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Genetically Misunderstood Organisms—The Debate Rages On…

Iris McCluskey gets very worked up about GMOs.

Iris is a well known beautician in North San Diego County.  Her passion for many years was baking (her Devil’s food and German Chocolate mini-cupcakes are to die for) but now her main pastime is gardening.  Not for ornamentation but because she believes growing her own fruits and vegetables is the only way to ensure that her family is not ingesting Genetically Modified Organisms.  “GMOs are in so many foods that we buy, even things that are called ‘natural’.  And since the labeling law in California failed, we have no idea what’s in the package.  I decided to grow my own crops so that I will know, “ McCluskey explained as she showed off her green thumb.

Growing your own may be a viable solution to this issue in Southern California, but what about those who live in the Northeast or Midwest?  They need their veggies all year long, not just during the thaw.  What’s a mother to do?

Iris McCluskey grows her own food to ensure her family is not ingesting Genetically Modified Organisms.
 

GMO is the acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. When people talk about GMOs, they’re referring to food products made from genetically modified crops, like most corn and soy — or they’re talking about GM produce, like some zucchinis and papayas. Genetic engineering is also a common way to refer to the process of altering these crops.

What’s the difference between produce and crops? Produce generally refers to freshly harvested fruits, veggies, and other goods, like zucchini or corn on the cob or fresh herbs, which are delivered to the consumer in their “as harvested” state. Crop is a more general term for farm-grown food and raw materials for other products, such as soy or cotton.

GMOs have become a hot button for debate and misinformation.   Foods that are considered GMOs are altered with chemicals, through insertion of genetic material (or growing techniques) that do not occur naturally in the plant.  On the surface, this strikes an immediate chord of “not OK.”  However, and this is important:  there is no scientific proof  that GMOs are harmful to humans when consumed in normal quantities as part of our food supply.  There are reasons to prefer “natural” and “organic” but GMOs may well become increasingly important if we hope to feed everyone on the planet.

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An Ohio farm grows this Supreme Ex® brand corn hybrid. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Eyink from San Francisco, CA.

“This technique [farming using GMOs] has been a big success in areas it has been introduced to, including Hawaii where the papaya made a great comeback, as well as India and other countries,” said Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor at Harvard who is a noted food safety and GMO expert. “A common thread among significant studies from the British Medical Association, the German Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Science and Medicine and other academics is agreement that there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are dangerous.”

So then why are critics up in arms about GMOs?  Let’s try to clear up some of the confusion.

What does “modification” and “engineering” really mean—and how is it different from what farmers already do? Human intervention in growing food crops is really part of our history.  For hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, we have modified and improved crop varieties to meet our ever-evolving tastes and needs.

As The New York Times points out, each of these methods comes with its own set of risks, and “even conventional crossbreeding [grafting or fusing two parent plants together] has occasionally produced toxic varieties of some vegetables.” Other forms of food crop manipulation have included human migration (introducing foreign crops to a new area), human selection (favoring some varieties over others), and even DNA disruption (subjecting seeds to radiation to accelerate evolution).

For those of us who don’t have degrees in cellular biology, this concept can be hard to follow. Genetic engineering involves passing DNA from one species into another. This new DNA not only adds the associated trait (for example, an evolved herbicide tolerance) but also “turns off” the DNA it replaces (such as the softening gene in tomatoes). Unlike conventional genetic merging, or crossbreeding, genetic engineering takes place in a lab and involves a DNA exchange between species that are related. This means that technically speaking, oranges can be modified with DNA from spinach—or even from pigs.

Frankenfood?

An orange with pig DNA?  Not particularly appetizing. This concept is what freaks people out about GMOs: they sound kind of creepy.  Perhaps you’ve seen the “Frankenfood” mock-ups that depict things like a fish tail coming out of a tomato—or worse.

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“Frankenfood” mock-ups have a humorous take on GMO fears. Photo courtesy of anunews.net.

The Great Scientific Debate

Three major concerns surrounding the safety of GMOs for human health are allergic reactions; resistance to antibiotics; and outcrossing, or the crossing of GMOs to conventional crops or species. But when faced with the question of overall safety, the truth is, we don’t really know.

