Written by: Patricia Wilkie
Imagine a world where a gene found in a cold-water fish is placed into a potato in order to produce a new organism that has the desired trait of surviving a freeze. It looks like a potato, tastes like a potato, but it is not genetically a potato. Scientists can isolate the gene responsible for cold resistance and insert that gene into a different organism. This genetic engineering is of course, a more efficient process than the old school methods of selective breeding. This brave new world has arrived. In fact, it’s been around since the early ‘90s and chances are you’ve been ingesting the by-product for nearly two decades.
The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest techniques of molecular biology. This process involves the insertion or deletion of genes in an organism. Controversy surrounds GM foods. Proponents of GMOs claim that this technology will help increase the world’s food production. Supposedly, producing crops that have herbicide and pesticides inside the plant will yield more crops faster and more efficiently. Some consider this technology to be analogous to the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution marked technological breakthroughs to increase yields from the ‘40s to the ‘70s. This brought about large changes in the agricultural systems of industrialized nations. Yet, the Green Revolution brought about unsustainable practices, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today.
There is global criticism of GMOs. There are significant economic, ecological, and human health concerns. In addition, there may be unintended consequences; problems we cannot begin to conceive at this juncture due to human blind spots. The last decade has been marked with studies emerging out of Canada and Europe condemning GMOs. At this point, GMOs are still widely used and accepted in the U.S.; The FDA recognizes GMOs as “GRAS”: Generally Recognized As Safe. Regulations regarding GMOs put forth by the FDA and other U.S. food governmental agencies are few and lax.
Lack of concern by U.S. officials is curious considering the European Union has, for all intensive purposes, banned GM food. In 2002, Zambia cut off the flow of Monsanto’s GM food, mostly maize, from the UN’s World Food Program. This left a famine stricken country without food aid. Thus, further substantiating that world hunger may not necessarily be about having enough food, it may be more about the politics of the distribution of food. In 2005, the Zambian government changed its mind in the face of further famine and allowed the importation of GM maize. Monsanto, a company once solely invested in manufacturing products such as Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, Roundup, etc., appears to have cornered the global food market.
Zambia may have attempted to boycott GMOs because they, along with most of Europe, understand the ecological issues that persist with GM food. The U.S. has seen a widespread adoption of genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybean crops since 1996. About 93% of soybeans are Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready strain, meaning Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp is inserted into the genome of the soybean. Nearly 70% of corn and cotton are GM corn and GM cotton. More than 1/3 of all the cropland in the U.S. is GM. The diversity of strains of corn, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets are diminishing. This trend must be reversed, as crop diversity is one of the most fundamentally important resources for human life on earth. Crop diversity allows us to rise and meet the challenges of changing climates and constantly evolving pests and diseases. Even a “super-strain” will become susceptible to these elements at some point. Seed diversity, and sustainable practices such as seed saving is what will continue to yield crops, and feed the world.
Seed saving has been made almost legally impossible due to the patents that Monsanto holds on GM products. Farmers are being strong-armed, and sued for seed saving. This is because it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate GM products from conventional products. Cross contamination is rampant. This allows Monsanto to accuse almost anyone of breaking patent laws. Which then forces conventional farmers to either purchase Monsanto’s GM seeds or run the risk of being sued. Even if a farmer is brave enough to use conventional seeds, they are scarce, and particularly scarce without traces of GM materials. GMOs are a man-made product, which allows Monsanto to have a legal patent on life. What has been named “intellectual property” at one point existed for the commons.
Cross contamination, or cross pollination without cultivation is a huge ecological problem, as well. A perfect example is when GM alfalfa was approved earlier this year. In a half a year, biotech contamination has already begun. Currently, it is almost impossible to find a strain of corn or soybean that doesn’t have some type of GMO in it. Among other things, this is eroding Organic Standards. A 100% USDA Organic Certified product could contain up to .5 to 2% of GMOs.
When it comes to GMO, there are a myriad of human health concerns as well. Studies are emerging that indicate DNA could transfer from plant to bacteria. Scientists aren’t sure of the implications of this beyond our own body yet, but we do know the gastrointestinal tract is a hotspot for horizontal gene transfer. A study was conducted with GM Soy and it was found that the GMO plant had successfully transferred to bacteria in the G.I. tract. According to Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, the transfer of Monsanto’s Bt DNA to human digestive bacteria could create a “living pesticide factory” that could be responsible for the “increase in gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune diseases, food allergies, and childhood learning disorders since 1996 when Bt crops came on the market.” (Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis: a bacterium placed in GM plants to deter pests). The above indicates how unstable GMOs are.
Recent studies have concluded that Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide causes birth defects. However, this information may not be entirely new to the scientific community. A recent report reveals that industry regulators studies (including one commissioned by Monsanto) showed as far back as the ‘80s that RoundUp’s active ingredient glyphosate causes birth defects in laboratory animals. This information was not made public. Regulators have consistently misled the public about glyposate’s safety. Keep in mind, this is the chemical that is present in 93% of soybeans in the U.S.
Monsanto’s Bt-toxin, was found by Canadian doctors in the blood of 93% of pregnant women and 80% of the umbilical blood of their babies. The authors of the study conclude that the women and their babies were exposed to Monsanto’s GMO Bt-toxin through a “normal” non-organic Canadian diet, including non-organic (so-called “natural” and “conventional”) meat, egg, and dairy products from animals fed Bt corn. As Michael Pollen concluded in the Omnivore’s Dillema, nearly 70% of processed foods we find in the grocery store contains corn. You can be sure that corn is GM unless it is USDA Certified Organic.
So how do we avoid GMOs? Despite 95% of consumer’s stating that they desire transparency with GM food, labeling is still not mandated by law. Until we can lobby for transparency the only real way to avoid GMO is by buying 100% USDA Organic, and shopping at local farmer’s markets. It can’t stop there. If we restore consumer’s right to know whether their food has been genetically engineered, this technology will vanish; less people would buy GM food, and more people would buy local and organic. “If you put a label on GM food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” This is a quote by Norman Braksick, president of Asgrow Seed Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto.
We must look to the European Union as an example. The EU is the largest agricultural market in the world and there is little to no GM foods available in grocery stores. There is not necessarily a ban on GMO, but there is mandatory labeling required, and the European population spoke with their consumer dollar. We cannot expect our politicians to initiate this process. What we can do is educate ourselves around the issues. We can vote with our consumer dollar, and shop at institutions that encourage GMO labeling, or better yet, shop at our local farmer’s market. And most importantly, we must put political pressure on our government locally and federally. Labeling GM food will happen not because politicians think it’s a good idea, but because we as a people demand it!