By Dr. Richard A. DiCenso
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are big news today. By way of review, GMOs involve replacing or adding genes from one organism to another in order to add a trait (such as drought resistance) or to remove an undesirable trait (such as premature ripening).
Of course, the current dialogue is steeped in controversy for and against GMOs. It is certainly beyond the context of this article to elaborate on all of these arguments, however I will review the highlights of the most salient and prominent discourses.
Having reviewed the bulk of the literature surrounding this controversy, I personally have nothing against GMOs —but only in terms of technology. I do, however, have serious concerns with how GMOs are used.
Let me share some popular and valid considerations.
GMOs Have Increasing Resistance to Herbicides
Monsanto is the largest producer of GMO seeds and has been demonized for developing crops which were more tolerant of the herbicide Roundup (also made by Monsanto). Having developed this, they quickly approached the EPA and asked that the legally allowed residual of Roundup on food crops be increased. This ultimately implies that Roundup itself had somehow become less toxic, which in turn lead to the well-supported suspicion that they simply wanted to sell more Roundup.
Nobody knows for sure why the USDA is all of a sudden accelerating its acceptance of GMOs. What’s the rush? Are short-term decisions being made that are going to have serious long-term consequences? Unfortunately, the government has a long track record of doing just that. And history is replaying itself with GMOs.
Spending Increases with GMO Crops
Another example is from Brazil. They have produced soybeans which can grow in more diverse environments. So, now they are clearing parts of the Amazon basin to grow soybeans where previously they could not grow them. On the surface, this seems harmless enough and even possibly a prudent application. However, digging a little bit deeper what we find is more than a little disturbing—what is being done to the seed market.
For a farmer, you need seeds for your next crop. You basically have two options:
- Reserve seeds from one crop to replant as seed for the next crop. Or..
- Buy seeds from a seed company.
However, companies selling GMO seeds are telling farmers that they cannot use their previous GMO crop for seed. Unfortunately, some companies are going to the point of providing sterile seeds, which mean that the crops cannot be harvested for seed, at all.
The net result of this strategy is that the farmers must buy more seed rather than use their own, which results in increased costs. This forces farmers to buy their seeds from one company, resulting in reduced competition. This is a critical issue in many countries where farmers simply do not have the resources to continually purchase seed from the big biotech companies.
Second Damaging Green Revolution – GMOs? To complicate matters even more, GMOs have been mentioned as the second “green revolution.” For those of you who remember what happened with the first green revolution, you’ll recall that it resulted in an increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in damages to the ecosystem (including the agricultural ecosystem) and producing an increased risk to human health.
So, Exactly What Are Genetically Modified Ingredients?
Food technology has changed dramatically in recent years. Genetically engineered ingredients have now been produced by inserting genes from bacteria, viruses and even humans into plants and animals. Scientists are finding signs of trouble with this approach, including increased pesticide use and risks to human health.
Experts with the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) say that we are being included in a dangerous experiment on our food and our health – without ever being notified or asked for permission.
The AAEM has said that GMOs pose a serious threat to health, and that it is no accident that there can be a correlation between these substances and undesirable health effects.
In fact, the organization has advised doctors to tell their patients to avoid GMOs, as these ingredients have been linked with a startling rise in chronic diseases and food allergies.
What are the Risks of GMOs?
Do you think you would eat GMO foods if they were labeled? Unlike other industrialized countries, the US does not yet require labeling. This could change, but for the moment, without labeling genetically modified (GM) ingredients, there is no way to track evidence of harm to your health.
Medical experts, including more than 2,000 doctors and health professionals in Germany and members of the British Medical Association, have questioned the safety of GM foods. The simplest known health risks include:
- Allergies: By inserting foreign DNA into common foods, the biotech industry is introducing possible new food allergens.
- Antibiotic resistance: Doctors warn that the current use of antibiotic-resistant genes in GM crops may add to this risk.
But these two seemingly minor issues don’t appear to warrant the extent of concern expressed by adversaries of GMOs—or do they?
What is Actually Wrong with GMOs?
Well, here’s the long and short of it!
1. First, new genes and gene combinations, which have never existed in billions of years of evolution, are being made in laboratories and introduced into our food chain—becoming possibly toxic.
In fact, 22 out of 33 proteins incorporated into GM crops were found to have similarities to known allergens, and are therefore suspected allergens.
2. Synthetic genetic material is introduced into the cells of organisms with invasive methods that are uncontrollable, unreliable and unpredictable…and far from precise.
It ends up damaging the natural genetic material of the organism with many unpredictable, unintended effects, including gross abnormalities that you can see, and metabolic changes that may be toxic that you can’t see.
3. Many foreign synthetic genes are copies from bacteria and viruses that cause diseases.
They also contain antibiotic resistance marker genes to help track the movements of the foreign gene inserts those cells that have taken up the foreign genes.
