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Avoid Synthetic Food
Part 3: Genetically Modified Organisms

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Pesticides and Herbicides
Part 3: GMO Food
Part 4: Irradiation
Part 5: Food Additives
Part 6: Aspartame
Part 7: Sugar
Part 8: Refined Oils and Salt
Part 9: MSG

If you shop at a conventional supermarket, you may be putting more than you think into your cart. Between 60 to 70 percent[i] of the food you buy probably contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since foods containing these organisms are not required to be labeled as such, fastidious label-readers may see a list of “nos” (no sugar, no additives, no preservatives…) and unwittingly toss something into the cart that contains “blind” GMO.

Few foods are exempt: taco shells, tortilla chips, drink mixes, fish, corn syrup, products containing corn or soy, many vegetables—including eggplant, squash, tomatoes, corn, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes—even “veggie” burgers and baby formulas have been modified. Though agribusiness would have us believe we’re buying bigger, better products, the facts show we should be very wary. Check out and support an initiative to label GMO food in California: Right To Know: Label California GMO Food.

Viruses Spliced Into Food
Genetic modification involves altering the natural structure of DNA coding, often by bringing foreign DNA from another living thing to the target plant through a “vector,” or carrier. Viruses are commonly used as vectors in genetic engineering, since they usually attack the host’s cells and merge easily into its DNA. It’s cutting and pasting at the submicroscopic level and, since this is difficult to keep track of, scientists often mark the vectors with antibiotic-resistant genes. Cells are then doused with antibiotics and those without the resistance (e.g., the natural cells) die. The use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in food means that we consume those genes, more than likely causing the healthful bacteria in our bodies to become antibiotic-resistant as well.

Farmeceuticals and the New Pharmers
For centuries, farmers have saved seeds to replant for their next crop, or have used hybrid experimentation to create new varieties of plants, relying on nature to sanction the experiment. Today, however, many farmers are held economically hostage by a handful of giant corporations (say “Monsanto,” spell D-U-P-O-N-T) who have placed patents on their genetically modified food plants, giving them exclusive control over that food and its seeds. Monsanto sells farmers genetically engineered seeds that are “Roundup Ready,” often requiring them to sign a contract promising to use only those seeds and the corresponding Roundup herbicide, manufactured by Monsanto. Roundup is designed to kill virtually everything green in the field except the genetically engineered plant.


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Some plants are genetically altered and reprogrammed to kill their own seeds. Referred to as “terminator technology,” such seeds cannot be saved and replanted, which forces farmers to purchase new seeds each year from the manufacturer. Created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta and Pine Land (a company owned by Monsanto), the technology was granted a patent so broad it allows terminator seeds to be used in the plants and seeds of all crops. Due to public outcry (over 7,000 people have written to the USDA expressing their opposition to its use), Monsanto pledged in late 1999 not to use it. There are, however, 27 similar patent holders who may or may not follow suit.

More Corporate Control
In their book, Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, Martin Teitel, Ph.D. and Kimberly Wilson note that, “Entire varieties of plants are now patented corporate products. In some cases, entire species are owned. Furthermore, this new technology is global, changing local ecology and tastes to a planetary monoculture enforced by intricate trade agreements and laws.”

A Threat to Biodiveristy
Normally the boundaries between species are set by nature, but because of self-serving economic pressures, that’s changing. In the last 20 years, genetic splicing has replaced nature’s role in creating hybrid crops. Plant species in the wild are less vulnerable to insects and diseases than GMO crops because they have a broad genetic base to work from, whereas technologically engineered hybrids create an ever-shrinking genetic pool and erode the natural biodiversity inherent in cross-pollination. Gene-spliced “super salmon” are engineered to grow at four times the rate of their naturally spawned counterparts. The ‘GM’ fish are thus available year-round, filling the tummies of eager consumers and lining the pockets of developers. While some are delighted to enjoy the feast, others agree with physicist Dr. John Hagelin, who states: “When genetic engineers disregard the reproductive boundaries set by natural law, they run the risk of destroying our genetic encyclopedia, compromising the richness of our natural biodiversity, and creating ‘genetic soup.’ What this means to the future of our ecosystem, no one knows.”

