There is a lot of talk about GMO’s these days. Are they an amazing scientific breakthrough that allows farmers to increase crop yields and feed the hungry or are they an agribusiness profit making machine that is destroying our farmlands and poisoning the American people? That depends on who you are talking to.
GMO is short for genetically modified organism. “A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there.” There are two types of modifications, intragenic and transgenic. Intragenic modifications are made with plants from the same species. This is similar to the cross breeding that has been used over the years to improve a strain of plants. Cross breeding is usually done with pollen. There are some plants that do not respond well to this type of breeding. Potatoes reproduce with an internal seed or “eye”. Intragenic modifications allow the improvement of a strain of potatoes by implanting the desirable gene from another strain of potato. Transgenic modifications are made with genes from other species. Often the new gene has a trait that is not common in the food species being modified. Corn plants have been modified by splicing a gene from a soil bacteria or virus onto a gene in the corn DNA.
Additionally, genetic modifications can be classified as having consumer traits or farmer traits. Consumer traits can benefit the consumer by having an increased vitamin content or a decrease in the allergens present. The peanut industry is currently working on eliminating or turning off the gene that creates an allergic reaction. Farmer traits benefit the farmer by creating characteristics like pest or draught resistance.
This is where the story begins. GMO’s did not exist in the U.S. until the mid-1990’s. Monsanto, a giant agriculture company, introduced two types of GMO’s. One type, is a pesticide producer, the plant contains substances in its genes that are toxic to bugs and other pests. This protects the plant from the inside out. Monsanto’s BT Corn is an example of this type of modification. The second type is an herbicide resister. The plants are modified to be able to withstand multiple sprayings with herbicides developed to kill weeds. Roundup Ready Soy is an herbicide resister. It is interesting to note here that Monsanto is also the maker of the herbicide, Roundup.
While all of this sounds like a farmer’s dream come true these GMO products have caused some farming nightmares in the form of super weeds like giant ragweed and some 500 species of bugs that have become resistant to pesticides. In response to these problems, farmers must spray crops with even more chemicals to keep these super weeds and bugs at bay. Monsanto’s sales of agricultural chemicals increased 37% last year.
GMO’s are banned in at least 26 countries including France, Germany and Australia. The European Union instituted mandatory labeling of GM products in 1997. A French scientist named Gilles-Eric Seralini published the first long term toxicological study of GMO’s. He studied the effects of Monsanto’s herbicide resistant NK603 corn on rats over the course of their lifetimes (2 years). The rats developed tumors 4-7 months into the study. There was an initial firestorm of disapproval for Seralini and his study. Ultimately, his study was reviewed and endorsed by hundreds of scientists around the world. A groundswell of public support forced the E.U. to act quickly to institute the mandatory labeling of food products made from GMO ingredients.
Currently 80-90% of all processed foods in the U.S. are made with genetically modified corn, soy or canola products. In addition, genetically modified grains are used as animal feed so the milk we drink and the meat we eat is affected as well. We have mandatory labeling of GMO foods in the U.S., right? No, as a matter of fact, we don’t. To date, the official position of the FDA is “we have not seen evidence of safety risk associated with genetically modified foods”. The FDA does have a voluntary labeling program in place. California had a ballot measure in 2012, Proposition 37, requiring the labeling of all GMO food products. It was a hotly contested issue. Those in favor of Proposition 37 said mixing genes from unrelated species could create a whole host of unpredictable side effects and the public has a right to know and be able to choose products based on the information included on the label. Opponents of the bill said it would increase the cost of groceries as much as $400 a year per family and would create additional bureaucracy within the state of California costing over $1 million per year. The bill was narrowly defeated 51.41% to 48.59%.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was incorrectly quoted during the Proposition 37 controversy as saying that GMO products are safe. The Academy stated in 2012 that it has no official position on GMO’s and a position paper on the subject was expected to be published in 2013. Today I looked for a position paper on GMO’s on the Academy website and there is simply a notation that says the paper has expired and updating is under development. Food and its relationship to health or disease is the business of dietitians and yet the Academy does not have a position. I find this somewhat disturbing.
Three things regarding GMO’s are clear to me. Number one, this is a subject that requires intensive study. We have to make sure that GMO’s are safe for human consumption beyond a shadow of a doubt. Number two, the public has a right to know which food products contain GMO ingredients, period. Number three, the FDA needs to provide the American people with evidence based information on GMO’s and how they impact our health and our environment. It’s time to end the controversy and get to the truth.