Jeffrey Smith, noted food biologist and author of several books and a documentary on GMOs, has been translating his scientific findings into laymen’s terms since 1996.  “In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine peer-reviewed data on GMOs, which included examples of lab animals with major health issues and concluded that all doctors should prescribe non-GMO diets.  Rats and mice in the studies showed serious GMO disorders.  Here’s another example:  a patient diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in Chicago for over 30 years was prescribed a GMO-free diet, and all of his symptoms disappeared within three days.”

Almost two decades following the introduction of GMOs into the marketplace, uncertainty regarding their health risks remains. Major scientific authorities such as The World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have concluded that eating GM foods is “no riskier” than eating their conventional counterparts.  According to the WHO, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”   However, in Europe, the EU Parliament has supported member states’ ability to restrict or ban genetically modified crops, due to the widely-held view that more data is needed to rightfully determine the long-term genetic impact on humans and wildlife.

literature review of the health impacts of GM plant diets, published in 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology, also gives GMOs the green light: “The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”   Kind of reminds me of what my husband says about his protein shakes vs. eating white meat chicken and steak after lifting weights:  “Protein is protein, the body cannot discern the real kind from the chemically created kind.”  Perhaps he is right, but, sorry honey, I still prefer the real deal.

In sum, we can’t conclusively say that GM food is harmful to our health.  The long-term health effects, like many modern mainstream food products, remain unknown. While Europe and other countries opt to take a precautionary approach to GMO health risks, the US continues to move full-speed ahead.

Out Here, They’re Everywhere

According to Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest Greg Jaffe, 70% of processed food in America contains GMOs—“at least one ingredient made from GE crops.” And none of these foods are required to be labeled.  This means that most of us have been eating GMOs for almost two decades without even realizing it. “Corn, soybeans, some cottonseed oil, canola oil and sugar — [they] come mostly as invisible ingredients in processed foods” explains The New York Times.

And this is the essence of the issue for me.  I don’t necessarily think GMOs are bad, but I sure do believe we are entitled to know what is in the food that we eat.  If a food product contains GMOs, there should be a sticker, label or ID on the package that is plainly visible, letting shoppers know before they purchase the product!  Why would the FDA not require this?

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   A drink’s label displays its Non-GMO Project verification (photo courtesy of Photologue_np/Flickr)

The GMO Giants & The Labeling Game

So now you may be wondering: Who’s responsible for all these GM products, and why don’t they have to be labeled?

Above all others, Monsanto, the St. Louis-based multi-billion dollar, multinational agriculture company, has been the poster child for the rise of GMOs. Other major agriculture and biotech players include BASF, Bayer, DuPont, and Syngenta.  Just look at list of donors to the “No on 37” campaign (the opponents of California’s 2012 initiative to mandate GMO labeling), and you’ll see food manufacturers like PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, and Coca Cola, among other household grocery brands.

Monsanto’s three stated reasons for opposing mandatory labeling include the following: the well-established safety of GM products (still up for debate); a responsibility to their customer/partners whose food and beverage products are called into question by pro-labeling campaigns; and that labeling may contribute to challenges in acceptance of GM technology.

For the record, here is Monsanto’s official position on GMOs, as expressed by Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak of the company’s Public Affairs office in St. Louis.  “Consumers are increasingly interested in agriculture and in understanding how food is produced. As consumers ourselves, we place the highest priority on the safety of our products and have a dedicated team of health and safety professionals conduct rigorous and comprehensive testing on each.  In fact, seeds with GM traits have been reviewed and tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture and have been shown to be as safe as conventional crops – with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals. After 30 years of research and assessments, credible and independent public health societies and experts around the world also have reviewed the scientific evidence and determined food grown from GMO crops is safe to eat.”

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Rational Parliament met in central London to debate whether GM food has a contribution to make toward meeting global food demand, and “Evidence, please” signs were used in the heat of the debate (photo courtesy of Rational Parliament/Flickr)

Kapsak said that the safety of GMO crops has been confirmed by numerous third-party organizations including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, the World Health Organization, the Society of Toxicology, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Union Commission.

