Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's)

With the bill that passed in the House of Representatives to keep states from being able to mandate labeling of GMO’s I thought I would give you some information about what GMO’s are and why you might want to be aware of them in your diet.  

There is a great lobby for GMO’s and much community activisim against GMO’s. Those fighting for our right to know what is in our food are doing so with a tiny budget and a lot of science to back them up. The GMO lobbyists and the pro GMO movement have billions of dollars backing them. Not a fair fight but one worth fighting in my opinion.   Many lobbyists spend all their time online defending GMO’s and attacking critics of GMO’s. 

There is a group of scientists who have published online, for free, a document said to be in terms the average person could understand but I have to be honest, there is still a lot of science that is quite complicated, at least for me.  The 300 plus page document is called GMO Myths and Truths and had over 120,000 downloads a few weeks after it was published. Much of what you will read in this post comes from that document. It is fully referenced with real, peer reviewed science. Some of what is in there comes from other documents that are not peer reviewed science. Just because some info is not in peer reviewed journals doesn’t make it false information.  For example, studies on pesticides within that industry are not for public viewing. There is no way for you to know that pesticides used today are safe for you. You have to rely on the regulating body who decides that they are or are not safe.  

For those believing that the no to GMO information is one sided because it doesn’t show the other side I would caution you to take a deeper look in to the studies being done. According to GMO Myths and Truths, “The world of GMO studies is not what it seems at first glance. For example, a list of several hundred studies that were claimed to show GMO safety turned out to show nothing of the sort on closer examination. It is padded with articles irrelevant to GMO safety and contains many papers that provide evidence for harm.”

What exactly is a GMO or Genetically Modified Organism?

As defined by the World Health Organization, “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”. What that means is the genes or genetic material of an organism are altered in a lab where new DNA is inserted or some of the existing DNA is changed. This, in turn, re programs the cells so they make a new protein or change the way the existing protein works. This makes new traits in the genes that would not naturally be there. Some of the changes made are transferring genes from related or unrelated organisms, changing the information in a gene, moving, deleting or multiplying genes, combining parts of existing genes or making new ones. Genetically modified genes change the characteristics of an organism. 

Every living thing has DNA in every one of its cells. It is what our genes are made of. They are the instructions that keep all living things working properly. DNA stores all kinds of information that gives you the type of nose you have, makes you how tall you are and decides what color eyes you have and many more things. Each gene is laid out a certain way like code on a computer. Some genes produce RNA (ribonucleic acid) copies of themselves rather than put a code on a protein. RNA is needed for many cellular processes and can control how much of a protein is made from a certain kind of gene. The science behind how DNA works and why it works the way it does is not fully understood. The way the genes are set up in your DNA are set up that way for a reason. Your body has an amazing innate intelligence and just does so many things on a biological and physiological level and they all happen for a reason. Messing around with the way those genes are organized can disturb many gene systems and how they function having consequences further down the line that we don’t even know about yet. Also, because we are all bio individuals, there is no way to predict how manipulation of genes will affect you vs. how it will affect me. 

The process of genetically engineering an organism is not an exact science. All genes interact with one another and their environment. It can change a whole genome or the way the genes function in ways they didn’t expect. This can result in toxins or allergens or a changed nutritional value and there can be changes in how the environment responds (super weeds anyone?). 

GMO’s are not an extension of natural plant breeding. In one breath the GMO industry is claiming that their processes are completely different from natural plant breeding so they can get a patent on their seeds. It is telling us, the public that there is not much difference from natural breeding which makes them safe for consumption.

Here is the problem with this.

Natural breeding can only take place between organisms that are closely related (humans and humans, cats and cats, dogs and dogs, corn with corn but not corn with fish). Genetic modification is made to make a transfer of genes between unrelated organisms. They have even created synthetic DNA and inserted it into a living organisms DNA.  The first generation of Roundup Ready GMO’s contain two species of soil bacteria, a flower and a plant virus. This would not happen in nature.  The fact is that they can transfer genes between species but also between kingdoms. This means they can take genetic material from animals or humans and put them into plants. 

The GM genes are either shot into the DNA of an organism with what is called a gene gun. If they are lucky the DNA in the gene gun gets to the DNA of the organism they are shooting it in to. The process is so random and out of the control of the scientists. They can also be inserted as an infection of cultured cells. There is no way to control where the GM genes will be inserted though. The process in inefficient and costly. 

