What do You Know About GMOs?
Posted On Jul 14, 2016
Hide and Go GMOs
There’s been plenty of uproar over America’s dependency on genetically modified foods. How bad are they, really? And what GMOs are you consuming, anyway? Here’s our low-down on the controversial food of the future.
By Deborah R. Huso
PHOTOGRAPH by Travis Rathbone; STYLING by Ariana Salvato
The debate over the growth and consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is evolving from a grumble to a roar, as more and more people learn they’ve been consuming experimental science along with their staple foods. The European Union has rejected importation of genetically modified crops from the United States—the world’s largest producer of genetically modified foods—and some 37 percent of US consumers have registered suspicion of GMOs. But what exactly are GMOs, and are they as harmful as the media paints them?
In genetic modification, scientists add a single gene to crops such as corn, wheat, cotton, or alfalfa to make them more resistant to pests, or to increase nutritional value for human consumers. Agricultural giant Monsanto first used genetic modification techniques on corn roughly 30 years ago, intending to help crops thrive in the presence of its herbicide, Roundup (the active ingredient of which is glysophate). By the mid-1990s, “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans were approved for sale. Today, nearly 90 percent of all US corn, more than 93 percent of soybeans, and large percentages of crops such as canola, cotton, alfalfa, and sugarbeets are GMO. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all stand behind Monsanto and the biotech industry, stating that GMO crops have the ability to produce higher yields, and potentially feed the world.
Meanwhile, the organic farming community and anti-GMO advocates are highly suspicious, declaring that research has yet to adequately prove such practices to be safe. They question the long-term health effects of GMOs on humans, the impact of GMOs on a sustainable farm culture, and farther-reaching environmental concerns.
Organizations such as the Non-GMO Project—which has verified more than 10,000 products as non-GMO—points out the potential dangers of genetically modified foods. “Genetically engineered foods have not been adequately tested,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the project. “It’s unethical to be putting an experimental technology into the foods we feed our families.”
GMO proponents such as Denneal Jamison-McClung, PhD, Associate Director of the UC-Davis Biotechnology Program, believes consumer fears about genetically modified foods are largely unfounded. She is quick to remark that modification of organisms occurs naturally. “Genetic modification has happened in nature over time,” she says.
“What we do now is design organisms specifically. A GMO [genetically engineered plant, microbe, or animal] is basically an organism that has had a gene added or taken away. Genetic modification has been done for centuries through regular plant and animal breeding.”
Jeremy Seifert, director of the forthcoming documentary GMO OMG, argues that downplaying the impact of genetic modification technology is skirting the issue. “Food is always being naturally modified,” he says. “Yet we’ve never been capable of taking a single gene and putting it into another organism.
You can’t say, ‘It’s nothing new so we don’t have to be concerned,’ on one hand, while on the other hand say, ‘These seeds are so unique that we can patent them.’ You can’t have it both ways.” Big question: are GMOs safe for human consumption in the long run?
Scientists know that genetically modified foods can cause allergies—along the lines of a peanut allergy or lactose intolerance. Meanwhile, it’s extremely difficult to prove a link between GMO foods and such symptoms, since so many of the foods we consume contain GMOs— from cereals to sodas. Does that mean it’s already too late?
So far, there’s no solid scientific evidence that GMOs cause long-term negative health consequences. Westgate is quick to point out, however, “There are no conclusive, third-party clinical trials showing that genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption either.”
Should we not try to determine such a link? The no-GMOs argument: It’s better to wait and get a conclusive green light than barrel ahead. Dian Griesel, PhD, coauthor of the TurboCharged series on fat burning and weight loss, says she is highly suspicious of genetically modified (GM) foods. “For any drug to come to market, it has to go through extensive clinical trials with the FDA, but that’s not the case with GM foods,” Griesel says.
Emily Cantor, East Coast sales manager for Multiple Organics, a wholesale supplier of organic ingredients, agrees, noting, “There has not been enough testing on the long-term effects of GMOs or the chemicals used to spray GMO crops.
There is some evidence that the chemicals used to treatGMO crops are slowly building up in our bodies and the environment.” Current scientific literature is insufficient to support Cantor’s claim.
Studies in animals show that when they consume glysophate, it is largely excreted from the body as waste, and there is no evidence that it leeches out of soil treated with it.
Clinical testing has not shown evidence that it causes allergies, cancer, reproductive issues, nerve damage, or other negative effects in mammals. However, as Paul Thompson, PhD, W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food, and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, points out, “It’s basically impossible to test foods the way we test drugs.”
Some preliminary studies have shown adverse impacts on rats fed genetically modified corn, both treated and untreated with Roundup—such as the controversial study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen in France, which showed signs of liver and kidney toxicity in GM-fed rats. His study—which declared RoundUp to be toxic—faced intense backlash, due to the number and type of rats used in the study, although Monsanto itself used the same type of rats in its own studies years prior.
Seifert, who interviewed Professor Séralini for GMO OMG in the wake of the controversy, notes that he has refused to release raw data of his study until Monsanto agrees to release raw data from theirs—something they have long refused to do. “If there is an insistence that these GMOs are safe, we have to insist that we see those studies,” Seifert says. “Show us the raw data.”
