Genetically Modified Food

In many ways our lives revolve around food. We humans eat to nourish, to comfort ourselves, to socialize with friends and family, and to exercise our creativity. When we’re not sitting down to eat, we’re often thinking about what we want to eat, what meals to make, or which groceries to buy. With food as such an important part of lives it is important to look at the quality of food we are eating; but what makes a food high quality? Does it have to be organic? Does it have to be whole? What about whether or not it is genetically modified?

While all of these questions are part of large and often polarizing discussions, one of the most pressing is regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This is a highly controversial topic in today’s global conversation. There are varying opinions world-wide and yet many people do not know what a GMO is. Lack of consumer education as well as lack of standard regulations and labeling makes it difficult to gain clarity on this important topic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines genetically modified foods as “those derived from organisms who’s genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism” (“Food, Genetically Modified,” no date). GMOs have been introduced for a variety of reasons including meeting the demands of a growing population, ending world hunger, creating food sources that are resistant to pesticides, and engineering specific qualities (such as beta-carotene) into a seed to maximize nutritional content. However, the impacts such as the effects on human health, corporations and governments, our environment and the planet, and the deeper spiritual and ethical aspects of this controversy remain to be fully understood. This blog will examine each of these in attempt to highlight and illuminate some of the important arguments that influence the GMO conversation.

Studies of the effects of GMOs on humans are limited at best. In “GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?”,  Antoniou et al. found many negative effects of genetically modified (GM) soy and glyphosate; glyphosate is the herbicide that is sprayed on GM soy (Antoniou, Brack, Carrasco, Fagan, Habib, Kageyama, Leifert, Nodari, and Pengue, 2010). The report identifies that lower levels of glyphosate than the amounts used in crop maintenance causes cell death, hormone disruption, and damages embryonic and placental cells (Antoniou et al, 2010). Additionally, studies have shown that DNA from GM soy can pass through the small intestine and become available for uptake by intestinal cells to be absorbed into the body as well as be transferred to bacteria in the intestine (Antoniou et al, 2010). This means that these modified organisms can enter the blood stream and be transported throughout the body or remain in the large intestine having the potential effects mentioned above.

Excluding the examples above, I was unable to find any studies or tests discussing the effects of consumption of GMOs in humans. The current health risks that have been identified for GMOs, which require further study include unexpected gene interactions, cancer risks, allergenic potential, horizontal gene transfer, and antibiotic resistance (Hug, 2008). The United States Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) states that GMOs are “substantially similar” to their non-GMO counterparts and are therefore “generally recognized as safe” (Keogh, 2012). This same language is used on Monsanto’s webpage discussing food safety (“Food Safety”, no date).

One worry about GMOs is the introduction of new allergens via proteins. Monsanto’s webpage does identify that new proteins uncommon to the plant or uncommon on commonly consumed foods are tested (“Food Safety”, no date).  However, if the new protein is determined safe through their testing than the food from the GM crops is considered “substantially equivalent” and therefore is “not expected to pose any health risks” (“Food Safety”, no date). Monsanto further states in regard to lack of human studies that:

“it is impossible to design a long-term safety test in humans, which would require, for example, intake of large amounts of a particular GM product over a very large portion of the human life span. There is simply no practical way to learn anything via human studies of whole foods. This is why no existing food- conventional or GM- or food ingredient/additive has been subject to this type of testing” (“Food Safety”, no date).

However, traceability of GMOs via labeling may be the only way to conduct the human studies needed to determine the effects of long-term consumption of GMOs (Keogh, 2012). Currently the United States does not require the labeling of GMOs while over 64 countries world-wide do require labeling including China, Australia, India, Japan, and the United Kingdom (“Labeling Around the World”, no date).

Although there are studies available on GMO consumption by animals most only review a 90-day intake. Gilles-Eric Seralini, a professor of microbiology who has performed GMO studies on animals, identified that testing with duration of two years needs to be conducted in order to determine any cancer risk from GMO consumption (Keogh, 2012). Seralini did participate in a 90-day study of three varieties of GM corn in rats and found that sex and dose dependent effects were concentrated in the liver and kidney, but also noted effects on the heart, adrenal, spleen, and blood cells (Spiroux de Vendomois, Roullier, Cellier, Seralini, 2009). In 2012, Seralini and his colleagues found that rats that consumed GM corn for two years had shorter lifespans and females developed mammary tumors, followed often by disabled pituitary gland while males developed higher levels of liver dysfunction and cell death (Seralini, Clair, Mesnage, Gress, Defarge, Malatesta, Hennequin, Spiroux de Vendemois, 2012). This study was publicly rebuked by many as flawed and although I am unaware of the affiliations of all that found issue with the study, one of the responses did come from Monsanto directly (“Monsanto Comments”, 2012). How are individuals to make sense of scientific studies that may or may not be biased when they do not know who is funding said studies?  It is one of the many problems faced by consumers. In a “consensus conference” held in France with fourteen randomly selected citizens whose purpose was to guide government policy regarding GMOs, one citizen speaking on behalf of his/her country’s citizens identified that citizens should be involved in government decisions on GMOs and that studies should be “conducted by scientists with no connection to biotechnology companies” (Lambrecht, p. 202 & 213).

