Monday, October 3, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms - What's For Dinner?

In my next two posts, I want to discuss an issue that has confused and concerned me for some time. You may not be aware, but Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are now a huge part of our food supply. If you live in the United States and/or eat any kind of packaged or processed foods, then even if you try to avoid GMOs, you may find it practically impossible. GMOs have infiltrated our food supply in surprising and insidious ways and, shockingly, in the United States there is absolutely no requirement that foods containing GMO’s be labeleled in any way. The big question is whether or not GMOs are even safe for us to eat. Furthermore, are they safe to feed the animals we later consume for food? Do they live up to the claims made by their Agri-business creators, as somehow posing an advantage to the farmers growing our food? In other words, are GMO’s safe for your health and our planet’s health?

You may not be aware of the raging worldwide controversy concerning GMOs, but many countries including some in the European Union are so concerned about their safety that they have completely banned the growing or importation of GMOs. These countries have chosen to abide by the “precautionary principle” in science; until there is sufficient evidence to establish the long term safety of GMOs, they simply will not allow them to be grown and/or sold. Recently, peasant groups in Haiti are finding themselves in the news because they are burning any seeds they suspect are GMOs. These peasants want to eliminate and avoid GMOs so much that they have announced that they will continue to burn any seeds that they believe “may possibly be GM”. This is happening even despite people starving in Haiti in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

So the real question is whether these types of concerns are justified or are whether these worries are overblown. The huge Agri-business companies who create and sell GMOs would have us believe that concerns about any GMOs are simply the “unscientific anxieties of the uneducated”. This has been a complicated and confusing problem to decipher and I have spent years being totally confused myself. I hope these posts will give you the facts and information you need in order to decide for yourself.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

New technologies in recent years allowed the pace of genetic modification to increase dramatically. Using modern techniques, scientists are capable of quickly making the types of modifications to plants that might take decades or centuries using traditional selective breeding methods. We now have the ability and technology to literally cut out portions of DNA from one organism and fill in the gaps with the DNA from another organism. The intent behind performing this feat of bioengineering is to give useful new abilities to certain organisms, usually to gain some sort of advantage of “normal” organisms.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) refers to the result of this process in which small portions of genetic code from one organism (fungus, bacteria, insects, jellyfish, etc.) is forced into the genetic code of another “target” organism (corn, alfalfa, cotton, pigs, monkeys, etc.). The purpose of this genetic “mix and match” technology is to create some kind of desirable trait in the new “genetically engineered” target organism.

What kind of traits can we transfer? Scientists are just scratching the surface of what genetic engineering can do. The “desirable” traits can range anywhere from producing naturally occurring pesticides in a plant crop (BT producing cotton and corn) to the types of absurd transfers that make the news like giving pigs, fish, rabbits, or even monkeys a sequence of jellyfish DNA that allows them to create proteins that cause bio-luminescence (literally glowing in the dark).

Perhaps, this will help you understand why GMO foods have been labeled “Frankenstein foods”. Mixing up the genetic codes from species that would never be capable of reproducing in nature, does seem eerily reminiscent of the story of Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s tragedy was that his drive for scientific advancement blinded him and he could not conceive of the problems that creating such a hybridized being could entail. What concerns me is that, in our arrogance, humans are simply incapable of conceiving the havoc this new technology could create.  

Some of the reasons GMO’s are so controversial:

  • Monsanto (the largest GMO producer in the world) insists that its genetically modified foods are safe for humans. But what forms the basis of these claims? Since these large agribusiness companies that make GMOs proclaim that their products are safe, surely, they have done extensive research to demonstrate that GMOs are, at the very least, not harmful? Considering that there are literally billions of people (not to mention animals that we eat as food) already eating their genetically altered “products”, this is, obviously, a serious safety concern and one that should be considered very carefully.

  • People opposed to GMOs state that there has been a paucity of independent research on GMOs, but is this, in fact, true? Unfortunately, it does appear that this is true. Companies making GMOs do not allow for their products to be independently studied before release due to their claims concerning “trade secrets”. Can you imagine any reason that a technology that involves the safety of our food supply should not be required to undergo extensive independent testing and research?

  • Unfortunately, the studies done by the companies that make GM products have been both woefully inadequate and misleading. Research studies done to test the safety of GMOs are frighteningly short. The longest GMO safety study to date was a 90 day study on rats. Even if you suspect that GMOs are safe, this is not anywhere near enough time to prove this scientifically. After all, people don’t simply eat a food for 90 days and then stop. People eat staple foods (like corn) often on a daily basis and usually for their entire lifetimes. Furthermore, opponents argue that there is no way to yet really know that GMOs are safe for our health in the long term, as they have only been around for, at most, a couple of decades. Essentially, companies like Monsanto are undertaking a mass worldwide trial of GMOs on you and your children.

