What we eat every day, the bread, pies, sodas, even corn on the cob, may look just like 20 years ago. Yet, something profoundly different has happened without our knowledge or consent. Beginning in 1996, genetically modified (GM) foods became available in the U.S.
Are GMOs (genetically modified organisms) safe? Most developed nations do not consider them safe. In 64 countries around the world or about 40 percent of the world population, including Australia, Japan, and all the countries in the European Union, there are strict labeling requirements, significant restrictions, or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.
Unfortunately, in the U.S. and Canada, the governments have approved GMOs based on safety studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profited from their sale. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence has connected GMOs with myriad health issues and environmental damage, not to mention violations of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
In the U.S. GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of conventional processed foods. Are you aware that your breakfast cereal, processed lunch meats, cookies, cooking oil, condiments, and energy bars are likely to contain one or more GMO ingredients?
The fact is that GMOs have not been proven safe and that the long-term health risks have not been adequately investigated. Young, fast-growing children are at greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods. Therefore, it is only prudent that we become informed of what we buy and what we eat, especially when there is yet regulation requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods in North America.
In the following, we will look at what GMOs really are, where to find them, their potential health risks to us and our children, and how to avoid accidentally buying foods that have been genetically engineered.
What Really Are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Scientists take the genes from one species and insert them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic.
Genetic engineering is completely different from traditional breeding. In traditional breeding, it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. With genetic engineering, scientists can breach species barriers set up by nature. For example, they have spliced arctic fish genes into tomatoes and strawberries so that they became tolerant to frost. The results are plants or animals with traits that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
So far, attempts have been made to increase nutritional benefits of food crops but to no avail. The two main traits that have been added to date are:
- herbicide tolerance
- Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin.
Herbicide tolerance lets the farmer spray weed-killer directly on the crop without killing it. Over 80 percent of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for this purpose. As a result, use of toxic herbicides like Roundup (from Monsanto) has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced.
GMO crops are also responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that can only be killed with even more toxic poisons, like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange). Needless to say, GMOs promotes chemical agriculture and are developed and sold by the world’s biggest chemical companies.
Bt toxin crops such as Bt corn and cotton produce pesticides inside the plant. This kills or deters insects, saving the farmer from having to spray pesticides. Unfortunately, the plants themselves are toxic, not just to insects but also to animals who eat them.
In India, when livestock was allowed to graze on the Bt cotton plants after harvest, thousands of sheep, goats, and buffalo died; numerous got sick. According to reports and records from doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, numerous Indian farm laborers who handled the Bt cotton constantly struggled with allergic and flu-like symptoms.
Where To Find GMOs?
Currently, there are eight commercialized GM crops in the U.S.:
- Alfalfa (first planted in 2011)
- Canola (90% of U.S. canola crop)
- Corn (88%)
- Cotton (90%)
- Papaya (most of Hawaiian papaya crop)
- Soy (94%)
- Sugar beets (95%)
- Zucchini and yellow summer squash (25,000 acres)
(GM potatoes and apples recently started commercial production but are not yet widely available.)
The following products derived from the above eight crops may contain GMO ingredients:
- Oils made from canola, corn, cottonseed, and soy.
- Soy protein and soy lecithin.
- Cornstarch, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup.
- Food additives, enzymes, flavoring, and processing agents, including amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrin, molasses, monosodium glutamate, rennet (used to make hard cheeses), sucrose, textured vegetable protein, xanthin gum, and yeast products.
- Meats, eggs, dairy products from animals that have been fed GM corn and soy.
- Dairy products from cow injected with rbGH (a GM hormone).
- Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen.
The FDA is currently reviewing data submitted by AquaBounty on the safety of GM salmon. This is the company that spliced two promoting genes, one from a Chinook salmon and one from the eel-like ocean pout, into Atlantic salmon, forcing it to grow up twice as fast and reach market size in about 18 months instead of three years.
At present, all major supermarkets like Safeway, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have refused to sell GM salmon. However, Costco is planning on selling the GM fish despite being one of the biggest sellers of organic products in the U.S.
Potential Risks Of GMOs
There has been much controversy regarding the safety of GMOs. You may have heard from various media sources that genetically modified foods are perfectly safe and there is no evidence to suggest any long-term risk from their consumption. As it happens, the only feeding study done with humans showed that GMOs survived inside the stomach of the people eating GMO food. No follow-up studies were ever done.
Various feeding studies in animals have resulted in potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies, and higher death rates.
The reality is no one ever monitors human health impacts of GM foods. The biotech industry claims that the FDA has thoroughly evaluated GM foods and found them safe. This is untrue. The FDA does not require safety studies. Instead, if the makers of the GM foods claim that they are safe, the agency has no further questions. The FDA relies solely on information supplied by the biotech companies.
Therefore, if the foods were creating health problems in the US population, it may take decades before we identify the cause. Nonetheless, there has been evidence suggesting potential health risks caused by GMOs. Documents made public from a lawsuit revealed that FDA scientists were uniformly concerned that GM foods may create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems.