So why the strong opposition to labeling?  For one, food manufacturers and distributors are worried we might not like what we see. It’s clear that GMOs are common throughout the grocery aisles, but for now, they’re simply—and conveniently—invisible.   A common concern expressed by both farmers and food companies alike is that consumers will be unnecessarily scared off by labels.

The FDA Conundrum

Regardless of corporate opinions on labeling, the United States Food and Drug Administration should have the authority here. And they do…to some extent.

Here’s a surprising factoid:  Because the FDA initially decided that genetically engineered crops, when compared to their traditional counterparts, are generally regarded as safe, GMOs are not considered food additives and thus do not require further approval.  This “blanket” approval essentially exempts all new GM food products from the FDA’s food safety regulations.

In other words, companies do not need approval from the FDA to develop and/or sell new GMO foods. They can voluntarily consult the FDA regarding food safety, but they don’t have to—the companies decide what tests should be done to ensure their new food product is safe. Even after a consultation, these companies are not required to follow the FDA’s recommendations.

The Final Roundup 

Finally, the politics of GMOs extend far beyond consumer concerns. Due to Monsanto’s  dominant market position,  many farmers are unable to find competitive non-GM seed. This comes largely as a result of the fact that many types of GM seeds are designed to withstand the use of the world’s most popular herbicide, none other than Monsanto’s Roundup.

Unfortunately, the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) has resulted in the rise of superweeds.  Basically, when coupled with Roundup Ready seed, Roundup herbicide seemed to work like a charm…until the weeds caught up. As farmers used more and more of the herbicide, weeds became more and more resistant.  According to Nature, “In 2004, herbicide-resistant [weed] amaranth was found in one county in Georgia; by 2011, it had spread to 76.” This resulted in some Georgia farmers losing as much as half their crop yields to the weed.

It’s clear that many conventional farmers turn to genetic modification in response to disease, drought, weeds, and other unfavorable conditions.  Benefits of GM crops for farmers include improving production efficiency, reducing use of pesticides and other pollutants, and supporting sustainable production of new and existing crops.  These characteristics are obvious advantages in developing countries, too.

Overall, this is a complicated topic surrounded by confusing information, conflicting interests, and general uncertainty. Rockefeller, an environmental champion and an international philanthropist, puts it this way:

GMOs are part of our daily lives. … Much research has been done to create seeds that better feed the world’s poor. I think the controversy on GMOs needs to be more clearly articulated. Transparency and labeling is one issue; who owns the seeds and how to patent them is another. To say all GMOs are bad is analogous to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

She articulates her point well. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that “there is a lot we don’t know about the risks of genetic engineering — which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution.”

If it’s important to you to steer clear of GMOs, here’s how:

  • Choose organic products, especially fruits and vegetables. All organic foods sold in the U.S. must be certified to the USDA National Organic Standards, which prohibit the use of GMOs.
  • Look at the barcode on the produce sticker:
    • Four-digits code: the product was “conventionally grown”
    • Five-digits code that starts with a “9”: the product was organically grown
    • Five-digits that starts with an “8”: the product was genetically modified
  • Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on products.

Unless it’s labeled organic or non-GMO, it was probably fed, grown, or processed with GM products:

  • Papayas
  • Zucchinis
  • Yellow summer squash
  • Potatoes
  • Dairy
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Processed foods containing soy, corn, canola oil, and/or cottonseed oil

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The majority of corn grown is the U.S. is now genetically modified (photo courtesy of Perry McKenna/Flickr)

Undoubtedly, this debate will continue to rage.  In the meantime, do your own research, consider the pros and cons, then make your best decisions on the foods you feed your family.  A worthwhile experiment would be to attempt a non-GMO diet, to truly determine whether you can “feel” the difference.  This will not be easy, as how do you know whether the sauce at your favorite Italian place was made with GMO-infused tomatoes?  You don’t, but you can control what groceries you buy and eat at home.

For any of you that have the commitment and curiosity to attempt this, please let me know your perceived results.  For now, the debate rages on…

(Hannah Malan, formerly of the SCGH Editorial staff,  contributed significantly to this article.)

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