Genetically-Modified Food

What are Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), introduced in 1996, refer to any organism whose “genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”[1] GMOs are created by injecting the DNA from one organism into another or by directly modifying the genetic code of an organism. The general aim is to create new properties in the organism that are not naturally occurring. Many genetically-engineered crops are designed to tolerate the direct application of herbicides intended to kill weeds. For example, “Roundup Ready” crops have been engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, glyphosate. Other genetically-engineered crops such as corn are designed to release a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin that is lethal to some insects.[2]

The genetic engineering of food differs from traditional breeding practices in at least one important way. Natural breeding typically occurs between species of the same genus, never among species of different families or kingdoms. We cannot naturally promote breeding between plants and bacteria, for instance. In contrast, genetic engineering does permit gene transfer across kingdoms.

Genetic modifications have mainly affected eight types of crops [4], though GMOs have been detected in over a dozen ingredients found in processed foods.[5] Most of the commercially used genetically-modified seeds have been planted in only five countries: United States (40%), Brazil (23%), Argentina (14%), India (6%), and Canada (6%).[6]


Sources of GMOs in Common Crops and Processed Food

Crops Processed Food Ingredients
Soy (93% of the U.S soy crop is from genetically-modified seeds)Amino Acids
Corn (90% of the U.S corn crop is from genetically-modified seeds)Aspartame
Cotton (90% of the U.S cotton crop is from genetically-modified seeds)Ascorbic Acid
CanolaSodium Ascorbate
Sugar beetsVitamin C
Hawaiian papayaCitric Acid
AlfalfaSodium Citrate
Squash (zucchini and yellow)Flavorings ("natural" and "artificial")
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
Lactic Acid
Monosodium Glutamate
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
Xanthan Gum
Yeast Products

Sources. USDA. (2014). Genetically engineered crops in the United States. Non-GMO Project. (2015). What are the most common GMOs?


Why Are GMOs Potentially Problematic?

Although rightly viewed with some healthy skepticism, genetically-modified food is not necessarily problematic. Genetic engineering does hold some promise in improving nutrient density and decreasing concentrations of naturally-occurring toxins in some foods.[1] These GMOs-for-health would need to be evaluated with multiple long-term health and environmental risk studies. Public confidence in this type of research could be secured by ensuring that scientists are university-based and publicly supported (not corporate sponsored). A truly independent panel of FDA scientists and administrators would then determine whether the GMO is safe for mass consumption. However, this precautionary approach has not been implemented, and thus considerable uncertainty exists about the safety of GMOs for human health and the environment.[2] [3]

Unfortunately, rather than focus on improving the nutritional qualities of food, corporations have frequently developed GMOs that result in an increased use of dangerous pesticides. Corporations in the GMO industry have also successfully bypassed long-term food safety testing and preemptively introduced GMO products into the food production system. This strategy creates a live health experiment with the unsuspecting public, fails to manage threats to agrodiversity, and consolidates control over the world’s food supply.

Health Effects of GMOs

An early review of research on the safety of GMOs in 2004 concluded optimistically that “to date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”[1] This conclusion remains true today in the case of humans, but the absence of negative findings may be partly due to the fact that no epidemiological studies have been conducted (if GMOs are not labeled, we can’t track consumption of GMOs over time).[2] When rigorous studies of humans cannot be conducted, we must rely heavily upon studies of laboratory animals. And here many researchers have been less sanguine about the prospects of “safe” GMOs. Laboratory animals fed GMO diets have exhibited allergic reactions, stomach lesions, advanced aging, and liver and kidney problems.[3] In addition, a recent review of GMO health risks noted that very few studies have actually focused on the safety of GMOs in lab animals and concluded that there is roughly an equivalent number of studies demonstrating that GMOs are as safe as conventional counterparts and those demonstrating that GMOs are potentially hazardous.[4] As of April 2013, only 18 long-term studies had been conducted on the effects of feeding commercially-available GMOs on the health of rats. These studies examined only 9 of 47 genetically-modified crops (19%), and approval was granted to 8 of these 9 crops before the studies had been published.[5] Of greater concern, “most of the studies demonstrating that GM foods are as nutritional and safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercializing these GM plants.”[6] [7]

The effect of some GMOs may be also indirect. The introduction of genetically-engineered crops actually increased pesticide use by 318 million pounds over 13 years, primarily due to the rise of Roundup-resistant weeds. Farmers have attempted to control Roundup-resistant weeds by applying more herbicide with different chemical mixes, including 2,4-D, a key ingredient in Agent Orange.[8] In one of the few descriptive studies on humans, Swanson et al. (2014) found extremely high correlations between the amount of glyphosate applied to crops in the U.S. and the incidence of 22 diseases, including hypertension, stroke, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, autism, inflammatory bowel syndrome, renal disease, kidney failure, and cancers of the thyroid, liver, bladder, pancreas, and kidney.[9] In vitro and animal studies suggest that glyphosate may cause the “disruption of hormonal systems and beneficial gut bacteria, damage to DNA, developmental and reproductive toxicity, malformations, cancer, and neurotoxicity.”[10] The World Health Organization has thus recently classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”[11]

Environmental Effects of GMOs

Genetically-modified crops present a particular ecological challenge for maintaining the genetic integrity of existing conventional and organic food. Traditional crops can become contaminated with GMOs through cross-pollination or unintentional mixing in farm machinery or post-harvest storage.[12][13] This presents a huge threat to existing agrodiversity. For instance, researchers have detected genetically-modified crops strictly used for animal feed in subsequent meat products.[14] In another example, genetically-modified canola was found growing in the wild in North Dakota. The reporter for Nature summarized her interview with the researchers:

“Sagers and her team found two varieties of transgenic canola in the wild — one modified to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (glyphosate), and one resistant to Bayer Crop Science’s Liberty herbicide (gluphosinate). They also found some plants that were resistant to both herbicides, showing that the different GM plants had bred to produce a plant with a new trait that did not exist anywhere else.

