GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms – have invaded our food system. It is a fact: the majority of items on the supermarket shelves contain genetically modified corn or soybeans. The meat and dairy items displayed in their refrigerated cases come from animals fed genetically modified grains (again, primarily corn and soybeans). Even the farmed salmon was fed GMOs. Any time you see “high fructose corn syrup” on the ingredient list, you can be guaranteed that it is from GM corn plants, from an endless monoculture somewhere in the Midwest USA. Advocates of GMOs insist that there is nothing unnatural about these seeds produced in a lab using the latest biotechnological techniques. But, in fact, nature cannot do what they are doing in the lab. For thousands of years, farmers have been selecting the best seeds, or the best animals, and breeding them for the future. Corn, as we know it today, was once a mere grass like most other grasses, with just a handful of kernels not even together on a single cob. Over time, as farmers (in Mexico) continued to save the seeds of those plants that had the most and largest kernels, the species improved until it hardly resembled its ancestor. This took several thousand years, and it happened naturally, and they do not have the genes of any other species in them, and the ones that continue to grow in Mexico are well adapted for the soil conditions, climate, and naturally resistant to pests. Not immune to pest destruction, but more resistant than if you brought a corn seed taken from a corn plant growing in Germany, for example.
Seeds are genetically modified when a foreign gene is inserted into its DNA, a gene from a different species not at all related to the corn (for example). This can be accomplished with a gene gun, attached to a virus, inserted with a tiny syringe, or using a bacterium. In order to ensure the foreign gene made it into the cell correctly, biotechnologists also insert an antibiotic marker gene. Douse the cells with bacteria, and if it doesn’t die, it’s got the gene in it. Neat idea, huh? So what the heck are scientists inserting into our food? In corn, some are modified to contain an insecticide called Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt), which essentially causes the plant to be toxic to the little worms that take a bite out of it. Very common are the RoundUp Ready varieties of plants, which have a gene inserted that causes them to become resistant to an herbicide, glyphosphate, which Monsanto sells under the trade name RoundUp. Other modifications include resistances to other pesticides, to various kinds of viruses, and even to contain increased amounts of vitamins. When the field is sprayed, all of the weeds die, but the modified plant lives on! Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? In order to protect their inventions, these “seed” companies also engineer in “terminator technology” whereby the offspring (seeds) from their plants are sterile; or they include “traitor technology” in which the genetically added trait will only get “switched on” by the application of a certain pesticide or fertilizer of the seed company’s design.
Well, there are multiple issues that arise with GMOs. For one, the use of Bt integrated into the plant material means that insects would become resistant to that naturally occurring insecticide, which is probably not a big deal unless you’re an organic farmer. Bt is derived from a soil-dwelling bacterium, and is one of the few pesticides approved for organic farming. Then there are the antibiotic marker genes. Already, 50% of antibiotics in the U.S. are used on animals (no, not on your sick puppy, but on your steak), and that in combination with the antibiotics in GMOs means those antibiotics will go the way of Bt: utterly useless. However, unlike the insects that will be resistant to Bt, us humans will still be sick – looking for another antibiotic that will actually work! Another issue with GMOs is the potential for crossing over into wild species. Imagine if the terminator gene somehow managed to spread to wild species – what a devastation that would be for biodiversity if plants could not produce viable offspring! Is this likely? Well, the Canadian market for organic canola has collapsed because it’s virtually impossible to find a canola field free from GM-canola contamination. It’s not the plant’s fault; it’s just doing what it’s supposed to do – try to reproduce by spreading its pollen. And speaking of pollen, butterfly larvae (caterpillars) fed GM pollen grew slower and suffered a 50% increase in mortality rate, according to a controlled study done at Cornell University. Additionally, planting GMOs mean a loss of genetic diversity. Remember the Great Famine (aka, the Irish Potato Famine)? This was caused by loss of genetic diversity. If you plant all of the same variety, and a disease or blight wipes that specific variety out, you’re going to be left hungry. When the same potato blight hit Peru – another potato-loving culture – they were just fine because they had dozens of varieties of potatoes, so the few that succumbed to the blight didn’t matter as much. If all farmers are buying the same Triple Stacked Corn from Monsanto, they are creating one vast monoculture stretching from the Colorado border clear through to the hills of the Appalachians. Well, on second thought, if a blight did come through, maybe that would be a good thing – most of that corn is now being made into ethanol and animal feed, and not directly feeding the country anyhow! Lastly, although I am going to skip the potential risks to human health from GM seeds (for now), I do need to mention the rise of Super Weeds. Like Super Man, except instead of saving the planet and protecting the innocent, these weeds have become resistant to glyphosphate, and now these tough weeds are taking over, making life even harder on farmers.
GMOs were ruled to be not different enough from their non-modified counterparts to be labeled as such (they term the FDA used was “substantially equivalent” and called them G.R.A.S. – generally recognized as safe). And yet, they are different enough that the USDA has written into law that foods grown and sold as organic may not contain genetically modified organisms. Well, they cannot have detectable levels of GMOs greater than 5 parts per million (ppm). So – are GMOs “substantially equivalent” or not? It seems even the US government cannot agree. And the main reason is – no surprise here – industry lobbying. I’m not being cynical; ask Monsanto yourself, the reason why they were opposed to labeling is because they were concerned consumers would not buy it, because they (the consumers) would be afraid of the label and see it as a warning. Yes, perhaps consumers would view it as a warning, but at least we would be informed! In the EU, labeling GMOs is required; they apparently trust their citizens to make informed decisions. The amount of land planted with genetically modified seeds has increased dramatically in the past fifteen years. Fifteen years. That is not much in terms of seeing the effect our actions have on nature. And yet, we (the U.S.) seem to be plowing full-steam ahead. Just recently, the Obama administration approved the partial or complete deregulation of GM alfalfa, sugar beets, and a type of corn for ethanol production. Trials of GM alfalfa have shown high probabilities for contamination to occur; in fact conventional (non-GM) fields in California are already contaminated just from one year of planting the GM variety. This approval is seen as a major blow to not just the organic industry, but also for conventional farmers who wish to export their alfalfa abroad. The EU is very strict about GM contamination, and has already imposed a ban on rice that was found to have traces of unapproved genetically modified genes.
The new GM corn for ethanol production is also troubling. This corn was modified to produce an enzyme that breaks down cornstarch into sugar – this is the first step in producing ethanol, which would create a “self processing” corn of sorts and eliminate the first step in producing ethanol. According to an article from the NY Times, if contamination of the food supply by this genetically modified corn seed happened, “it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bread with soupy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coatings.” The foreign gene comes from a microorganism that lives near thermal vents on the ocean floor; how this foreign gene would act inside us is anyone’s guess. I haven’t been able to find any studies yet. That’s fine, we’ll wait until after it’s planted to know for sure… Of course, what is this trait manages to spread to wild species? Again, I am not aware of any studies that have been done. Some studies have indicated that corn left unharvested, or for some reason left in the fields, will leave a high amount of enzyme reside in the soil, adversely affecting the carbon cycle. While it seems like a valiant effort – to save energy and water and chemicals by making the little corn kernel do the work for us, the real question comes down to this: should we be using food to fuel our cars? And if so, should we be putting so much at risk for it?
So what will GMOs give us? Super-weeds, super-germs, super-insects, and we’ll be left SOL (super-outta-luck)!