For consumers who want to feed their families safe and healthy foods, the information available about what the right types of foods to eat is conflicting. It can be exhausting, frustrating and overwhelming for these consumers to sort through the literature and labels on their food to determine whether they are both safe and healthy. Consumers that lack education, or lack the understanding to sort through these arguments, are putting trust into their governments that the food being sold at the grocery market will do no harm to themselves and their families, that it is safe to eat, and that it provides the required nutrition necessary in the daily diet.

How should American consumers feel when they look across the Atlantic ocean to the government in the United Kingdom that clearly labels their foods so that consumers remain aware, and will not permit the growing of GM crops without a risk assessment that identifies the crops are safe for humans and the environment (“Making the Food and Farming Industry More Competitive While Protecting the Environment”, 2013)? Consumers that have done their homework and determined that GM products are not safe have lost faith in their governments to ensure that only healthy and safe foods are allowed on their grocery store shelves.

As we can see, the government is a key player in this conversation. In 1986 the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology Policy was signed by President Reagan (Lambrecht, 2001, p.49). This framework did not put one agency in charge but three; The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would regulate pesticides, The Department of Agriculture (USDA) would regulate genetically engineered plants and animals, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would regulate prescriptions (Lambrecht, 2001, p.50-51). This was a result of each agency feeling they needed to be involved in regulations though this unfortunately opened the door to new problems. In Bill Lambrecht’s book, he quotes Neil Harl, Iowa State University Economist who was studying agriculture biotechnology in the early 1980’s as saying, “They sort of reached a truce, a three-way split of the responsibility in a way that probably left no agency with the burden of knowing that they were going to be the one who had to look closely at all the new developments” (Lambrecht, 2001, p.51).

One example of regulation slipping through the cracks is the Starlink corn controversy. Cry9C is an endotoxin found in BT and was approved only for use in Starlink corn (Lambrecht, 2001, p.43-44). Starlink corn is only approved by the EPA for consumption by animals as the effects on humans are unknown (Lambrecht, 2001, p.44). Produced by Aventis, a flow down of information to distributors and then farms identified that it was to remain separate from other crops and to be planted with buffers to protect from cross-pollination (Lambrecht, 2001, p.44). In 2000 the Genetically Engineered Food Alert purchased items from the supermarket containing processed corn and sent it to labs for testing (Lambrecht, 2001, p.44). Two rounds of testing proved that the items pulled off the grocery store shelves for human consumption contained Starlink corn, specifically not approved for human consumption (Lambrecht, 2001, p.45). The finding resulted in a large food recall and embarrassment for the government who is charged with handling safety issues and testing, and food producers selling the product (Lambrecht, 2001, p.45-46).

It begs the question: does the government know what Americans are eating (Lambrecht, 2001, p. 55)? And, what does it mean when a product is approved for animal consumption and not human consumption? When most studies on GMO foods have been performed on animals with similar anatomy and knowing that the Starklink was not approved for human consumption because Cry9C is not easily digested (it does not break down in gastric stomach juices), is there indication that it is properly digested by animals (Lambracht, 2001, p. 44)? Also, if ‘we are what we eat’ what does it mean that we’re consuming animals that consume Starlink corn, which is not approved for human consumption? Much of the conventionally raised meat being consumed by Americans are being fed a mostly grain and corn diet which we can assume is mostly of the GMO variety. As a result Americans are not only consuming GMOs in their diets through processed foods but also through meat consumption.

A task force including members of each involved agency could ensure greater communication across all agencies and help redefine the responsibilities of each agency to ensure the health and safety of Americans as well as our environment. Another idea is the creation of a new biotechnology agency that would oversee all aspects to include food, drug, and environment protocols and safety. By establishing one oversight agency, roles and responsibilities would be better developed, communicated, and adhered to.

