Blah, blah, blah, GMO. Blah, GMO, blah, blah, blah. A friend recently told me that “GMO” has become a buzzword to her, something she tunes out when she sees it come across her computer screen. It was when she saw Robyn O’Brien’s TEDxAustin video that it kind of clicked for her. Banned in so many other countries? Potentially causing disease? Making us sick? If you live in the USA, these scientifically altered crops are in the food you eat and you might not even know it. Buzz word or not, it’s time we all started paying attention.
So what exactly is a GMO seed?
Genetically engineered seeds (also called ‘GMO’ – genetically modified organisms – and ‘transgenic’) are often confused with hybrid seeds. In fact, some people claim that hybridization is just another form of genetic modification. Not exactly. In a nutshell, here’s the difference:
- Non-hybrid seeds (think: heirloom or open pollinated varieties) can be saved and replanted from year to year and the resulting fruit remains “true to seed.” In other words, that funny little tomato you remember from grandma’s garden? If you planted seeds saved from that tomato, you’d get the same fruit today.
- Hybrid seeds are the product of cross-breeding two varieties of one type of fruit or vegetable in order to improve yield, pest and disease resistance, flavor, or shelf life. It’s kind of like breeding a Labrador retriever with a poodle to get a Labradoodle. Hybrid seeds generally do not grow true to seed.
- Genetically modified seeds are altered by inserting DNA from outside of the species into a plant seed. Kind of like trying to breed a cat and a dog. Mother Nature doesn’t allow such a thing to happen, but the miracle of modern technology lets scientists cross that barrier. GMO seeds are patented and it’s actually illegal to save and replant some of these seeds.
Proponents of genetically engineered crops claim better yields, ostensibly solving the world hunger dilemma. Bill Gates is working to bring water-efficient corn to Africa through genetic modification. Golden rice promises to provide a nutrient dense staple in developing countries.
Claims of fewer weeds and fewer pests through genetic engineering promise to make farming more efficient. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds allow farmers to spray crops like corn, sugar beets, soybeans, alfalfa, and cotton with (Monsanto owned) Roundup herbicide – a weed killer – without damaging the crop itself. Another genetic alteration inserts the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin into seeds in an effort to deter pests from chewing on corn or cotton crops.
Problems in the field
Opponents of genetically modified crops worry about potential risks associated with this relatively new method of farming. We’re already seeing a backlash in the field with the advent of superweeds. According to Businessweek:
“It turns out the widespread use of Roundup has led to the evolution of far-tougher-to-eradicate strains of weeds.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that western corn rootworms are developing a resistance to crops genetically engineered with Bt to combat pests.
And there’s another issue in the field: contamination. Laboratory scientists figured out how to cross the natural barriers that Mother Nature has devised, and now the resulting fields continue to share all of their glorious pollen. Pollen from genetically modified crops is drifting onto traditionally grown crops, bringing those GMO traits with it. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds prides itself on their non-GMO seed selection, but in a recent catalog the owners lamented that it’s getting more difficult to find corn seed that’s not contaminated with GMO traits. Then there’s the story of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer whose fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement.
While Bill Gates is using his money to promote transgenic crops as the only way to produce enough food to feed the world in the future, independent studies have proven otherwise. Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial — ongoing for 30 years — has shown that organic growing methods are equal to or superior than conventional farming methods. Genetically modified crops have been incorporated into the study for only three years, but they note:
Traditional plant breeding and farming methods have increased yields of major grain crops three to four times more than GM varieties despite huge investments of public and private dollars in biotech research.
Rodale also points out that
For a system to be sustainable, it needs to be able to feed our global population not just now, or ten years from now, but one hundred years from now — and longer.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainability like this:
Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.
Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.
It’s a bit ironic that Monsanto, the ag behemoth that sells patented seeds, making farmers dependent on buying seed from year to year, calls itself “a sustainable agriculture company.” Companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont have convinced farmers that their seeds are superior, forcing themselves into the agricultural loop every spring. Farmers depending on those GM seeds cannot sustain their crops for more than one season without the injection of more seeds from Big Ag.
Health issues stemming from GMO ingredients
Health risks associated with genetically altered foods are a grayer area. While it’s easy to identify superweeds or the failure of pest-resistant GM crops, tracking the source of health issues in humans who eat a diet that’s contaminated with not only GMOs but chemical additives, trans-fats, and preservatives is much harder.
There are some concerning studies that link genetically engineered foods to infertility, and another that points to sterility as well as the growth of unnatural hair inside the mouths of test hamsters. One Canadian study found Bt-toxin from Monsanto’s corn circulating in the blood of 93% of the women tested. And a study out of France suggests that GM corn causes tumors in rats.
Even doctors are becoming concerned. In 2009 the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) called for a moratorium on genetically engineered foods based on their review of the research. According to Vitality magazine, patients who cut GMOs from their diet have found relief from irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, asthma, and colitis.
But for every study that calls the safety of GMOs into question, it seems there’s another that refutes it. Proponents of genetically engineered foods claim that there’s no scientific evidence that these foods are detrimental to humans. And they’re right — but are we getting the whole truth? There have been reports of independent scientists being harassed when they try to delve into the safety of transgenic seeds and corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta restrict access to seeds for testing. Studies touting the safety of crops grown from genetically modified seeds can often be traced back to the seed companies themselves. Scientific American says in this July, 2009 article:
Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.
Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.
GMOs bottom line
The FDA classifies transgenic foods as “generally recognized as safe” and does not require that GMOs are labeled as such, in spite of the fact that countries all over the world require labeling or have gone so far as to ban growing or importing transgenic crops entirely. (A cynic might think that the Fed’s disinterest in labeling genetically engineered foods might have something to do with the fact that Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA is the former Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto.)
In spite of the FDA’s assurances that GMO foods are safe, one million Americans asked for GM labeling during the Just Label It campaign in California and according to their site, studies show that more than 90% of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. GMO labeling initiatives are in various stages in more than a dozen other states, but the desire of Americans to be cautious about GMOs has so far fallen on deaf ears. Prop 37 in California, the GMO labeling bill, failed to pass by a slim margin late last year, as chemical and food manufacturers spent millions of dollars to fight the labeling law. Here’s Monsanto’s take on why the company contributed $4.2 million to fight labeling requirements for GMO foods.
Currently, the only way to be sure a product does not contain genetically modified ingredients is to purchase organic foods (though cross contamination is becoming an issue here) or look for the Non-GMO Project logo, which is a voluntary testing and labeling initiative.