In modern culture, the term “GMO” has reached almost a trendy status both among health-conscious circles and the general public alike. As health and fitness have become more mainstream, people are beginning to take more of an aggressive approach to their health and pay more attention into what they put into their body. Coinciding with this, there has been a recent influx in the number of grassroots movements (i.e. Non-GMO Project, Buy Local) and social media advocacy campaigns to fight GMO in our food supply, which has contributed to an increased awareness. In fact, according to a report from the Natural Marketing Institute (2014), consumer awareness of the term “genetically modified organisms” has increased from 42% in 2012 to 54% in 2013, while awareness of the term “genetically modified food” increased from 61% in 2012 to 69% in 2013. Consequently, in response to this wave of awareness, we are seeing an increase in the number of GMO-free and non-GMO products being introduced in the marketplace. According to the same NMI (2014) report, the number of new GMO-free products in the market grew 145%, from 551 in 2012 to 1350 in 2013.
However, while awareness continues to grow, the percentage of GMO strains in our food supply continues to go unchecked. Indeed, while we continue to see an increase in the amount of activism and advocacy against genetically-engineered foods, the federal government has largely given GMO food companies a pass in terms of regulation. As it stands today, there is no federal requirement for labeling food that contains GM ingredients. But is it all bad? As consumers, we tend to view this “GMO trend” almost unanimously in a bad light. Along with the strong undercurrent of the unknown when it comes to the scope of GMO’s, the overall lack of studies regarding long-term health effects has inspired fear in all of us. In an attempt to quell some of the uncertainty and ambiguity, I scanned numerous scholarly journals and research databases to produce a review of existing GMO literature in hopes of gleaning insights. Here is what I found…
What are GMOs?
According to the World Health Organization (2014), genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are defined as, “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” The technology, which is also referred to as “gene technology,” “modern biotechnology,” and “genetic engineering” among others, allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and also between nonrelated species (WHO, 2014).The use of this technology allows farmers to enhance desired traits in their crops, such as improved nutritional content and an increased resistance to herbicides. In the past, this enhancement has traditionally been undertaken through breeding; however, while conventional plant breeding methods are very time consuming and are often not very accurate, genetic engineering can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy (Whitman, 2000).
A Brief History
While discourse pertaining to GMOs has become commonplace in our contemporary lexicon, it can be easy to forget that as a technology, it is relatively new. While the genetic manipulation of foods can be traced back thousands of years, the modern phenomenon of GMOs and transgenic plants stems back only about 40 years to the very beginnings of recombinant (man-made) DNA research (rDNA), where it was discovered in 1973 by Dr. Herbert Boyer at Stanford University; although momentum really began in the 1980s, when scientists discovered that DNA could be transferred from one organism to another. In 1982, the FDA approved the first GMO, an artificial form of insulin called Humulin, made from gene-splicing techniques. The following year in 1983, scientists created the first transgenic plant, a tobacco plant that was resistant to antibiotics. The following decade in 1994 marked the first GMO product to hit grocery store shelves: the Flavr Savr, a GMO tomato that possessed a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes (Bruening & Lyons, 2000). The following year in 1995, biotech company Monsanto introduced herbicide-resistant crop seeds known as “Roundup Ready.” Fast-forward only 4 years to 1999, and over 100 million acres worldwide are planted with genetically engineered seeds (Woosley, 2013). In 2003, GMO-resistant insects began to appear, when a moth is found eating GMO cotton crops in the southern US, forcing farmers to double up on their amount of pesticide use (Storer et al., 2003). And 3 years ago in 2011, doctors discover bt toxins (a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal to insect larvae) in the blood of pregnant women, showing evidence that the toxin can be passed to human fetuses (Aris & LeBlanc, 2011).
Why are GMOs being used?
As it stands today, the utilization of biotechnology in agriculture remains a highly polarizing and divisive issue among the general public. While we tend to only hear about the negative aspects, there are a number of supporters who propagate the potential benefits, and there is a good amount of scholarship on this topic alone. In addressing the purported benefits, scholars such as Bakshi (2003) argue that biotechnology is crucial “to resolving the problems of food availability, poverty reduction, malnutrition and environmental conservation in the developing world, as it does not benefit just the farmers who grow crops, but also the consumers who eat genetically modified food” (p. 211). Young (1999) notes similarly that foods produced through the use of biotechnology are more nutritious, stable in storage, and promote better health in humans in both industrialized and developing nations. Along these lines, Nap et al. (2003) found that genetically modified crops have the fastest adoption rate of any new technology in global agriculture simply because farmers benefit directly from higher yields and lowered production costs.
For the consumer, arguably the greatest benefit of GMO crop production is its potential to contribute to a more adequate and better quality food supply. By genetically engineering food to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies can be mitigated, in turn helping to reduce health disparities. For example, in many third world countries, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a major problem. In fact, every year approximately 350,000 people go blind due to lack of food (Nash, 2000). To help combat this, Beyer et al (2002) were able to create a strain of “golden” rice which contained large amounts of beta-carotene (vitamin A), and through the use of non-profits and charity organizations were able to offer the modified rice to any developing country that requested it. Pro- GMO advocates argue that a similar paradigm on a larger scale could benefit millions of others in terms of solving the issue of food insecurity and malnutrition.