  • In the United States, genetically modified foods don’t currently require any special labeling so you already purchase and eat them without ever knowing that you have done so. GM seeds are grown in many countries around the world. Many countries, like the United States, require no special labeling of any food or product made with GMOs, making it almost impossible for anyone to avoid in supermarkets.

  • There has been some concern by health care providers and medical researchers about the potential for cross reactions creating allergies due to the foreign proteins from one organism inserted in to the GM foods that are then eaten. Scientists have been especially concerned about this issue in children. There is a danger that these spliced bits of DNA can lead to allergies developing. For example, if a spliced bit of DNA from peanuts were inserted into soybeans, this could potentially lead to a child with a peanut allergy having an allergic reaction when they soybeans as well. Some people believe that GMOs are responsible for the sharp increase in allergies to foods like soybeans developing worldwide in the past two decades. Unfortunately, since no independent long term research was done prior to the introduction of GMO foods into our food supply, it has become very difficult to ferret out exactly what is causing this problem. The companies making GMOs would have us believe that this increase in allergies in coincidental and caused by other factors. Unfortunately, we have no way to know for sure. Had GMO foods undergone the appropriate long term testing before they were introduced then we might well know the answer to this question.

  • There is ongoing concern that the Genetic Modifications that are introduced into plants actually cause a permanent change in the gut bacteria of humans who consume them. Given that no long term studies have been done on GMOs in humans or animals, we have no idea how these changes may ultimately affect each individual or humans as a whole. Furthermore, since many farmers feed GM crops to animals, then sold as human food, we cannot know how any potential changes in these animals may then affect us. Again, long term studies of these products could have helped us to better understand whether this is a serious concern or not. At this point, so many people have eaten GMOs worldwide, that it would be difficult to find individuals to be included in research on this issue.

  • GMO seeds have become so dominant in some parts of the world (e.g. the United States) that it may be impossible to ever eliminate them from our food supply. Pollen from genetically modified plants spread to neighboring farms and around the world. This pollen will then mate with any unmodified organisms along the way (e.g. organic farmers planting non-GMO seeds may have a proportion of their plants become GMO because of the wind blowing GM plant pollen onto their fields). How sad is it that farmers can no longer control what they are actually growing on their farms even if they are adamantly against planting GMOs? Of real concern, given enough time, there may not be any unmodified plants left anywhere in the world once the pollen of modified plants spreads enough.

  • Tragically, small farmers worldwide may be the ones most directly harmed by GMOs. Worldwide, many small farmers are going bankrupt as a result of their decision to switch to GM seeds. It is estimated that no less than 100,000 farmers in India have committed suicide after deciding to switch to GM seeds in their fields. Farmers used to just save seeds from their fields to plant in the next growing season. Even if they chose to purchase seeds every season, GM seeds can cost up to 1000x more than the normal non-GMO varieties. Furthermore, farmers must use up to twice the amount of water for irrigation compared to what normal crops require. In some places, they also must purchase larger amounts of specific pesticides to grow these altered crops than they would with regular crops. The experience of farmers in India speaks to how tragic this situation has become. While farmers may see an increase in crop yields, ultimately, the amount of specific pesticides required to grow GMO crops often lead to soil damage or death. As you can imagine, without healthy soil no crops will grow. When farmers lose their ability to produce crops, and therefore income, they can no longer support their families and they become desperate and despairing.

  • Giant agri-business corporations (like Monsanto, the largest producer of GMOs) have been relentlessly suing any farmer who accidentally has GM seeds blow into their fields from neighboring farms. Believe it or not, Monsanto claims that these farmers are infringing on Monsanto’s patents. Small independent farmers who try to grow traditional crops are being forced into bankruptcy because they cannot afford to defend themselves against these lawsuits. Monsanto has made over $21 billion dollars in settlements from this tactic alone. Of course, these companies will drop their lawsuits if the farmer agrees to start purchasing GM seeds to plant in their fields. It is so disappointing that this method of intimidation is a particularly lucrative and yet despicable way for GMO producers to infiltrate the marketplace worldwide whether farmers want to grow GM crops or not. Sadly, the promises and advertising claims made by GMO producers do not seem to stand up to the scrutiny of the experiences of many farmers.
But is all genetic engineering bad or dangerous?

