Experts Exploring the Science of Genetic Engineering and its Impact on Food, Health and Agriculture
What are GMOs?
Genetic engineering is a radical new technology that forces genetic information across the protective species barrier in an unnatural way.
A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of taking genes from one species such as bacteria, virus, plant, animal or human and inserting them into the DNA of another (a food crop or animal) in an attempt to introduce a new trait or characteristic.
Haven’t farmers done this for ages?
No! For centuries we have been hybridizing plants, which is natural process using grafting and cross breeding. In traditional breeding we can mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but we can’t mate a pig with a potato or a fish.
Even when two species appear to be closely related the offspring is likely to be sterile as in horse+donkey=mule. In genetic engineering, scientists breach species barriers set up by nature resulting in plants or animals with traits that would be virtually impossible through a natural process. Results of cross species gene splicing in the lab could never happen in nature.
What traits are added?
While higher crop yield and nutritional benefits were attempted, the main GMO crops today have been modified to be herbicide tolerant and to produce their own pesticide. With the herbicide tolerant crop the farmer is able to spray an otherwise lethal quantity of weed killer on the food crop without killing it. When planting a pesticide producing plant, the farmer does not have to spray the crop for pests. Sometimes they ”stack” traits; a food crop that has been altered to continually produce pesticides and withstand massive applications of weed-killing chemicals. With these traits there is no consumer benefit; it is purely economic.
How is it done?
The technology is very crude; it is not possible to insert genes into DNA with any accuracy. Four techniques used are:
Use viruses or bacteria to “infect” the animal or plant cell with the new DNA.
- Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets and firing them with a special gene gun.
- Injecting new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.
- Using electric shocks to create holes in sperm membrane, then forcing new DNA through the holes.
Why are antibiotics added?
In most cases antibiotic-resistant “marker genes” (ARM genes) are attached to the genes being transferred to help them find out which cells have taken up the new DNA. Then everything is doused with antibiotics and the cells that survive got the genes in their DNA. Some scientists are concerned that the ARM genes will transfer into the gut bacteria of people and animals that eat the foods and cause antibiotic resistant diseases.
Are they able to predict the outcome?
The imprecise methods used lead to a vast array of unpredictable results including random “turning off” of neighboring non targeted genes permanently disabling them. On the other hand, new genes can begin producing proteins that have never been in our food supply before and we do not know the effect these new combinations of unknown substances could have on our health. These are just a sampling of many possibilities.
There is no evidence of any awareness of the synergy or naturally occurring dynamics of the symbiotic functioning of the genes. There is a lot that geneticists don’t know about genes.
Genetically engineered organisms cannot be recalled once out of the lab. The current technology is based on obsolete information and results in dangerous side effects. Economic interests alone have pushed it to market.
Which crops are GMO?
Soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, most Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini and some yellow crookneck squash, sugar beets, alfalfa. Just added apples, potatoes, and Salmon.
That should be easy to avoid, is that all?
A majority of vegetable oils on the market today are made up of some combination of soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola. Many processed foods contain some soy and/or corn derivative such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), cornstarch, soy protein, soy lecithin.
Most meat, eggs and dairy products come from animals that have been fed GMO derived feed. Some dairy farmers inject their cows with rbGH, a genetically engineered recombinant growth hormone (also called rbST). In North America most hard cheeses are made with GMO derived rennet. Also, there are many food additives and vitamins which are produced from GMO sources including the artificial sweetener aspartame (Nutrasweet®, Equal® Spoonful and others)
What about honey?
While the average distance a honeybee will travel to forage is three miles, they will fly as far as seven miles if necessary. As a result, honey and bee pollen sourced from hives situated within seven miles of a GMO field could be contaminated by the altered DNA. We do not know for certain how this impacts the health of the honeybee. What we do know is that the importance of the honeybee as a pollinator of one third of our food crops cannot be overstated. Thanks to honeybees we have apples, cherries, peaches, watermelon, blueberries, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, grapes, strawberries, cotton, peanuts, soybeans, blackberries, almonds and many more.
Why avoid GMOs?
Regarding GMO dangers: these are scientifically well documented. Refer to Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith–a great start and an extremely interesting read. See also responsibletechnology.org which summarizes 65 health risks from Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey Smith. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine reported that health risks could include infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, changes in major organs and GI system (indicated by animal studies).
The only published feeding study involving humans revealed that the genetic material transferred into GMO soy transfers into bacteria living inside the intestines and continues to function leading to the possibility of antibiotic resistant super diseases and intestinal flora being turned into living pesticide factories. New toxins, proteins arranged in cell in unpredictable ways.
Increased allergies–soy allergies skyrocketed (50%) in the UK after GMO soy was introduced. Cooked GM soy contains as much as 7 times more of a known soy allergen. Three possibilities: 1) level of a naturally occurring allergen could be increased, 2) a gene taken from one food might transfer allergenic properties, and 3) unknown allergens may result from foreign genes and proteins never before part of the human food supply.
Children’s young, quickly developing bodies absorb proportionally more from all their food sources,are more susceptible to allergies, problems with milk, nutritional problems, and are in danger from antibiotic resistant diseases.
Many GMO crops are designed to withstand an otherwise lethal dose of herbicides and pesticides leading to several serious repercussions–a much greater concentration of these toxic chemicals in our food supply, herbicide resistant weeds, may be lethal to beneficial insects such as pollinators, run off of these chemicals into the watershed which provides home to aquatic wildlife and supplies our drinking water. Also, we have already seen the emergence of new “super pests” which are able to dine with gusto on GM pesticide producing corn and survive to go on to the next meal.
Cross pollination–wind carries pollen from GMO crops and infects non-GMO crops.
Even though GMO crops appear to us to be indistinguishable from naturally cultivated crops all across North America it has been reported that cows, pigs, geese, elk, deer, squirrels, raccoons, mice, and rats, when given a choice avoid GM foods.
How does GMO affect the US economy?
Massive US government subsidies (aka your tax dollars) are supporting GMO agriculture because of their failure to produce the promised yields and because of the financial hardship created for farmers who find they have to buy increasingly larger quantities of the herbicide Roundup.
The monetary loss of exports of US crops is immeasurable. The people of most other countries do not want GMO sourced products.
Why aren’t they labeled?
Since 2001, polls have consistently shown that 90% of the US population want foods with GMO ingredients to be labeled. So why hasn’t the FDA acted?
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires the FDA to prevent consumer deception by clarifying that a food label is misleading if it omits significant “material” information. In 1992 the FDA issued a policy statement that defined “material” as the ability to be sensed by taste, smell, or other senses. The FDA determined that GE Foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally produced foods, so there was no material difference – and no labeling was required. After almost 20 years, this policy is still in effect today.
The biotech giants who profit from the sales of GMO seeds and the herbicide that must be used on the plants resulting from those seeds have tremendous influence in the USDA and the FDA. Companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars to sway government policy in favor of the deregulation of GMOs. In fact there is a virtual “revolving door” between positions of power within the federal government (particularly USDA and FDA), and positions of power within Monsanto. If powerful decision makers at the FDA and USDA are former and/or future Monsanto executives, is it any wonder why GMO foods are not labeled?
What about “All Natural” Products?
There are currently no laws restricting or directing the use of the word “natural” on food labels. What we do know is that the products of genetic engineering could never occur in nature. The US government’s Genetic Modification Regulations defines GM as “the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both”.
What can the consumer do?
Actually, there is a wide range of actions you can take today to protect yourself and your family, to learn more about this global environmental crisis, and to help spread the word. Please visit the “Right To Know GMO” page now and get started!
Image Courtesy of: GMOInside.org