With all the controversy around GMOs, it’s important to understand what they are, their role in the world today, and some of the pros and cons.
The food industry is a huge industry, upon which the majority of the world’s population relies daily. The science of GMOs began in 1935 with the discovery of DNA by Russian scientist, Andrei Nikolaevitch Belozersky when he isolated a strand of pure DNA. Scientists continued to work with DNA and in 1973 the idea for man-made DNA was conceived by a grad student at Stanford University Medical School. Knowing that there were ethical issues around modifying DNA, in 1975 a group of biologists, lawyers and doctors got together and created a set of guidelines for the safe use of genetically engineered DNA. In 1982, the FDA approved the first GMO and Humulin, insulin produced by genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, appeared on the market. Fast forward 12 years, and in 1994 the very first food item went on sale at grocery stores- a tomato. Engineered to delay-ripen, this Flavr Savr tomato has a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes. In 1996 a super weed was detected in Australia. This weed was resistant to the herbicide used on many GMO crops. Shortly thereafter, the European Union ruled that all GMO food must be labelled as such, including animal feed. USA and Canada have no such laws. By 1999 over a million acres worldwide are planted with genetically engineer seeds.
GMOs are most prevalent across the following crops:
- yellow crookneck squash and zucchini
- sugar beets
- milk (in the USA)
Benefits of GMOs are many, and growing. Food can be modified to have better traits, thus making the food supply chain more efficient and able to provide for the earth’s growing population. The potential for this type of agricultural gain is tremendous.
Potential benefits include:
- crops are better resistant to stress and extreme weather patterns, such as drought or frost
- more nutritious staple foods
- more productive farm animals
- more food from less land
- reduce environmental impact of production
- rehabilitation of damaged or less-fertile land
- longer shelf life, leading to less food waste and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste
- crops resistant to insects and herbicide larger crop yield
But, are GMOs safe? Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified food (1). In 1992 the FDA claimed they had no information that GM foods were different than conventionally grown foods, and were therefore absolutely safe to eat. However, an internal memo, made public by a lawsuit (2) showed that the FDA’s position was staged by politicians, under orders from the White House, for the purpose of promoting the use of GMOs. The FDA who created this policy was Michael Taylor, the former attorney (and later Vice President) of Monsanto, the largest biotech company in the world. Without commenting further on the wild conflict of interest in that policy development, it should be known that other FDA scientists have urged further studies of GMOs to determine whether or not they are actually safe. Presently, the biotech companies who produce GMO seeds are currently in charge of industry funded studies to determine safety. These studies are superficial and do nothing to root out potential dangers (3).
The genetic engineering process can cause havoc elsewhere in the DNA, causing unintended mutations, while natural genes can be turned on or off, while other genes change their behaviour. Since GMOs were introduced to the mainstream food supply, there have been changes to the overall health of the general public.
Before eating GMO foods, there are risks that everyone should be aware of (4)
- Allergies: The manipulation of DNA in food sources may introduce new allergens into our environment or increase the levels of allergens already existing in a food
- Antibiotic Resistance: Genetic engineers require, and rely on, the use of antibiotics to aid in experiments as a way of isolating genes. Overuse of antibiotics has been known to create antibiotic resistance pathogens.
- Pesticide Exposure: The majority of GM crops are developed so that they are pesticide and herbicide resistant, meaning they can be sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup without being harmed. While this makes for studier crops, it also means exposing people to even more pesticides, which have their own health implications.
- Unpredictable Behaviour: The introduction of foreign gene material into a host can cause other genes to behave erratically and unpredictably.
In order to limit your exposure to GMO foods, eat organic food whenever possible.
3) See Part 2, Jeffrey M. Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, Yes! Books, Fairfield, IA 2007