There is a lot of talk going around about GMO foods and GE foods. They are being touted as a great advance in science by the developers and food manufacturers; they will supposedly make food cheaper to produce and be of better quality. Then there are groups and organizations that vehemently state that these foods are unnatural, untested, and down-right poisonous. But what are GMO and GE foods?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and GE stands for Genetically Engineered. Sounds fancy, but what is it, really? In very basic terms, fruits, vegetables and even meats are being genetically modified in the lab. DNA is being changed to suit a particular purpose. The “reasons” for this are varied. For instance, squash is being genetically modified to be resistant to a particular bacteria that is carried by the cucumber beetles that feed on it. This bacteria causes severe damage to the squash plant, many times killing it altogether. That kind of modification sounds like a good thing, right? And how is that different than creating a hybrid, or selective breeding?
Selective breeding has been practiced for decades; in some cases for hundreds of years. Breeding out certain qualities of say, dogs for example, and breeding in other certain qualities is an accepted practice. This has occurred millions of times, by thousands of people over centuries. While it has changed a breed to more suit our purpose of sport dogs, in particular, it has, however led to devastating health problems of some sort for most breeds; with hip dysplasia being the most common.
Creating hybrids is done by carefully cross-breeding similar plants to create an entirely new variety. This is done frequently with plants to give the plant characteristics such as making it more drought tolerant or a better producer. When cross pollination occurs between plants under natural conditions, the hybrid that is produced will have seeds that grow into the “new” hybrid plant. More complex hybridization involving human intervention for cross pollination, will not produce seeds that grow into the same type hybrid plant; the tendency is for the seeds to revert back to one of the parent plants. Sometimes, those complex hybrid plants produce seeds that are sterile.
In both selective breeding and hybridization, nature ultimately controls the outcome of the new variety animal or plant. With Genetically Modified Organisms and Genetically Engineered food unnatural crosses are made at a genetic level in a laboratory. DNA, the blueprint for all things living, is being modified to change the plant or animal to suit a particular purpose. For instance, scientists have found ways to modify DNA to make a plant more resistant to bugs. It’s a complicated process but science has found that certain bacteria kills certain bugs, so they have taken DNA of the bacteria and spliced it into the DNA of the plant. As the plant grows, it produces this bacteria right in its own cells. When the certain bugs eat the plant they die. This is being done with corn, cotton, potatoes, and tomatoes here in the United States.
Another way that the DNA of bacteria is being used is to make plants tolerant to commonly used herbicides. By splicing bacteria into the plant’s DNA, the plants metabolic processes change so that herbicides such as Round-Up and others do not damage the plant. This means that farmers can spray these herbicides directly onto their crops to kill the weeds around them. Currently, this is being done with soybeans, sugar beets, rice, wheat, flax, cotton, canola (rapeseed), corn, and alfalfa.
Potatoes, papaya, plums, squash, and citrus fruit plants are having their DNA spliced with that of viruses to make them more resistant to disease. The virus DNA, basically, causes the plant to produce antibodies against the virus. However, this also makes the plant more susceptible to other diseases.
Resistance to pests, herbicide tolerance, and resistance to disease are the top 3 reasons for genetic modification.
As of today, no animals have been approved for genetic modification. However, it is expected that in the near future salmon will receive that approval. Right now, testing is being done to genetically modify salmon to grow at twice the normal rate by increasing the amount of growth hormone in the fish. This would mean that more salmon could be produced and processed than is currently available through fishing and traditional farming of salmon. This kind of rapid growth is causing malformation of the fish’s spine and jaw. The risks of eating an animal that has been genetically modified is unknown. We know that growth hormones given to cattle to make them grow faster, as well as the hormones given to increase milk production are having a tragic effect on our children; causing a host of mental and physical developmental issues. How can we expect this type of genetic modification of salmon to be any different?
