Who’d ever have imagined that a tomato could contain genetic material extracted from a fish? Ten years ago, such an experiment met FDA approval and was sent to market. Designed to ripen into a delicious red beefsteak after being picked green, the Flav-R-Savr tomato didn’t work out as planned and was soon shelved. Most Americans had no clue that this scientific feat had happened nor did they know that it was a significant first step for the biotech industry. Today, more than 60% of all processed foods contain a genetically modified ingredient (GMO). Should we worry how quickly this technology is being incorporated into our fields and food supply?
Many feel strongly that GMOs are currently the most important food-related issue. The concern is that, unlike most experiments, GMOs have the potential to alter the natural balance in unforeseen and perhaps, irreversible ways. Numerous scientists are raising many questions and concerns about the possible risks of genetic engineering.
“Many previous technologies have proved to have adverse effects unexpected by their developers. DDT, for example, turned out to accumulate in fish and thin the shells of fish-eating birds like eagles and ospreys. And chlorofluorocarbons turned out to float into the upper atmosphere and destroy ozone, a chemical that shields the earth from dangerous radiation. What harmful effects might turn out to be associated with the use or release of genetically engineered organisms?” Union of Concerned Scientists
As consumers and citizens, we are entitled to be informed of the foods that contain GMO ingredients (labeling) and protected from hasty decisions that could pose long-term health risks.
Background Info (from The Best Natural Foods on the Market Today)
"Biogenetic engineering, henceforth called GMO, is the process of splicing (combining) one or more genes of a plant or animal into another plant with the hope of creating beneficial properties for the new plant and for consumers. Today, more than 85% of the soybean crop planted is a GMO crop called Roundup Ready®. These soybeans contain a gene derived from a microorganism that makes soybeans resistant to the herbicide Roundup® made by Monsanto®. The herbicide can then be sprayed directly on soybean crops, effectively killing the weeds without killing any of the soybean plants, without purportedly causing any ill effects to the soybeans themselves. Approximately 40% of the current U.S. corn crop is a Roundup Ready crop or has been modified to contain a gene taken from bacteria that produces a protein with insecticidal properties. Other GMO crops currently being grown are cotton, canola, and potato, while a genetically engineered variety of oats is still in development.
Advocates of genetic engineering believe that there is great potential for the newly designed crops. For example, GMO rice contains higher levels of vitamin A. Using this rice in developing countries could greatly reduce the incidence of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Closer to home, the arguments for GMO foods are that they will allow farmers to use fewer pesticides to manage pests.
Concerned scientists and researchers, however, express grave caution related to the unknown havoc that such tinkering with our food supply might have on human health and the environment. There is so much that we do not know about the potential risks of these crops. Could a GMO crop, for instance, produce a toxin or other chemical in any creature eating it? Could GMO foods trigger serious allergic reactions? Could insects develop a greater resistance to current pesticides and non-chemical methods used by organic farmers, thus causing disease and crop failures? Could beneficial insects be harmed by eating GMO crops? Could GMO crops create “super-weeds”? These are serious unanswered questions that need to be addressed to our satisfaction before proceeding forward.
There are currently no special labeling laws designating the presence of GMO foods. When GMO crops are grown on a larger scale, foods containing their ingredients will become increasingly more difficult to track and avoid. You will not have the choice to avoid GMO ingredients when dining out in most restaurants or any other time that you eat away from home. Consumer advocacy groups are demanding the labeling of all GMO foods to ensure that you have the right to make a choice in this matter."
Update and Additional Notes
- In addition to GMO crops for animal and human feed, the biotech industry is developing plants that produce pharmaceutical drugs. Analysts project that PharmCrop revenues will exceed $2.2 billion annually by 2011.
- Five countries are currently growing 98 percent of the world's genetically engineered crops -- the United States, Argentina, Canada, China and Brazil. There has been strong resistance from European and Asian countries to GMOs, although Europe recently accepted the use of GMO corn for use as animal feed. Despite the opposition of 14 of the 25 European Union nations, the majority was not enough and the European Commission cast the accepting vote. In September, the EU will vote on whether the same corn can be used for human consumption.
- The largest genetic engineering companies AstaZeneca, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, and Aventis also own 60% of the global pesticide market and 25% of the commercial seed market.
- California has established many GMO-Free zones, including three counties, two cities, and ten Farmers Markets. In November, Sonoma County will vote on the issue.
- Representative Dennis Kucinich has introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act several times before the U.S. House of Representatives. To learn how you can support this effort, visit: www.thecampaign.org
There is now evidence that certain weeds have crossed with GMO crops and are becoming resistant “super weeds
”. This is a major concern as GMO advocates say the engineering will reduce a need for pesticides not increase them. It sounds a lot like the problem stemming from the over-use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the increased resistance of certain bacteria to our antibiotic medications.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid foods that contain GMO ingredients. There is a good chance the following have been genetically modified: vegetable oil (soy, corn, cottonseed, or canola), margarines, soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, textured vegetable protein, cornmeal, corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, citric acid, and lactic acid. When buying canola oil or soybean oil, choose non-GMO brands.
While I am clearly no expert on genetic engineering, I can look to the recent past and see evidence of technologies that created health risks to us that are just now being understood, such as exposure to DDT, PCBs, dioxin, mercury, and endocrine disruptors. I support the scientists who encourage us to proceed with caution. In the meantime, stay educated by reading the updates from the Organic Consumers Association, watch the film The Future of Food and ponder the quote from Craig Winters, President of The Campaign to Label GE Foods:
If the biotech industry does want to eventually bring the "next generation" of genetically engineered crops to market, it would be smart for them to quit fighting labeling and safety testing on the "first generation" biotech crops.
If genetically engineered crops are truly safe as the biotech industry claims, they should be eager to safety test these foods and proudly label them. But as long as the biotech industry refuses to do adequate safety testing and refuses to label them, consumers will continue to fight these untested, unlabeled 'Frankenfoods.'
- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD