For thousands of years, farmers have been cross-breeding plants and producing “new and improved” hybrids, crops which are more desirable for various reasons. Maybe they are better suited to a certain climate; maybe they are more resistant to pests; maybe the cross-breeding has resulted in a variety that simply looks or tastes better. Crossing grapefruit and tangerines produces the tangelo. Crossing broccoli and cauliflower results in broccoflower. Farmers have learned how to grow grapes and watermelon that are seedless. It is very much the same idea as cross-breeding animals. If you look at a family tree of dogs or cats, for instance, you can easily see how the different breeds came to exist, yet they are all still related. Plants and animals, of the same species, can be cross-bred and certain characteristics either promoted or eliminated, simply by using this selective breeding. Even when cross-breeding has been helped along by some outside force, like a farmer, it is still the result of a natural process. Yet advances in biotechnology have now altered this process to the point that there is nothing natural about it. Proponents of genetically modified crops claim that they are perfectly safe, that they produce a higher yield, reduce the amount of pesticides used, and are desperately needed to feed the world’s growing population. However, genetically modified crops do not in fact increase yield, they actually increase pesticide use, and according to mounting evidence they are definitely not proven to be safe. What is genetic modification? Genetically modified, or engineered, crops are those which have had their DNA altered. Genetic engineering has helped to create “transgenic” species, whereas the DNA, or genes, from one type of organism is forcibly inserted into another. This is something that could never possibly happen in nature, such as inserting fish genes into a tomato, or bacteria into corn. Also called recombinant-DNA technology, it is literally recombining the plant’s DNA. The process changes the organism on a molecular level. One method of achieving this transformation, is by the use of what is called a “gene gun.” This device is basically a modified air pistol, firing pellets made of gold or other heavy metal, coated with the foreign DNA to be inserted into plant tissue. That foreign DNA then begins to replicate along with the DNA of the host. The end result is a plant that still very much looks like and behaves like the host plant, and the only way to determine whether it has been genetically modified would be by examining its DNA. This is why corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta, along with the FDA, have labeled these crops “substantially equivalent,” and by categorizing them as such, have not required them to undergo extensive testing for food safety before they are marketed to consumers. The process is not an exact science, however, and there are many potential problems, with unforeseen and not yet fully understood consequences.
The development of genetically modified crops is seen by many as the next logical step in the evolution of agricultural science and technology, and using what we have learned to better adapt to our environment. Others see their development as the next logical step by chemical companies, simply looking to market more of their chemicals. In 1996, Monsanto introduced the “Roundup Ready” soybean which was engineered to be immune to Roundup, an herbicide produced and marketed by Monsanto. Farmers who planted that soybean could now spray their entire fields with Roundup, eliminating all the weeds while leaving their crops unharmed (Update 2008). They then followed up their modified soybeans with other Roundup Ready crops, like corn and canola. This has enabled them to market both seed and now much larger amounts of their own herbicide. Along with crops developed to withstand the application of more herbicides, there are also those that have been engineered to produce their own insecticides within the plant. Both corn, and cotton, have been genetically modified to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is a bacteria found naturally in some soil that is toxic to insects, therefore eliminating the need to apply pesticides to the crops. These pesticide-producing plants are designed to rupture the stomachs of insects that try and eat it. Bt toxin has been used in pesticide sprays, but it doesn’t behave the same way as it does when it is engineered into the plant itself. Natural Bt breaks down rapidly in daylight and only becomes active (and toxic) in the gut of the insect that eats it. It does not persist in the environment and so is unlikely to find its way into animals or people that eat the crop (Antoniou, Robinson and Fagan 51). Monsanto’s Bt corn, for instance, is actually registered as a pesticide with the EPA. The FDA apparently does not regulate crops with Bt toxin, or consider it to be a food additive, because they are registered with the EPA as a pesticide, not with the FDA as a food. So, a good question would be, how comfortable should we feel about eating what is considered a pesticide and not a food? They claim that the corn is toxic to pests but is perfectly safe for humans, that the bacteria is broken down before making its way through our digestive tract systems. Unfortunately at least one recent study, although small, has in fact detected this toxin not only in subjects’ blood streams, but in the unborn fetuses of pregnant women as well (Aris and Leblanc 528-533).
Since the vast majority of all corn and soy crops grown in the United States are now genetically modified, and roughly 70 percent of processed foods sold in our supermarkets contain corn or soy ingredients, it is extremely difficult to avoid eating these foods. The other GMO crops that are now being marketed commercially are canola, cottonseed, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini and yellow squash. Many doctors and scientists are now sounding the alarm about the numerous potential health risks resulting from eating genetically modified foods. Conducting 28 to 90 day studies on rats should not determine whether they are safe for a lifetime of human consumption. There have been no long term studies that can prove that they are safe, and are not in any way responsible for the recent rise in many chronic health problems. There have been, however, many independent studies published recently that detail the effects of these foods on animals. Some of the adverse effects that have been reported include things such as intestinal damage, damage and changes to the liver, kidneys, and pancreas, tumors, immune system problems, and infertility, along with increased food allergies. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has stated that, “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation as defined by Hill’s Criteria in the areas of strength of association, consistency, specificity, biological gradient, and biological plausibility” (Dean and Armstrong 2009). Because there is no labeling of genetically modified foods in the United States, consumers do not know when they are eating them. It is extremely difficult to trace the origins of any health problems or adverse effects, when you don’t have any of that information in order to make a connection. For generations, the tobacco industry refused to take any responsibility when it came to chronic and terminal illnesses such as lung disease and cancers, but we now have warning labels on tobacco products, and consumers are able to make an informed decision as to whether or not they are willing to take those risks with their health. The same may very well end up being true of these big chemical companies that are now producing our food, and they could be forced into labeling them here, just as they are in more than 60 other countries around the world. Many organizations are now advocating for this information to be made available, and believe that these foods do have the potential to cause harm to us and to our environment, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, American Academy of Environmental Medicine, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group, American Public Health Association, Headstart, California Nurses Association, Institute for Responsible Technology, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club, among others.
Who is ultimately responsible for the testing and safety of these new foods? According to the Food and Drug Administration, the food producer is responsible for assuring the safety of their foods. According to Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications, “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” (Pollan 51). Biotech companies decide for themselves whether or not their genetically modified foods are G.R.A.S., which stands for “generally recognized as safe.” The FDA “approves GM foods for public consumption simply by comparing the nutritional content of GM and non-GM foods, and checking a database of known allergens,” write Kirsten Schwind and Hollace Poole-Kavana of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, an anti-hunger think tank. “According to the logic of the FDA, we are the guinea pigs” (Update 2008). There is definitely also a serious conflict of interest when it comes to who at the FDA is in a position to approve these new foods. When Monsanto needed approval for their growth hormones, they had one of their researchers, Margaret Miller, put together a report to be submitted to the FDA. She left Monsanto and began working for the FDA before that report was submitted, and was then the one at the FDA who was later assigned to review, and subsequently approved, that same report. This is just one example of how our approval process is currently being handled at the FDA, and the obvious conflict of interest that illustrates how consumers who are looking to them for protection are not getting it.
There have been more than one or two recent studies which have determined that genetic engineering has in fact not increased crop yields, as is so often the claim. “Failure to Yield” is one such study, published by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, that found no significant increase in yields over nearly a 20 year period, from crops engineered to be either herbicide tolerant or insect-resistant (Editors 251). Many claims that were made stating that yields increased with the planting of GMO crops were actually traced back to other changes in farming methods made at about the same time, and were not as a result of the genetic modification. These crops also pose a risk to other farms and crops, and even the surrounding ecosystems. The potential for damage and contamination of other farms can spread across great distances, and they can’t be taken back, once they have been released into the environment. “The pollen produced by these plants, carrying new genes, cannot be contained. As a result, genetic pollution of natural crop varieties and of wild plant relatives may occur” (Jefferson 2006).
Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies, hold patents on their seeds. If it can be patented, and those patents then be so aggressively defended, how can the crops also be considered “substantially equivalent?” Are they the same, or are they different? Many farmers who had no desire to have their fields contaminated by the cross-pollination of nearby GMO crops, and often had no knowledge that it had even occurred, have been sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. Monsanto has investigators deployed around the country, looking for people who are violating their patent agreements, either by growing their crops without purchasing the seed from them, or by saving seed from previous harvests and replanting. This is the way farmers have been operating for thousands of years, saving their best seeds and replanting the following season, but with Monsanto’s new patents it has now become a federal crime. A farmer must go back to them every year, and purchase new seed. This has created a constant flow of income, and indebtedness to them, having farmers sign these contracts. Soon it may not even be possible to use the seed, whether or not it is breaking the law. Monsanto and other biotech companies are developing what are called “terminator seeds,” which are engineered to be viable for only one planting. After harvest, all seeds collected will be sterile, and the farmer will not be able to replant them even if they weren’t breaking federal laws. “Once the Terminator becomes the industry standard, control over the genetics of crop plants will complete its move from the farmer’s field to the seed company – to which the farmer will have no choice but to return year after year” (Pollan 92). And what about those fields that are accidentally contaminated by nearby GMO crops grown with these terminator seeds? The farmers then have their own conventional crops also producing sterile seed. How much further will this spread, and what can be done about it before it has caused too much irreversible damage? And when it is decided that genetically modified crops are in fact a contributor to some serious health issues, and other crops have been contaminated by cross-pollination, how will we ever figure out how to live with the damage this irresponsibility has caused?
It can be argued that we have a right not to be used as “lab rats” for the huge corporations that are quietly flooding the markets with these foods. Unfortunately, they are responsible only to their corporate shareholders, to produce profits. As Phil Angell made clear, Monsanto doesn’t feel that same sense of responsibility to the end user of its products, us the consumers, when it comes to making sure their foods are actually safe. That is someone else’s job. Yet they prohibit most independent testing, citing their patents. When there are no labels on these foods which have not been adequately tested, and there is no disclosure to the consumer, we are unwittingly becoming their test subjects. Laws were put in place following World War II to protect people from being unwilling or unknowing participants of experiments. These policies, which are allowing what can most certainly be viewed as a massive experiment, do appear to violate our most basic human rights. At the very least, we are being denied freedom of choice.
- Antoniou, Michael, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan. GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. Version 1.3b. London: Earth Open Source, 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012.
- Aris, Aziz, and Samuel Leblanc. “Maternal and Fetal Exposure to Pesticides Associated to Genetically Modified Foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada.” Reproductive Toxicology 31.4 (2011): 528-33. ProQuest Health & Medical Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
- Dean, Amy, and Jennifer Armstrong, M.D. “Genetically Modified Foods.” Position Paper, American Academy of Environmental Medicine. 8 May 2009. Web. 7 Nov 2012.
- Jefferson, Valeria. “The Ethical Dilemma of Genetically Modified Food.” Journal of environmental health 69.1 (2006): 33-4. ProQuest Health & Medical Complete; ProQuest Research Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
- The Editors, New York Times. “Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger.” Envision in Depth: Reading, Writing, and Researching Arguments. 2nd ed. Ed. Christine L. Alfano and Alyssa J. O’Brien. Boston: Longman, 2011. 250-253. Print.
- Pollan, Michael. “Playing God in the Garden.” New York Times Magazine Oct 25 1998: 44,6, 44:2. The Advocate (Stamford); Baltimore Sun; Business Dateline; Greenwich Time; Hartford Courant; Los Angeles Times; Morning Call; National Newspapers Core; Newsday; Orlando Sentinel; ProQuest Newsstand; ProQuest Research Library; Sun Sentinel. Web. 7 Nov. 2012 .
- “Update: Genetically Modified Food.” Issues & Controversies On File: n. pag. Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 31 Dec. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
By Laura Baker 15 November 2012