He also calls on the scientists who loudly discredited Séralini’s study to repeat it—and as we await results, halt the use of GMO technology. “The only way to disprove it is to repeat those tests and get different results,” he says. “That’s not yet happening, to my knowledge. Shouldn’t we at least pause?” Thompson notes that since people eat so many different things in so many different combinations, it’s not possible to come up with any kind of control group.
Federal regulators determine food safety based largely on the history of human food consumption. If humans have been eating a particular type of food for a long time without negative health consequences, the FDA classifies that food as generally regarded as safe (GRAS)— assuming a highly toxic food would show immediate negative effects if consumed by people or animals.
Considering that GMOs fall under regulation of the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA. Jamison- McClung believes regulation to be stringent enough that consumers shouldn’t be unduly worried about GM food consumption. “I think people are concerned because they don’t understand the biology behind GM crops,” she says.
Westgate notes that 65 countries require labels on GM foods. “The US and Canada are two of the only developed nations in the world without GMO labeling,” she adds. “As consumers, we all have the right to know what’s in the food we’reeating and feeding to our families. We deserve an informed choice.” In 2012, the Prop 37 ballot measure—which would have required labeling of GMO food—was narrowly struck down in California.
There are currently labeling bills on the table in 20 US states. Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, says she doesn’t think the controversy over GM foods has as much to do with food safety as it does with “corporate control of the food supply.”
“Should one company—Monsanto— control roughly 90 percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the United States?” she poses. “Always follow the money,” adds Seifert. “Profit and control are the main motivation behind this type of crop.”
Just such an issue has surrounded the FDA approval of AquAdvantage salmon, which can grow to almost three times the weight of traditional farm salmon in the course of 18 months. “The fishing industry is concerned approval will hurt acceptance of farm salmon in general,” Thompson says, because consumers will assume all farmed salmon have been genetically engineered.
“If you’re lobbying against this, you have to scare the pants off people.” The FDA has been considering approving the salmon for nearly a decade. “This will be the very first genetically modified food animal they approve,” Thompson says. He predicts such a development will have a similar controversy surrounding it as did an issue from 20 years ago—giving dairy cows growth hormone to increase their lactation cycles.
At the time, the dairy industry feared the technology would only be accessible to large commercial dairies, putting smaller farmers out of business. Comfort with GM foods can have less to do with food safety than it does with whether or not you like the idea of larger corporate entities, like Monsanto and Syngenta, controlling the bulk of what Americans eat.
Jamison-mcclung says that’s why she feels there is a growing organic movement in the US, and why the European Union doesn’t buy GM crops. “People who are into organic foods are doing that more as a lifestyle issue,” she says, noting that organically raised food is not always chemical-free either. It does, however, have greater tendency to be locally produced— meaning consumers have the opportunity to know exactly where their food is coming from.
Organic foods differ from GM foods in several ways. A GM crop has had a gene from a different species that has been added to make that crop exhibit a trait that isn’t genetically normal for it. Organic farmers cannot genetically engineer crops in this way and still sell certified organic food.
Organic farmers also try to avoid synthetic pesticides— though the USDA does permit a number of chemicals to be employed in the production of organic produce, including copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, soap, and streptomycin. If you’re concerned about the health impacts of GM foods, it’s not easy to avoid them. “90 percent of soybeans grown in the US and 80 percent of all corn is GMO,” says Cantor.
“If you are eating conventional foods with these ingredients, you are most likely eating GMO foods.” Federal regulatory agencies do not require GM foods to be labeled. However, the USDA has allowed third-party certifiers to label non-GMO foods as such in northern California, home to the Non-GMO Project, which has begun certifying “biotech-free” meat and egg products.
What do you do if you don’t live in northern California? You can still track your consumption of GM foods. Dr. Bob DeMaria, known as the “Drugless Doctor,” advises paying attention to the bar code stickers on produce.
“Important numbers to remember are 8, 4, and 9,” he says. “Codes that begin with 8 signify genetic alteration or engineering. Organic products have codes that start with 9, while 4 constitutes the product was treated chemically with an herbicide, pesticide, or both.” If it’s your desire to buy organic but can’t always afford the steeper prices, focus your organic purchases on “soft” produce, meats, and dairy.
Produce with harder shells such as watermelons, bananas, and cantaloupes offer greater protection against pesticides since it’s the shell, not the consumed portion of the food, that gets sprayed. The topic is constantly getting more complicated. “You have to take genetic modification on a case-by-case basis,” says Jamison-McClung.
“How does modification change the physiology of a plant or animal? Will it hurt the ingesting organism?” For Seifert—who points out that there is a GM version of everything waiting to be released—the choice is clear. “Every time we eat, we’re participating in a way of living in the world. You’re a part of everything you buy.
If we don’t wake up to what’s happening with GMOs— and don’t start supporting a system like organic—we might not have the choice.”l further GMO controversies Among the host of GMO-related issues raising eyebrows is the “big business” issue of “seed patents.” Biotech developers have patented their seeds, leaving open the possibility of lawsuits against organic farmers, whose crops have been inadvertently contaminated (via wind and pollination) to GMO strains.
In certain cases, organic farmers have been forced to preemptively sue companies like Monsanto as a preventative measure, so they are not in turn sued for patent infringement. Additionally, there are ecological concerns. Boosts in weed presence, pesticideresistant insects, plant extinction, and the health impact of organisms throughout the ecosystem all have geneticists, entomologists, and plant ecologists on edge.