positive statistical data only adds to the seriousness of the issue at hand. Monsanto and other companies like it should be held responsible for all of the environmental and health issues that have been incurred as a result of their technologies. At minimum, federal legislation should be passed requiring labeling on all GMO food products. Theoretically, companies would act as they did in Europe and simply quit using GMO ingredients. Increased regulations on GMO crops in the immediate future is necessary we hope to have any change of saving out environment from genetic destruction, and our bodies from unnecessary diseases.