Sagers says the previous discoveries in other countries of transgenic canola populations growing outside of cultivation were often in or near fields used for commercial transgenic canola production. By contrast, her research team found feral populations of herbicide-resistant canola growing along roads, near petrol stations and grocery stores, often at large distances from areas of agricultural production.”

GMOs and Corporate Control of the World’s Food Supply

Who should own the seeds that produce the basic components of the food we eat? If seeds are not the intellectual property of anyone in particular, then farmers can save seeds from one season to the next. But genetically-modified seeds are owned by corporations, which require farmers to purchase new seeds each year. The GMO seed market is currently dominated by the Big Six in the agrochemical industry: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, BASF, and Dow Chemical. Monsanto alone had seed sales of nearly $10 billion in 2012.[15] The consolidation of the world’s food supply under the control of a few corporations with just a few different types of crops greatly endangers farmer autonomy and food security. Farmers must have enough cash to purchase seeds and the herbicides needed for herbicide-tolerant crops. If most farmers grow only a few genetically-modified crops, the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds or insecticide-resistant pests could dramatically reduce the food supply.


Don’t We Need GMOs To Feed The World?

The GMO industry frequently asserts that GMOs need to be produced to end world hunger, an argument that rests on false claims of superior crop performance. According to an independent review of research over 13 years in the United States, herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn have not generated greater crop yields relative to conventional farming practices.[1] Insect-resistant corn is demonstrably superior to the traditional use of insecticide, but the yield advantage is only 3 to 4 percent. This can be compared to conventional plant-breeding techniques, which have increased crop yields by 13 to 25 percent (e.g., wheat). In fact, traditional breeding and crop management techniques account for 86% of the crop yield increases since 1990 (genetic engineering accounts for only 14%). The main reason is that scientists have not yet developed any way to increase the so-called intrinsic yield, that is, the amount that can be produced under ideal conditions. Rather, the GMO industry has focused on herbicide and insect resistance, which can only theoretically increase “operational yield” under specific conditions.

In fact, the prestigious panel on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) did not identify the prevalent form of genetic engineering as a viable method for improving crop yields in developing countries, citing “highly variable 10-33% yield gains in some places and yield declines in others.”[2] Instead, the panel identified organic farming as a more reliable and sustainable method for improving agricultural production.


Doesn’t The Government Already Test The Safety Of GMOs?

The FDA does not require, conduct, or oversee safety testing for food merely because it has been genetically modified. In 1992, the FDA determined that genetically-modified foods were “generally recognized as safe” and thus do not need to be subjected to safety tests.[3] Only in the case where a GMO product appears to differ “significantly in structure, function, or composition from substances found currently in food” would safety testing be required. The main problem with solely relying on the policy of substantial equivalence is that there may be unpredictable effects of consuming GMOs due to limitations in our current knowledge of food toxicants and methods used to detect relevant deviations in organismic structure, function, or composition. Notably, the substantial equivalence test is not used in the safety assessment of drugs.

If by some miracle a particular genetically-modified food does not pass this “substantial equivalence” test, the company itself (e.g., Monstanto) must provide data demonstrating that the product is safe.[4] Independent (third-party) evaluations are not required, and long-term studies are not required. This policy was adopted despite warnings from FDA scientists that “there is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering.”[5] In retrospect, it is not surprising that such an industry-friendly policy was adopted when the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Policy was Michael Taylor, an attorney who eventually became an employee of Monsanto.

The folly of the substantial equivalence policy was recently demonstrated in a study that compared genetically-modified, conventional, and organic soybeans. The authors concluded that “using 35 different nutritional and elemental variables to characterise each soy sample, we were able to discriminate GM, conventional and organic soybeans without exception, demonstrating ‘substantial non-equivalence’ in compositional characteristics for ‘ready-to-market’ soybeans.”[6]


What Can Be Done?

If corporations would like to run experiments on the lives of unsuspecting Americans, we should at least be given the option of participating. Accordingly, foods containing genetically-modified ingredients should be labeled as such. If this sounds like common sense, you’re not alone. Over 90% of Americans believe that GMOs should be labeled according to polls conducted by the Washington Post, The New York Times, and Consumer Reports.[1] And over 400 companies have voiced their support for GMO labeling.[2] In fact, we have fallen far behind the rest of the world on this issue. Sixty-four countries worldwide have adopted laws that require GMOs to be labeled, including Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even countries that are not known for strong public health policy such as China and Russia do require labeling of GMO’s.

Three states have already passed GMO labeling laws: Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont. Currently, 18 states are considering GMO labeling bills: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.


1. Sign the petition (created by Just Label It) that calls for the FDA to require labeling of all genetically engineered foods.

2. Sign the petition (created by Food and Water Watch) that calls for Congress to reject Monsanto’s attempts to eliminate states’ rights to pass legislation that would require GMO labeling.



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