Environmental Hazards
Agribusiness knows from public opinion polls that demand for genetically engineered foods is low and that demand for labeling is high. Yet as of 1998 there are 58 million acres[ii]  of “genfoods grown in the United States (of approximately 70 million acres worldwide), and two-thirds of the products on supermarket shelves have genetically engineered ingredients, including 35 percent of all corn, 55 percent of all soybeans and nearly half of all cotton.[iii] Are we unwitting guinea pigs in the largest experiment in human history?  Many scientists think so. Some fear that GMOs will be spread by bird, insect or wind to non-GM crops, as well as to wilderness areas. Unlike other pollution, genetic contamination can neither be contained nor cleaned up.

While most GM crops are heavily herbicide or pesticide dependent, some actually create their own. Monsanto’s New Leaf Superior potato is engineered to produce “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium) in each cell. The potato itself has been registered as a pesticide with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since labeling is not required, there is no way of knowing that the potato you pick up in the grocery is New Leaf or a regular spud. Should you care?

In early 1999, genetically engineered potatoes were tested on rats at Rowett Research Institute. After only ten days the animals suffered substantial health effects, including weakened immune systems and changes in the development of their hearts, livers, kidneys and brains. Research scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai was fired after he publicly announced his findings and stated that he would not eat genetically modified foods. A commission convened by his former employers found his work “deficient.”  However, another panel of 20 independent scientists confirmed both his data and his findings.[iv]

Rationale Rebuttal
Biotechnologists claim that genetic engineering is safe and environmentally friendly, that it will feed the world and reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, and that GMO foods are just like natural foods. But the reality is that transgenic crops are heavily dependent on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and often require increased irrigation, depleting already precious water resources. We reap no obvious benefits; the genetically modified products don’t look or taste better than non-GMs; they don’t cost less or provide better nutrition. In fact, these novel foods are of questionable nutritional value and safety; genfood might be more aptly named, “frankenfood,” since no one really knows what this ill-conceived creature will do once it’s off and running. 

Long-Term Health Effects?
Currently, there is no long-term safety testing of genetically modified organisms. Since genetic engineering can cause unexpected mutations in an organism, higher levels of toxicity in foods can be expected. Though extended shelf life may allow foods to appear fresh and luscious, the nutritional content of transgenic foods has been shown to be lower than that of foods grown traditionally. In 1999, the Journal of Medicinal Food published a study conducted by Dr. Marc Lappe; beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were found to be lower in genetically altered soybeans. Additionally, the antibiotically resistant genes within genfoods may be picked up by bacteria, which may infect us.[v] We might also expect increased pollution of food and water supplies, deletion of important food elements, decreased effectiveness of antibiotics, unforseen and undetected toxins, and sick or suffering livestock. A certain percentage of the population will more than likely have allergic reactions which, in some cases, may be severe.

Lobby for Labels
Without labels, public health agencies are powerless to trace problems that may occur. Codex, an agency of the UN World Health Organization, is an international group that sets food labeling standards. While it claims to have the public interest as its top priority, both the Canadian and U.S. delegations to Codex meetings have opposed the labeling of genetically modified food. Interestingly, in both countries nine or ten of thirteen and fourteen non-governmental positions, respectively, are filled by large corporations or industry groups. Some countries have chosen not to wait for Codex to wade through an eight-step process to create international food standards—British law currently requires that genetically modified foodstuffs be labeled. 

Bioengineering is a very imprecise science. Unanswered questions seem worth pondering. Is it safe or even ethical to cross natural boundaries and create new species? What happens to the insects that feed on these transgenic crops? What happens when the wind carries the pollen from these plants to neighboring fields? What are the reproductive implications of altering the genetic structure of an animal? What effect will it have as these changes ripple through our intricate and profoundly interrelated ecosystem?  If such questions concern you, consider shopping at a natural foods store to obtain organic food that has been certified as such, which is GMO-free. And contact The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (www.thecampaign.org), the non-profit group spearheading action on changing laws regarding GMO food.

>>> Go To Part 3: Irradiation

Notes

[i] Genetically Engineered Foods – Are They Safe? You Decide, Laura and Robin Ticciati, p. xi.

[ii] Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, Martin Teitel, Ph.D. and Kimberly A.     Wilson, p.17.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p.52.

[v] New Scientist, 1999.