Other proponents of biotechnology in agriculture point to its ability to accelerate the efficiency and extent of crop improvement by the transfer of genes giving resistance to pests, diseases, herbicides and environmental stress (Nap et al, 2003). Historically, agriculture has suffered from disease and pest infestation since its inception, causing large losses in food production. As Whitman (2000) notes, these losses can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. And while the majority of consumers are against the spraying of pesticides because of their inherent health risks and run-off potential, by engineering transgenic, pest-protected crops, farmers can eliminate the use of chemical pesticides, and in turn, reduce overhead costs.
In addition to creating herb/pesticide resistant crops, the use of genetic engineering can also aid in allowing crops to withstand environmental factors, such as drought and poor soil conditions (Bakshi, 2003). As our population continues to rise and more and more farming land is becoming occupied, farmers are being forced to grow crops in areas previously deemed unsuitable for agriculture. However, by being able to alter the genetic makeup of plants to withstand long periods of drought, extreme climate change and/ or high salinity content in the soil, farmers are now able to grow crops virtually everywhere.
What are some of the risks?
Despite the numerous potential benefits to be had from genetically modified crops into the food supply, there are a number of concerns about potential risks associated with this new agricultural technology, specifically in terms of environmental and food safety. These concerns have become so great that some experts question whether or not the movement can remain sustainable at this level. Among these concerns, arguably the biggest one stems from the potential health risks associated with GM crop production, as there remains a collective uneasiness in terms of lasting implications.
To begin, there is a large amount of unpredictability when it comes to genetic engineering. According to Conner & Jacobs (1999), scientists hold serious concern about the after effects of GM crops, particularly as it relates to the altering of our gene expression. As noted by Sayanova et al. (1997), genetically engineered foods may lead to disruption of metabolism in unpredictable ways, including the development of new toxic compounds in the body or an increase in already existing ones. When genes are inserted at random in the DNA, their location can influence their function, as well as the function of natural genes, and “insertion mutations” can scramble, delete or relocate the genetic code near the insertion site (IRT, 2014). Even worse, scientists estimate that GM crops are capable of creating 100s or 1000s of these “mutations” throughout the genome, and due to the overall lack of published studies, scientists are mostly unaware to the extent of their effects. In a nutshell, that means that this technology has the ability to literally re-write our genetic code!
Alongside the unpredictability concerns of GM crops, research has found that foods that have been genetically modified pose numerous threats of auto-immune diseases. For example, scientists have found foods that have been genetically altered through the addition of a gene can sometimes have an increase in anti-nutrients (natural or synthetic compounds that hinder the absorption of minerals). These compounds, which include phytoestrogens, phytic acid and glucinins, have been shown to cause infertility problems in sheep and cattle (Liener, 1994). This is particularly troubling when you consider that almost 90% of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are altered in this way. The most common example of this “gene addition” is the Monsanto-created genetically engineered crop plants that are resistant to herbicides. Also referred to as “Roundup Ready” crops, these plants allow farmers to spray insecticides and not have it affect the crops. Research has found that the widely available Roundup Ready soybean indeed may display an increase in anti-nutrients (Padgette et al. 1996; ctd. in Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009).
In addition to the “Roundup Ready” crops, the FDA approved Monsanto bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk also poses health concerns in the form of increased cancer risk. Scientists have noted that significantly higher levels (400-500 percent or more) of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (igf-1), in the milk and dairy products of rBGH injected cows, could pose serious hazards such as human breast, prostate, and colon cancer (Cummins, 2013). Indeed, numerous research studies have shown that people with elevated igf-1 levels are much more susceptible to cancer.
Furthermore, in terms of our health, there is threat of gene transfer to non-target species. Among experts, there is a major concern of crops that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides cross-breeding with weeds and resulting in the transfer of the herbicide-resistant gene from crops to weeds. Known as “superweeds,” this spawning has had a detrimental effect on farming techniques, forcing farmers to use more potent herbicides to fight off the infestation (and obviously having grave implications on our health). The most well known of the superweeds, “pigweed,” has recently plagued a good portion of the crops in the southern US, including 100,000 acres in Georgia alone (Caulcutt, 2009). Although this problem is not just regional, as new reincarnations like horseweed and Johnsongrass are on the rise all across the US. And on top of that, the herbicide in question is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crop seeds, which amount to 90% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn grown across the U.S. According to Kilman (2010), some 40% of U.S. land planted to corn and soybeans is likely to harbor at least some Roundup-resistant superweeds by the middle of this decade.
Alongside these, other concerns of genetically modified foods point to: socio-ecological impacts, an increased antibiotic resistance in humans, increased pesticide residues, damage to beneficial insects and soil fertility, infant mortality and a change in the earth’s natural biodiversity.