Genetic engineering is simply the process of changing an organism (plant, animal, etc.) to have certain selected genetic traits. There are a couple ways of doing this. Modern genetic engineering techniques make this process much faster, but changing plants or animals is not entirely a new technique in human history.

A 15,000 Year Old Tradition

Human beings have been genetically engineering animals and plants on Earth for tens of thousands of years. Maybe that statement sounds absurd, but genetic engineering doesn’t necessarily mean lab coats, test tubes, and microscopes. Making genetic changes to a species is as easy as selecting a specific two of them and putting them together to produce offspring.

Since the dawn of agriculture and animal domestication, we have selected animals (and plants to some extent) that have a desirable trait (to us) and allowed them to breed, thus passing on their genes to the offspring. As time goes on, more of the offspring will express the chosen trait. Bigger cows produce more meat and milk for us to eat. Faster dogs mean better chances to catch food when hunting with us. Larger ears of corn mean more food grows on the same amount of land. The advantages of “nudging” evolution to get better output are pretty clear.

Dogs belong to one species, but their variation is due
to humans selectively breeding them for certain tasks.
Normal (“natural”) selective-breeding methods can significantly alter organisms, even more than you might expect. Possibly the most extreme and widely visible result of human selective breeding programs is that of dogs. All dogs belong to a single species, yet this species (canus lupus) shows more behavioral and morphological (physical structure) variation than any other land mammal on Earth, primarily because of their close relationship with humans. From small terriers to Saint Bernards, we have bred dogs to be better able to perform specific tasks with and for us. Over 15,000 years or so, breeding dogs for selected traits (body size and shape, temperament, coloration, speed, intelligence, etc.) has changed them from an entire species roughly the size and shape of a wolf to the hundreds of “breeds” we have today.

Most often when the selective breeding process is used in agriculture, it is for the purpose of making plants “better” in some way. Selective breeding is responsible for much of the agricultural growth we as humans have made over the last several thousand years. We have bred plants to grow bigger, faster, with less water, and more resistant to disease. This process is usually very slow, taking generations (literally) to breed plants with just the right characteristics. This process has been effective largely because any non-viable or dangerous gene combinations can be recognized and removed before they spread to other farms or before many people get sick from eating plants that contain them. This natural time buffer saves both human lives and potential crop disease or catastrophe. The cost of the slow path of the selective “evolution” process is time. “Slow and steady wins the race,” or does it?

TYPES of GMO CROPS - Pros and Cons

Farmers are fighting a war against pests. Their main weapon, pesticides, are becoming less and less effective at doing their job, killing pests. Pesticides are dangerous chemicals with very severe consequences, not just to the health of people exposed to them, but to the environment as a whole. While companies like Monsanto continue to produce and create a wide variety of synthetic pesticides for farmers, they are also in the business of creating genetically modified plants that have the potential to change the status quo.

Pests are essentially anything that eats our food before we do. They can come in the form of insects, worms, bacteria, fungus, other plants (weeds), or even small mammals like mice or rats. There is no one way to combat all of these different “pests”, but Monsanto intends to make genetic changes to plants to allow them to protect themselves in several different ways.

“Roundup Ready”

Most of the genetically modified plants in use today are made by Monsanto with a specific trait included. These plants, called “Roundup Ready”, are genetically modified to be able to resist the herbicide called Roundup. Roundup happens to be a chemical herbicide (plant killer) that Monsanto also makes and sells to kill weeds (not exactly the “pest” you picture when thinking of pesticides, but farmers often struggle with weeds).

Since these GM plants, unlike “normal” ones, will not die when put in contact with Roundup, farmers can spray this dangerous pesticide all they want, killing weeds without damaging their crop. Roundup’s main active ingredient (gyphosate), though deemed “safe” by Monsanto, is under increasing scrutiny as its long list of ill effects on humans and other animals is becoming more clear. Conventional wisdom would suggest that giving farmers the ability to spray a greatly increased amount of a dangerous herbicide like Roundup onto our food with no consequences is potentially very dangerous.

Bt - Plants and Bacteria Fight Off Insects

Bt-corn, Bt-cotton, and Bt-soy all share a genetic modification that allows them to essentially manufacture their own pesticide (Bt) to fend of insects and worms as they grow. “Bt” might seem like an odd name for a pesticide, but that’s because it’s named after the organism that creates it naturally, a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis.

