What’s the Problem With GMOs?

Q: What are GMOs and should I be concerned about them in my food?

A: GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) have been created through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This science allows DNA material from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in Nature or result from traditional crossbreeding methods.

Doing this provides financial benefits to biotechnology companies and large-scale farming corporations. For instance, seeds can be engineered to be insect resistant and/or herbicide tolerant. Produce can be developed that has a longer shelf life or is shaped to facilitate more efficient transportation. Scientists have even tried to introduce a cold-resisting gene from Arctic fish into tomatoes to prevent them from freezing and thus lengthen their growing season. Hand- in-hand with seed patenting, GE seeds can provide agribusiness with massive profits.

Proponents claim that GE crops benefit the environment through the reduced use of herbicides and insecticides, increase crop yields, thereby helping farmers and solving the food crisis. And companies producing GE seed, as well as the food processors using GMOs in their products, are spending millions of dollars to advertise to consumers and lobby governments in an effort to persuade us they are safe and nutritious to eat.

However, critics disagree. And we really do not know for sure what, if any, long-term impacts eating GE foods will have on our health, although an increasing amount of independent research suggests the dangers are many, to both human health and the environment. According to the Non-GMO Project, a North American natural product industry-based, non-profit product verification program, a large and growing body of scientific research and on-the-ground experience indicates that: GMOs can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts; can disrupt the ecosystem, damage vulnerable wild plant and animal populations, and harm biodiversity; increase chemical inputs over the long term by encouraging insect resistance and the creation of new, more toxic, pesticide products; deliver yields that are no better, and often worse, than conventional crops; and cause or exacerbate a range of social and economic problems. Once released, GMOs cannot be recalled from the environment. That leads to the unintended spread of GE plants or “volunteers” that contaminate organic crops.

The Non-GMO Project’s paper GM Crops – Just the Science presents over one hundred research studies and other authoritative papers documenting the limitations and risks of GE crops.

At the same time, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) points out that GE foods are approved for human consumption based on industry- produced science that is not peer-reviewed and cannot be accessed by the public or independent scientists. Without peer review, the data used to approve products cannot be assumed to be good science, or indeed science at all.

“We are performing a massive experiment. The results will only be known after millions of people have been exposed to (GMO foods) for decades…Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying. The hazards of these foods are uncertain. In view of our enormous ignorance, the premature application of biotechnology is downright dangerous.” ~ David Suzuki, 1999

One early independent human health safety assessment of a GE food (a potato that is not now on the market) caused scientist Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland to be silenced, although his study was eventually published in the peer-reviewed The Lancet. Pusztai found that the genetically engineered potatoes he was testing severely damaged the immune system and organs of rats.

In 2009, researchers linked consumption of three of Monsanto’s GE corn varieties with organ damage in a study of the effects of GE foods on mammalian health. All three varieties of corn were approved for consumption in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. The data “clearly underlines adverse impacts on kidneys and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, as well as different levels of damages to heart, adrenal glands, spleen, and haematopoietic system,” reported Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at France’s University of Caen in the study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences.

This seems consistent with most peer-reviewed studies of GE foods, which have found that they may cause pancreatic, renal, hepatic, or reproductive effects. Indeed, a new report reviewing nineteen studies of mammals fed with commercialized GE soybean and maize (which represent more than eighty percent of all GMOs grown on a large scale) indicates liver and kidney signs of toxicity in mammals. It was published in Environmental Sciences Europe.

In the fall of 2012, another peer-reviewed study by Séralini published online by the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, shows the results of the first animal feeding trial into the life-time exposure of Roundup tolerant GM corn and Roundup, the world’s best selling weed killer. The study, shows that levels currently considered safe can cause mammary tumors, kidney and liver damage, in laboratory rats. The study was supported by the independent research organization, CRIIGEN. The researchers used 200 rats that were fed a diet containing the Roundup tolerant GM maize, NK603, or given water containing Roundup, at levels permitted in drinking water and GM crops in the US. It showed that these rats developed tumors faster and died earlier than rats fed on a standard diet.

Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to any potential health risks from consuming GE foods. CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt wrote in a 2003 paper for the Canadian Institute of Child Health entitled Genetically Engineered Food and Child Health that introducing new genes into the human diet or moving genes to new contexts can create new allergens. And children are particularly sensitive. Sharratt quotes a 2001 report by the Royal Society of Canada Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology, commissioned by the Canadian government, which noted that, “The potential widespread use of GE food products as food additives and staple foods, including use in baby foods, may lead to earlier introduction of novel proteins to susceptible infants either directly or via the presence of the maternally ingested proteins in breast milk,” and result therefore in greater potential to develop allergies.

The United States now has one hundred and sixty-five million acres of GE crops planted. In 2009, ninety-three percent of soy and of cotton, and eighty-six percent of corn grown in the U.S. were GMO. It is estimated that over ninety percent of canola grown is GE, and there are also commercially produced GE varieties of sugar beets, squash and Hawaiian papaya. As a result, it is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than eighty percent of packaged products in the average U.S. or Canadian grocery store.

GMOs are banned, restricted, or labeled in many countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union. Polls consistently show that a significant majority of North Americans would like to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs. In fact, in a CBS/New York Times poll, over half of consumers said they would not buy food that had been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project’s seal for verified products will give the North American public an opportunity to make an informed choice when it comes to GMOs. However, many feel that mandatory labeling is the best answer, something that is on the ballot in California in 2012.

Meanwhile, you can avoid GMOs by eating certified organic food, in which GMOs are prohibited. Or look for the Non-GMO Project’s seal in natural food retailers. You can also avoid eating processed foods containing corn, canola, soy, and sugar (and be vigilant about meat and salmon, because they’re next). Both CBAN and the Non-GMO Project have guides to buying GMO-free foods.

Check out and support the organizations that are working to stop GE foods, and share the information with friends, family, and co-workers.

Learn More

Non-GMO Project – www.nongmoproject.org

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) – www.cban.ca

Center for Food Safety – www.centerforfoodsafety.org


1 Comment on What’s the Problem With GMOs?

  1. Hi,
    Could you give the references for the studies you mentioned? Odd as it may seem, I actually enjoy reading science papers and would like to get an alternative perspective on the GM debate from firshand sources. Thanks.
    I’ll check back in a week or two (Aug 2013) if that’s ok.

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