GMO’s: What Are They and Are They Safe?
Since being introduced in 1996, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have made their way into 80 percent of grocery store foods.
Developed by biotechnology companies, genetic engineering (GE) is a type of modern-day cross-breeding. Genes from organisms such as bacteria, viruses or animals are inserted into other, often unrelated, species. Unlike traditional breeding, though, GE creates new organisms that could never occur in nature.
The intent behind the creation of GMOs was noble – ending world hunger by increasing crop yield, creating pest-resistant crops to decrease pesticide use, and fortifying plants with additional nutrients – so why the controversy over GMOs?
Firstly, the data is failing to demonstrate the benefits. The crop yield hasn’t been as ample as originally forecasted, and GE crops resulted in an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use between 1996 and 2008.
More importantly, there have been no human clinical trials of genetically modified (GM) foods, leading many to refer to GMOs as a giant genetic experiment.
Over the past decade a growing number of environmental and health problems have been linked to GMOs.
Environmental Implications of GMOs
Glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup, is the world’s best selling herbicide. It is also a powerful selective antibiotic. By genetically engineering plants with the insertion of certain foreign bacterial genes, glyphosate can be applied directly to crop plants without destroying them.
Scientists and anti-GMO groups have warned that GMO crops, by encouraging liberal use of the glyphosate, were fostering herbicide resistance in many weeds, creating superweeds, plants resistant to the chemicals designed to kill them, and super-pests.
Twenty-four glyphosate-resistant weed species have been identified in 18 countries since Roundup-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.
In 2012, 49 percent of U.S. farmers said they had glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farms. That figure is up from 34 percent in 2011.
The spread of superweeds has led to a substantial increase in the amount of herbicides applied rather than a decrease as GE proponents promised.
Health Implications of GMOs
There are many concerns about the possible implications to human health as well. The potential hazards of ingesting GMOs are difficult to predict and difficult to prove, as they are not immediately recognizable. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) states that, "There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects,” including infertility, immune and metabolic problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. As a result, the AAEM has urged physicians to advise their patients to avoid GM foods.
Most GE crops are “Roundup Ready,” meaning they can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) without being harmed. Glyphosate has been linked to numerous health problems in animal studies, among them birth defects, reproductive damage, cancer, endocrine disruption, and more recently, celiac disease and gluten intolerance. A study published in December, 2013 suggests that glyphosate “is the most important causal factor in this epidemic.” The researchers concluded with “a plea to governments to reconsider policies regarding the safety of glyphosate residues in foods.”
The highly controversial – and the only long-term (two years) – study on GMO maize (corn) and glyphosate by Séralini (famously called ‘the Séralini study’) found that GMO corn caused massive tumors in rats, along with chronic kidney, liver and reproductive damage.
Research published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in February 2013 “documented that modified Bt-toxins [from GM plants] are not inert on human cells, but can exert toxicity.” In high concentrations (generally higher than that produced in average Bt corn), Bt-toxin disrupts the membrane in just 24 hours, causing certain fluid to leak through the cell walls.
Experts warn that if Bt-toxin is causing an increased propensity for our intestine to become permeable, it may cause a wide range of diseases, from premature aging and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s to autism to cancer to asthma.
Despite the mounting evidence, GMO proponents continue to insist that GE crops are safe and any studies suggesting otherwise are immediately attacked.
GMO To Go?
Currently, there are only nine GE crops on the market:
But even if you don’t ever eat zucchini or edamame (whole soybeans), GMOs are found in thousands of foods you might not suspect, including most processed foods, soft drinks, supplements and alternative sweeteners.
You're likely to find a soy by-product such as soybean oil or the emulsifier soy lecithin in your kitchen right now. Many brands of soy beverage, tofu, soy sauce, protein bars, shakes and cereals, and meat analogues (like vegetarian ground round) are made using GM soy. GE soy derivatives are also found in vitamin E supplements, infant formula, baked goods, and body care products.
Corn syrup, glucose/fructose (high-fructose corn syrup), cornstarch, cornmeal, dextrose, corn oil… popcorn! The list of GM corn by-products is endless and they appear in thousands of foods, including infant formula, salad dressings and sauces, cereals, soft drinks, bread, cookies and most other baked goods.
Promoted as a heart-healthy oil, GM canola oil is found in margarine, ‘healthy’ spreads like hummus, salad dressings and sauces, potato chips, cereals and granola bars, and Oreo cookies.
The white table sugar you put in your coffee and use to bake muffins does not come from sugar cane as you might expect, but from genetically modified sugar beets. Close to 60 percent of sugar in the U.S. comes from GM sugar beets, and any food listing ‘sugar’ on the ingredients label likely contains it, including bread, yogurt, candy, chocolate, granola bars, and the thousands of other foods containing added sugar. Other sugars, including high fructose corn syrup and dextrose are derived from GMOs as well.
While animals themselves are not (yet) genetically engineered, most of the livestock we eat have been raised on genetically engineered corn and soy.
But animals are on the gene chopping block. Pending FDA approval, GM salmon will soon be available at a supermarket near you. AquaBounty’s salmon grows twice as fast as the conventional variety. It will feature an added growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone year-round, as well as a gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, which acts as an “on switch” for the hormone.
Read more about Aquabounty’s GE salmon
The risks to human health are unknown, but a known and very real risk is that fertile GE salmon could escape fish farms, breeding with wild salmon and trout, permanently contaminating the seafood population.
If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the government has allowed modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. According to federal guidelines, the fish would not have to be labeled as genetically modified.
Currently, 64 countries around the world require labeling of foods containing GMOs, including most of Europe, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Russia, Australia, and even China. The U.S. and Canada have no laws requiring labeling of GE foods.
Citizens across both countries are seeking mandatory labeling of GMO foods. In May, 2014 Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass a mandatory GMO labeling law, due to take effect on July 1, 2016. Oregon has placed GMO labeling on its November ballot and Colorado citizens are gathering signatures for a similar ballot initiative.
Whether we like it or not, GMOs have become part of our food supply and they – in one way or another – are here to stay. Do the benefits of GMOs outweigh the potential risks? Unfortunately, only time will tell.
[Editor's Note: If you want to eliminate GMOs from your diet for good, click here to sign up for a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge.]
Institute for Responsible Technology,
American Academy of Environmental Medicine,
Image: United Soybean Board