- Scientists have long known that GM crops may cause allergies. But there are no tests to prove in advance that a GM crop is safe. That is because people are not usually allergic to a food until they have eaten it a number of times.
- The classical understanding of why a GM crop may create new allergies is that the imported genes produce a new protein, which has never before been present. This novel protein can have allergenic or toxic properties.
- The only published human feeding study on GM foods ever conducted verified that portions of the gene inserted into GM soy ended up transferring into the DNA of human gut bacteria, producing its potentially allergenic protein. Another possible explanation is that GM crops contain more residues of glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in broad-spectrum herbicides like Roundup. Research shows that glyphosate wreaks havoc on the beneficial bacteria in the gut as microbes have the same pathway used by glyphosate to kill weeds. We know that a healthy gut flora is vital to a healthy immune system. When your gut flora becomes abnormal, your intestinal permeability increases and you are more susceptible to allergies.
- Between 1997-2007, the two decades after GMOs came to the market, the prevalence of food allergies among children under 18 years increased 18 percent.
- According to scientists at the FDA, genetically engineered plants may have increased levels of known naturally occurring toxins, new and not previously identified toxins, and an increased tendency to gather toxic substances from the environment such as pesticides or heavy metals.
- When mice were fed potatoes with the Bt toxin, scientists found abnormal and damaged cells, as well as proliferative cell growth in the lower part of their small intestines.
- The techniques used to transfer genes have a very low success rate, so the genetic engineers attach “marker genes” that are resistant to antibiotics to help them find out which cells have taken up the new DNA. These marker genes are resistant to antibiotics that are commonly used in human and veterinary medicine. Some scientists believe that eating genetically engineered food containing these marker genes could encourage gut bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance. This is exactly the reason cited by the British Medical Association to call for a moratorium of GM foods.
- Milk and dairy products from cows treated with the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rbGH) can contain up to 10 times higher amounts of the hormone IGF-1, which is one of the highest risk factors associated with breast, prostate, colon, lung, and other cancers.
- Unexpected changes in estrogen levels in GM soy used in infant formula may affect sexual development in children. GM soy used in soy milk, tofu, and soy protein products may have the potential to upset the delicate hormonal balance of the female reproductive cycle.
- The herbicide, glyphosate, is patented as an antibiotic, hence, it kills all bacteria indiscriminately. Glyphosate decimates critically beneficial soil microbes and damages the fertility of the soil. It is also a potent chelator, which prevents valuable minerals like iron, calcium, manganese, and zinc from being utilized by your body.
- As weeds adapt to herbicides, they develop resistance and evolve into “super weeds”. When that happens, more toxic herbicides have to be used.
- Studies show that pesticide-producing crops contaminate nearby streams, possibly affecting aquatic life. They may also harm beneficial insects and contribute to the disappearing bee colonies in the U.S.
- Pollen from GM crops can contaminate nearby crops and wild plants of the same type, except for soy, which does not cross-pollinate. In fact, virtually all heritage varieties of corn in Mexico (the origin of all corn) have been found to have some contamination. Canola and cotton also cross-pollinate. Organic canola farmers in Canada sued biotech companies since cross-pollination has made it impossible for them to grow organic, non-GM canola.
- Since biotech companies own patents on the GMOs, they have the power to sue farmers whose fields are contaminated with GMOs, even when it is the result of inevitable drift from neighboring fields. GMOs, therefore, pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and the national food security of any country where they are grown, including the U.S.
How To Avoid GM Foods
- Organic foods are not allowed to contain GM ingredients. Buying products that are certified organic or non-GMO are two ways to limit you and your family’s risk from GM foods. Meats, eggs, and dairy products may come from animals that have eaten GM feed unless they are organic or non GM certified.
- When you dine out, ask the restaurant “What oil do you cook with?” If they say canola, corn, cottonseed, soy, or vegetable, they are likely GM unless they use organic. If they use olive oil, make sure it is pure and not blended with canola oil.
- Other potential sources of GM foods at restaurants include salad dressings, bread, mayonnaise, and sugar from sugar beets. In U.S. restaurants, unless they use organic dairy or dairy that avoid rbGH, it is likely that the dairy products come from cows that have been treated with the GM hormone. Industrialized nations outside the U.S. have not approved rbGH.
- Avoid the tabletop sweetener, aspartame which is genetically modified. Aspartame is widely used in many calorie-free soft drinks and beverages. Aspartame is also used in pharmaceutical products. Read the small print on the slip of paper inside the package.
- Avoid products containing any ingredients from the seven food crops that have been genetically engineered: soy, corn, cottonseed, canola, Hawaiian papaya, and zucchini and yellow summer squash. This means avoiding soy lecithin in chocolate, corn syrup in candies, and corn, soy, cottonseed, or canola oil in bread, snacks, and other packaged foods.
- Last but not least, be aware that since the mid 90s, more and more genetically engineered corn and soy were being used in pet foods. To protect the health of your beloved dogs and cats, look for organic or GM corn and soy-free pet foods.