Right from the beginning, geneticists in the 1970s have worried that releasing synthetic genetic material runs the risk of creating new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, while spreading antibiotic resistance to make infections untreatable.
As the result of the Asilomar Declaration, a moratorium was imposed. Unfortunately, the moratorium was short-lived, as geneticists were in a hurry for commercial exploitation of genetic engineering.
4. The dangers arise because the genetic material persists long after the cells or organism is dead, and can be taken up by bacteria and viruses that are in all environments.
This process – called horizontal gene transfer and recombination – is the main route to creating dangerous pathogens.
5. Genetic engineering is nothing if not greatly enhanced horizontal gene transfer and recombination, and nasty surprises have already been sprung.
Researchers in Australia “accidentally” transformed a harmless mousepox virus into a lethal pathogen that killed all the mice, even those that were supposed to be resistant to the virus. Headlines in the New Scientist editorial: “The Genie is out, Biotech has just sprung a nasty surprise. Next time, it could be catastrophic.”
The lead article continued in the same vein: “Disaster in the making. An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon.”
The researchers added a gene coding to signal an immune response in the molecule of the virus, which they thought would boost antibody production. Instead, it suppressed immune responses.
The researchers had previously put the same gene into a vaccine virus and found it delayed the removal of virus from the animals. Genetic engineering may well have the same immune suppressive effects for all viruses. Imagine what would happen if this gene ever got into a smallpox virus!
More surprisingly, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley found that disrupting a set of disease-causing genes in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the tuberculosis bacterium, resulted in a hyper-virulent mutant strain that killed all the mice by 41 weeks, while all the control mice exposed to the unmodified bacterium survived.
But There Is Yet Another Insidious Danger
6. The synthetic genes created for genetic modification are designed to cross species barriers and to jump into the natural genetic material of cells. This jumping into the natural genetic material of human cells can trigger cancer.
This is not just a theoretical possibility. It has happened in gene therapy, which is genetic modification of human cells.
How Can We Protect Ourselves Against These Potential Dangers?
Chances are you regularly eat foods that contain ingredients with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Many breakfast foods, snack foods and sodas made in the United States contain genetically engineered ingredients. In the United States today, over 80% of processed food products on the market today contain GMO foods.
- Most of the corn, cotton, canola, soy, sugar, beef and dairy produced in this country are genetically modified.
Other GMO crops include:
- Hawaiian papaya
- Zucchini squash
Products that contain the following ingredients are also most likely genetically modified:
- Soy lecithin
- High fructose corn syrup
- Milk that contains rbGH
- Aspartame (NutraSweet)
- Rennet (containing genetically modified enzymes) used to make hard cheeses. Look at the stickers on the produce you purchase.
In general, avoid processed foods because most likely these contain GM corn or soy products.
There is no labeling required to identify GMO foods, despite the attempts of organizations like The Center for Food Safety to get this implemented.
It is all about money. It usually is. The big companies behind GMO do not want people to be aware of what genetic modification really means and which foods contain these substances because they know that most informed consumers, if they had a choice, would opt for non-GMO over GMO foods.
How can we recognize and avoid GMO foods?
- When you are at the grocery store, the PLU code for conventionally grown fruit consists of four numbers.
- Organically grown fruit has five numbers prefaced by the number 9.
- GM fruit has five numbers prefaced by the number 8.
- Buy organic whenever possible. By definition, organic products cannot contain GMO ingredients. If you can, purchase local (preferably organic) fruits and vegetables when possible.
You Have A Choice
We speak loudest with our wallets. Refuse to purchase genetically modified foods. Be especially wary of corn, soy, canola and cottonseed oil, as these food products have often been genetically altered.
Become an informed consumer. It can be difficult to stay up-to-date on food ingredients that are at-risk of being genetically modified, as the list of at-risk agricultural ingredients is frequently changing. A great resource for consumers is the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, available for download at:
Take action now. Write to local, state and national leaders to voice your concerns.
I believe that most people are oblivious to what GMO really means and have not been given fully informed consent regarding the products they are consuming. I highly recommend that everyone fully educate themselves to the inherent dangers of GMO foods.
- The movie Food, Inc. is a great place to start. I think every person in American should watch it at least once.
- For more in-depth information, I suggest reading Jeffrey Smith’s books, Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette.
Once people have become truly educated, informed consumers, they can decide for themselves whether or not to consume genetically-altered products.
I have only scratched the surface of the problems and hazards of genetic modification. But you can already see that there has been a massive campaign of misinformation and disinformation on the part of the GM proponents.
I do not wish to play with my food, my health or my future. Nor do I wish for companies out for profit to play with my food either. If you want to play games with your health, continue to eat GMO foods and support the process of genetic modification.
However, if you want to stop playing games, speak up and refuse to purchase or consume GMO products.