Monsanto, mentioned often in this paper, is the maker of the Roundup Ready seeds and herbicides and is a crucial player in this controversy. For purposes of this paper I will use Monsanto to cover the umbrella of companies involved in the sale of genetically modified seeds and the herbicides produced to cultivate crops from those seeds, as well as the biotechnology, chemical, and pharmaceutical firms that stand to profit from advancement in this field. Monsanto’s seeds are patented and considered intellectual property; farmers who purchase their seeds must sign a stewardship agreement promising that the seeds are only to be used for one time planting and will not be saved for planting the following year (“Seed Saving and Legal Activities”, no date). As a result farmers must purchase new seeds each year whereas in the past they would have saved leftover seeds and sowed seeds from current harvests for future crops, this adds additional annual costs to their operations. Additionally, farmers must also buy the herbicides that were formulated specifically for the GM seeds to get the best results. Monsanto profits from both of these transactions. As producers of the GM seeds and the herbicides formulated for the seeds, Monsanto holds a monopoly on the items required for GM farming. If farmers want to grow GM crops they need Monsanto and their products.

This brings us to the next party involved in the controversy – the farmers. Farmers are at a crossroads determining whether to plant GM crops or not. Should they decide to plant GM crops they must enter into agreements with firms like Monsanto, purchase their herbicide products, and abide by the terms of the stewardship agreements. However, farmers must also consider that many countries (overseas) are refusing to import America’s GM crops thus reducing their international selling markets, and with Americans becoming more educated about GMOs it is possible their domestic customer base may decrease as well (Lambrecht, 2001, p.9). Farmers who choose to go the non-GM crop route, particularly organic farmers, need to be careful about proximity to fields that are growing GM crops which can contaminate their own fields as this may result in both loss of suitable crops for market, loss of income, or even organic certification status. Organic farmers are seeing increased costs in their operations to include frequent testing for contamination, cleaning equipment, and establishing buffer zones (Lilliston, 2001).

In addition to the concerns of those above, there are other social areas of concern on a global level particularly for developing countries (Hug, 2008). GM crops may not be available to developing countries as they would not have the money necessary to enter into partnerships to buy the seeds, comply with the stringent labeling and traceability requirements of countries they may wish to export to or may not be able to export as easily because of GMO fears (Hug, 2008). Additionally, GMOs may cause food shortages, unemployment, resistant weeds, and extinction of native cultures in developing countries due to herbicide resistance and insect resistance (Hug, 2008). Also, increased GMO farming may result in decreased need for labor on farms to perform tasks such as weeding that are better controlled by GM crops (Hug, 2008). If these jobs are not available it may result in larger rates of unemployment (Hug, 2008). Furthermore, what about the welfare of those farmers that choose non-GM crops to farm (Hug, 2008)? How can they thrive in a GM dominant environment when there are fears of nearby GM crops contaminating their crops and potentially ruining their certifications, particularly those that farm organically (Hug, 2008)? Eventually society will dictate the fate of GM crops based on what consumers are purchasing, yet again we need to make sure that consumers are adequately informed in order to make these decisions.

How do GMOs affect the ecology and the planet? GM seeds tout that less herbicides are needed to grow their crops.  However, this was only true with initial crop plantings.  As GM crop plantings increased so have “superweeds” which are resistant to the herbicides being used on these crops (Gillam, 2012). As such, herbicide use has increased roughly 25% annually (Gillam, 2012). As more herbicides are needed to achieve the same result. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) ,an insecticide used by organic farmers, is considered safe for human consumption as well as safe for the environment (Shelton,2008). Bt is also injected into GM seeds as an insecticide. As Bt has now been engineered into GM seeds and as GM seeds are more frequently being planted the use of Bt has grown prompting the worry of Bt resistance (Shelton, 2008). Should insects become resistant to Bt it may cause trouble for organic farmers that depend on the use of Bt to maintain their organic standards to protect against insects. A decrease in insecticide use was reported from 1996 to 2011 but now insecticide use is on the rise and expected to increase (Gillam, 2012). In addition a study in India shows that workers who picked Bacillus thuringiensis cotton developed allergies that included itching, redness, swelling, and small lesions (Smith, 2007, p. 30-31). We can see there are more than organic farming standards at stake but also human health and safety. The issues of this controversial topic are well layered; while there is a significant impact on the environment in this example, it demonstrates that the farmers too are heavily impacted due to the environmental affect and potentially the health and safety aspects.