What does this mean for you?

Maybe you don’t care, maybe you do. I venture to guess that you have some inclination to care about this subject if you have continued reading. 

This is an example of selective breeding in corn. The far left photo is what corn looked like when it was first discovered and what we know as corn today on the far right.

This is an example of selective breeding in corn. The far left photo is what corn looked like when it was first discovered and what we know as corn today on the far right.

Know there is a difference between selective breeding and genetically modifying something. Selective breeding is often done in animals to get the more desirable qualities to show up in the next generation. Corn, wheat and rice have been bred over hundreds of years to be bigger and better.  Genetically modifying something changes the DNA as described above. It wasn't or isn't always the best idea to use selective breeding but the difference is that when something doesn't work out during selective breeding, the breeder is made aware right away. You cannot selectively breed traits of a cat in to a dog. Mother nature will not allow it. 

In 1998 Michael Pollan did a piece for New York Times Magazine where Philip Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications stated that “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.”

Are GMO’s tested for safety?

They were first introduced on the list of foods Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). According to the authors of GMO Myths and Truths, no GMO’s have even met the criteria that can define a food as GRAS. To be considered GRAS there must be an overwhelming expert agreement that it is safe and the agreement needs to be based on scientific evidence created through scientific procedure. GMO’s don’t meet these requirements yet they are on the list of GRAS foods. 

In the U.S. GMO’s are regulated by the industry that created them. Safety testing is done by the companies who profit from their sale. The lobbyists have gone from stating GMO’s are strictly regulated to saying they are safe so they don’t need to be regulated. There is no long term experimentation or study that has ever been done. The experiment is done on you, the public. This experiment started in the early 1990’s when they were first introduced commercially despite many FDA scientists claiming they should be tested and proven safe before being introduced. The administration in the FDA at the time admitted they were following an agenda to encourage the growth of the biotech industry. They ignored the scientists working for them and put GMO's out in to the market with no testing or labeling. The regulation of GMO’s is relied upon by information provided by the developers. Their data is not published in journals or peer reviewed. Basically we are just taking their word for it that GMO’s are safe. 

There is also quite a conflict of interest when it comes to the FDA. There is a man named Michael Taylor who was appointed to the FDA as deputy commissioner of policy. Prior to that he was an attorney for a law firm that represented Monsanto. In 1998 he was given the job of Monsanto’s vice president for public policy and in 2010 he was deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA. He is often given as the example of the kinds of conflict of interest that run rampant through government agencies and big business. I wonder if he is able to keep a non biased opinion about GMO's. 

There is no process within the FDA to determine the safety of GMO’s. None of the GM crops have been determined safe except by the companies developing them. 

GM crops have shown to be of a different composition to a non GM crop even when grown with the same conditions, at the same time and in the same location. GM soy had 27% higher levels of an allergen called trypsin inhibitor (an enzyme that helps your body break down proteins) than the non-GM soy. Canola engineered to have vitamin A as part of its makeup had a reduced level of vitamin E compared to non GMO canola. GM rice had a different structure and texture along with a huge change in nutritional value compared to non GMO rice. A specific GM corn grown was altered so much so that researchers concluded it could cause toxicity to humans and animals. In a study on rats it was found to cause toxicity to the organs. 

Independent research on the safety of GM foods is a process that renders scientists persecuted, losing careers and/or funding for their work. True independent studies would be done by non industry funded scientists. It is difficult for those scientists to get the seeds needed to perform their study and when they have, they have found problems with the GM foods. The seeds are patented which makes it difficult for a truly independent researcher to do a study. If permission is given to do the research the GM company involved usually has to be given the right to block the study from being published. They are being studied at some universities, but not for food safety and there are private agreements between the companies and the universities that only they have access to. So you don’t know what was agreed to be studied and approval of the universities doing the studying is done by the companies granting them permission. The results of their research are given right back to the GM developer.   Many of these university researchers stated it would not be good for their career to show any research that negatively reflects the GM crops. 

The Senate is set to vote on whether or not you have the right to know what is in your food. Go ahead and contact your senator if you feel so inclined. 

Some of the best ways to keep most GMO’s out of your diet is to eat real whole foods and preferable organic. Support local growers and farmers when you can. Even if they take away our right to know you can keep much of it out of your diet this way.  The problem with GMO’s is we don’t know for sure how they will affect us as a population in the long term.

How do you feel about GMO's? Please tell me in the comments below.