Bollworms cause huge crop losses to
farmers whose fields are infested.
The Bt pesticide is one of the safest pesticides available and has been in use since around the 1930s. In fact, it is one of the very few pesticides that are allowed to be used in organic farming. Bt is naturally found pretty much everywhere on Earth, though in relatively small concentrations (just like the bacteria that produces it). It breaks down readily in the environment (doesn’t contaminate groundwater), is destroyed by UV light over time, and doesn’t persist or cause damage in the gut of mammals, like us, when we eat something that contains it. We are simply not compatible with the “crystal” that Bt bacteria produce to kill off pests. In fact, humans exposed orally up to 1000 mg/day for 3-5 days of Bt showed absolutely no ill effects. However, most “pest” insects have receptors in their guts for Bt crystals and it is very toxic to them. Pollinators like butterflies and other beneficial insects are not hurt by Bt; like with us, it simply isn’t “compatible” with their physiology and passes right through them safely.

The other benefit of Bt producing crops is that almost no additional pesticides are needed to protect against insects and worms. In addition, the insect killing toxin is completely contained inside the plant itself, thus only targeting organisms that eat the plant. This reduces the environmental impact when compared with common industrial farming practices like spraying of pesticides, where less than 1% of the spray actually lands on plants.

Safe for humans and pollinators, but highly toxic to “pest” insects... does that sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, the safety of Bt itself is only part of the picture; the health of people and animals eating plants genetically modified to produce Bt is relatively unknown, but of great importance. Splicing together the DNA of totally different organisms (bacteria and plant) is still a very new technology and the long term effects simply are not known.

How do we protect ourselves?

Monsanto and other large agribusiness companies that create and sell GMOs are first and foremost responsible to their shareholders to make as much money as they can. Generally, I fully support the concept of trade secrets and the ability of companies to have their ingenuity rewarded with patents and their right to protect their intellectual property. However, when it comes to such a vast change to our food supply and the risk of so many people’s safety, I cannot support any endeavor that involves inadequate safety testing, farmer intimidation, and excessive prices.

So who is responsible for keeping us safe from products companies call “safe” now, but may turn out to be disasters a decade or two down the road. After all, both DDT and Agent Orange (among many others) were also so-called “safe” products made by Monsanto just a few decades ago; would you spray either of these in your back yard? Also, who is responsible for protecting the small farmers taking the biggest risk gambling with GMOs in their fields?

Truthfully, you are the only person who can keep yourself and your family safe. Since GMOs are in virtually every product on grocery store shelves the only way to completely avoid GMOs is to purchase 100% organic and/or biodynamic produce and food products. I personally find this to be really frustrating and sad. GMOs were supposed to help farmers and the general public, instead they harm farmers, and have created a situation where we cannot avoid them unless we are willing to purchase only the most expensive and least available produce and products. This is one situation where I am very disappointed by modern technology, not because of any lack of  potential for good, but rather because of the lengths to which corporations are willing to go to avoid proper scrutiny in order sell their products and simply make money by any means.

After problems with GM crops, India has recently denied
Monsanto from introducing GM eggplants.
Fortunately, many countries are reevaluating their positions on GMOs. After having serious problems with GM soy and cotton, India recently banned new GM eggplant seeds from being sold or grown. Several counties in California have outright banned all GMOs from being produced. Many countries in the EU already ban GMOs, but some of the others are seriously considering banning GMOs that were previously allowed. In countries like India, there are also movements by small farmers to support each other and to learn innovative ways to farm (Organic, Biodynamic, Integrated Pest Management systems etc.) which preserve the soil and reduce water use and reliance on dangerous chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. Small organic farmers and groups in the United States are now working together to counter-sue Monsanto for their intimidation tactics related to farmers supposedly “violating Monsanto’s patents”.

In my opinion, all of these changes are healthy trends. While I believe in the potential huge benefits of new technologies (like genetic engineering), I simply am not and will not be convinced they are safe until serious, long term, independent research is done to evaluate this more thoroughly. I believe that we should fully evaluate the safety of these products before they are indiscriminately released onto an unsuspecting public. Furthermore, I am encouraged by the efforts of small farmers to work together to find healthier and more profitable ways of doing business. If you want to support these trends, consider supporting organic and biodynamic agriculture in your area. If you are able to purchase foods that are partially or completely organic or biodynamic, then you will be encouraging better farming practices and a healthier world.

There is no doubt that with the world population topping 7 billion people this year (increasing faster than predicted), food supply is going to be a key issue in the coming years. Companies that make GMOs are selling a vision of GM crops being necessary to feed the future, but let’s take a good, long look at what they’re selling before we gamble our futures away on what “safe” means to them.

You may want to continue this topic with the second part to this post: Genetically Modified Organisms (part 2) - Monsanto's Misfits

For more information about the situation in India and their efforts to reverse the damage of GMOs:
How to Save the World: One Man, One Cow, One Planet

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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