Other environmental problems are associated with GM seeds injected with Bt. A study by Losey et al. found that Bt corn pollen can travel by wind up to 60 meters and land on other plants that are ingested by non-target organisms, in this example monarch butterflies (Losey, Rayor, Carter, 1999). It was found that “larvae of the monarch butterfly, Danausplexippus, reared on milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn, ate less, grew more slowly and suffered higher mortality than larvae reared on leaves dusted with untransformed corn pollen or on leaves without pollen” (Losey et al., 1999). Additionally, the pesticides that are used on GM crops also kills the primary food source of the monarch butterfly, milkweed (Wines, 2013). According to Wines, the monarch butterfly is seen as an indicator of the health of the food chain–less butterflies means less insects for bird, which means less birds to be eaten by larger predators (Wines, 2013).

The idea of whole foods requires further discussion and attention. The concept of food synergy is that all the nutrients in any given food act together to produce a desired effect, or health benefit. We live in a world of varied opinions. A farm to table approach looks at the quality of the whole food, how it is grown, and preserving its wholeness. A pro food science or Western mentality tends to dissect food into the sum of its pieces instead of looking at the whole entity. But when we try to remove something like beta-carotene from a carrot, thinking it is going to cure all the world’s health problems suddenly it doesn’t seem to work (Pollen, p.64). “A whole food might be more than the sum of its nutrient parts” (Pollen, 2008, p. 111).  So what exactly is going on with GM seeds?  We’re not taking anything out but we are putting something in. “After working for a quarter century to take things out of what we eat- to produce foods with less sugar, less fat, less cholesterol- scientists are now working to put things into food” (Lambrecht, 2001, p. 67). If the whole food is greater than the sum of its parts how does it change when we add something new? Whether we remove something from the whole food or add something new to the whole food the food is changed and we do not know how that will affect the synergy.

Food can be culture. Food can be religion. Food can be spiritual. Some see eating as a religious experience and food as a gift from a higher being.  From a spiritual aspect, what does it mean to modify the gifts from a higher being or from the earth? In order to adhere to dietary guidelines many religions require labeling to identify if their foods are Kosher in Judaism or Halal in Islam. If foods are not labeled how can it be determined whether that food is acceptable to the spirit or the body? For those that see GMOs as unnatural or tampering with nature it would be important to know that foods they’re consuming are not GMO and without a label there is no way to know. If the body is a viewed as a temple and an individual identifies they have eaten something impure or unnatural then emotional responses such as guilt or physical responses such as illness could result. When the content of food being eaten is unknown it could cause stress of making a decision as to whether to consume the food or not.  The person may decide to eat the food and worry or abstain from the food and go hungry. Former CEO of Monsanto Robert Shapiro admitted flaws in Monsanto’s campaign in an essay for Washington University’s Center for the Study of American Business CEO Series saying:

“We didn’t listen very well to people who insisted there were relevant ethical, religious,

cultural, social, and economic issues as well. There is a huge difference between food  as

science and food as culture. Food occupies an important place in many cultures and

countries well beyond the necessity of sustenance, and carries an almost

inexpressible emotional resonance” (Lambrecht, 2001, p. 258).

This quote reflects the realization of the importance of food in society and culture. It provides understanding at the top level of the company why consumers are leary and less interested in the scientific benefits and more interested in the food itself as present in culture, religion, and spirit.

It is easy to see why there is so much controversy over GMOs today The topic of GMOs is broad and there are many aspects that require further discussion and study, more than can be examined in this paper. There are many ethical implications such as the effects of GMOs on the environment, on humans, and on animals and insects. Furthermore, whether the technology is feasible for all countries of varying incomes or only for highly industrialized and wealthy countries. Additionally, I see education as critical while the debate about GMOs, their health, and effects are examined.  Everyone must do their own research but in an age of information overload it is hard to sort through what is true, what is false, and what is biased. Consumers should have access to material on GMOs provided by impartial parties to take an active role in the debate as well as assist in dictating policy. GMOs impact society at large to include the government, the biotechnology firms, the consumers, and especially the farmers on a far more emotional level than anyone involved as they are working to plant the crops that feed the world. As operating costs increase they have more to lose than the multibillion dollar technology firms in the means of making a living. Consumer are also deeply affected, maybe more so on a spiritual level, as food often dictates religion and culture in many societies. However, standard product labeling and regulations would help create a large consumer knowledge base. If GMOs are safe than companies that process or grow food containing GMOs should proudly label their products. If GMOs are questionable than companies that process or grow food containing GMOs should be required to inform their customers.


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