As the GMO trend continues to gain steam and infiltrate mainstream culture, there remains a growing amount of criticism about the reliability of its current framework. Critiques are wide-ranging, and include everything from ethical and moral issues, to ownership and patent issues, to the overall lack of published literature and studies on the topic. Among these critiques, arguably the loudest one stems from ambiguity pertaining to the regulation of GMO labeling. As it stands today, the FDA does not require food companies to label foods that are genetically modified. Their current policy is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe (Whitman, 2000). Essentially, food products only require labeling if there is a nutritional or food safety property that is different from what consumers would expect of that particular food (Byrne et al, 2014).
For example, if a genetically modified food has a certain protein that may be an allergen and is not typically present (such as a peanut protein in a soybean), then it must be labeled. Otherwise, the FDA does not find genetic engineering to have “systematic” differences in nutrient breakdown and health concerns in comparison to traditional breeding methods, and is therefore not required to be labeled under US food safety laws (FDA, 1992). The current policy allows for companies to voluntarily submit information about their products, but it is not required and not federally regulated. While there are a number of third party verification programs that denote GMO-free products (such as the Non-GMO Project and CNG Certification, which I examine deeper in my previous post), currently the only way to ensure that your food is certified non-GMO is to buy products labeled “USDA Organic.”
Another widespread critique of the GMO trend points to the overall lack of scientific research dedicated to studies of safety. It has now been almost exactly 20 years since the introduction of genetically modified foods and there still exist only a handful of studies. In fact, according to Domingo (2007), no peer-reviewed publications of clinical studies on the human health effects of GM food exist, and even animal studies are few and far between. Up until this point, the main approach by the agricultural industry has been to use comparisons between GM crops and non-GM crops. When a lab determines that a GM crop is not significantly different than its non-GM counterpart, they are regarded as “substantially equivalent,” and therefore regarded as just as safe as the non-GM version (Pusztai, 2009).
For major food corporations, this creates a loophole that allows for GM crops to become patented without animal testing. However, the term “substantially equivalent” is not clearly defined by law and is not regulated by the FDA (Millstone et al, 1999). This is significant when you consider the typical amount of testing and lab studies that are mandatory when any new drug is approved by the FDA. As Dona & Arvanitoyannis (2009) argue, “the absence of adequate safety studies and the lack of evidence that GM food is unsafe cannot be interpreted as proof that it is safe” (p. 164). Unless these policies are changed, this lack of published studies will allow the influx of foods with GMO strains to continue to infiltrate our food supply, as well as keep us in the dark in regard to their true implications on our health.
Along with the overall lack of literature, there is the issue of conflict of interest between big business agriculture and the overall health and wellbeing of our population. Particularly in biotech research and development, genetically modified crops are almost exclusively the product of private industry. As argued by Pinstrup-Andersen & Schioler (2001), this is in part due to the fact that new technologies are more expensive than existing ones, and the biotech industry was able to gather the necessary funds to develop these technologies long before public awareness of GM crops could lead to publicly generated funding for GM crop development. Consequently, because this is a bottom line business, the large corporations that dominate the industry become driven by profits and not concerned with investing in expensive research and regulatory costs to produce crops that must be heavily subsidized for poor farmers to afford. As noted by Conway (1998), the main goal of private research is on capital-intensive farming, as research to feed the poor is less attractive because it involves long lead times, risks of unpredictable agricultural conditions, and beneficiaries with no ability to pay. As a result, we are left with a hegemonic hierarchy in terms of food commerce, further distancing us from the idealistic narrative of GM foods original purpose: their ability to increase the food supply and feed the poor.
Moreover, further critiques and issues of the GMO trend arise with the definition and treatment of intellectual property. As noted by Wu & Butz (2004), intellectual property issues are central to the progress of the GMO movement “because whereas science and technology move forward through the sharing of ideas and resources, intellectual property ambiguities and restrictions can often limit the valuable diffusion of science and technology” (p. 46). The issue of who “owns” a particular event (i.e. the successful transformation) of a GM crop and who can develop it further has become so economically important and controversial that there are now a number of cases involving this issue being litigated (Woodward, 2003). As noted by Cayford (2004), there are many that consider this issue of intellectual property to be one of the most important obstacles to the development and adoption of GM crops in the developing world.
The purpose of this post was to offer insight from a scientific perspective and bring an overall awareness to the topic of GMO foods. Lately we have heard so much about GMOs in the mainstream media and popular culture, but I think as a whole we are still in the dark about a lot of this stuff. What scares me as a consumer is the power that these corporations have, not only from an economic standpoint, but also in terms of the scope of their technology. It makes me wonder what’s next. Will it only be a matter of time before this technology spills into other aspects of life? More importantly, what concerns me is the overall lack of research that is being done. To me, it almost seems intentional and comes off as having a “back-alley” vibe to it, like these corporations are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I think if we are ever going to get a handle on this as a society, it is important to continue to push for activism and support non-GMO movements such as the Non-GMO Project and Think Global Act Local, because at the end of the day, we as the consumer control the marketplace. If we decide to not purchase foods that are GMO, they will ultimately fail. However, that is assuming that litigation will eventually get passed where labeling becomes mandatory and we can identify what is GMO!
In the meantime, if you are curious about the amount of GMO foods in your diet, check out the website Care2.com’s list of the top 20 “Frankenfoods” to avoid.
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