Also, animal feed is being produced with genetically modified products. Corn, soy, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and sugar beets (used for beet pulp) are all used in making animal feed. Since almost all feed corn is a GMO and most of the soy grown in this country is also a GMO, the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, and farm raised fish are consuming large amounts of GMO foods. Even deer that eat at a deer feeder are most likely eating GMO corn.
Experimentation with genetic modification happens every day in laboratories. Scientists have tried to make oranges less susceptible to disease by splicing the orange DNA with that of frogs. And, in their attempt to make tomatoes more cold tolerant, flounder DNA was being used. While the gene splicing was successful, the outcome was not what was hoped for.
Although, it can take an average of 20 years for a genetically modified plant or animal to be developed, no long term testing has been done. Science does not yet understand how GMO plants will change the ecosystem; by cross pollenating/contaminating native plants as well as traditional non-GMO crops, their spread could quickly get out of control. This would make it impossible to keep wildlife from consuming GMOs.
Science does expect that bugs will develop a tolerance to the very GMO plants created to kill them, that weeds will develop a resistance to herbicides, and that viruses will become stronger. There is no consistent data to show that GMO products are more nutritious than non GMO products. Besides all of this, the effects of eating GMOs is unknown in animals and humans.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved many GMO products, and many more are waiting approval. It is difficult to get a complete current list for all the GMO products currently available. Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola (rapeseed), and sugar beets (where most of our refined sugar comes from) are the top 5 on the market in the United States. Currently, there are no regulations requiring that products that are GMO or made from GMO products be labelled as such.
Worldwide, there are 35 countries that currently require GMO product labelling if the product contains over 0.9% GMO or GE foods.
While other countries are doing their own genetic modification of plants and animals, many other countries refuse to buy GMO products. This could potentially cause huge economic problems that are felt all the way back to the farmers who are growing the GMO crops. The revenue that the United States depends on from selling food to other countries will be greatly impacted if we cannot guarantee that the food we are selling is GMO free.
Without stringent GMO labelling regulations, no one will truly know what is in their food; whether it comes from our country or another country. We will not know what we are eating and feeding our kids. Since there is no long term data available on how these GMO foods will affect our health and the health of the animals used for food, in the very least, it is expected that new food allergies will develop. Unfortunately, it will take time to realize the true impact on human health, to include birth defects and child development. Even our own pets will be affected.
The science of genetics has opened an entirely new realm of possibilities never before thought of as possible. We must proceed with caution to minimize damage from unforeseen complications. Creating something that nature never intended will undoubtedly produce results that were never expected. Nothing in nature is isolated; everything in our world is connected in one way or another.
The only way to avoid GMO, GE, or bioengineered food is to read the labels, and buy certified organic meat and produce. Try to limit products that have been processed and look for a “certified organic” label. Remember, corn and corn products, soy and soy products, sugar, canola oil and cotton seed oil are most likely GMO unless labelled organic; at least one of these is in almost every processed food.
Insist on mandatory GMO labelling. Insist on strong regulation for the use and sale of GMO products. Insist on knowing what you are eating and how it was grown and processed. And insist on your right to choose GMO or non-GMO.
Gallery of Genetic Modifications. (n.d.). Retrieved from PBS.org: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/dna/pop_genetic_gallery/index.html
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Organic Consumers Association: http://www.organicconsumers.org/gelink.cfm
GMO Safety Genetic Engineering- Plants-Environment. (2010, November 4). Retrieved from http://www.gmo-safety.eu/news/1242.disease-resistant-bananas-drought-tolerant-maize.html
Pocket K No. 10: Herbicide Tolerance Technology: Glyphosate and Glufosinate. (2012, July). Retrieved from International Service For the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/pocketk/10/default.asp
Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide. (2004, March 8). Retrieved from Colorado State University: http://cls.casa.colostate.edu/TransgenicCrops/current.html
Whitman, D. B. (2000, April). Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful. Retrieved from csa.com: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php