An Extensive Guide to Understanding GMOs
By April Reigart
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism (also GE, Genetic Engineering or Genetically Engineered), and describes any living thing—plant, animal, microorganism—that has had its genetic material altered in a laboratory. With this type of transgenic technology, genes from animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses can be combined in a way that can never occur in nature, nor through traditional crossbreeding practices.
Traditional crossbreeding, or selective breeding, is the process of breeding together specific plants or animals in order to achieve specific desired traits. Selective breeding has been happening for hundreds of years and is responsible for many of the cultivars of fruits and vegetables that we know and love today. For example, our beloved clementines are a hybrid between a Mediterranean citrus and a sweet orange. This type of hybridization can happen accidentally in nature, or through intentional pollinization by a plant grower—like the creation of a pluot, which is a cross between a plum and an apricot.
To be clear, cross-breeding is not the same as genetic engineering/GMO. Cross-breeding is a natural form of reproduction assisted by humans, and GE is a human scientific creation in a laboratory. According to the Washington Post, in 2007, the FDA gave approval to a California biotech company to grow a test crop of rice that contained human immune system genes. Our natural human repulsion to this idea is because we know that humans and rice grains cannot in any natural way produce offspring, so it is difficult to wrap our heads around the idea of adding human genes to a food. Aside from moral and ethical concerns, there is the concern of contamination of other crops, as this test crop was grown outside (many GE test crops are grown indoors for this reason) in Kansas.
A crop that is in widespread production, and used in food manufacturing, is Bt-corn. Bt-corn is produced by inserting a gene from a bacterium in to the cells of the corn. The genetic material introduced to the corn was selected because it kills the European and southwestern corn borer, which can destroy corn crops. Genetic engineering is employed in several of the largest field crops in order to make the crops disease resistant, pesticide resistant or to deter insects, or even for drought tolerance. Many feel this is the way to ensure consistent yields for farmers, as well as to increase the world’s food supply. It is true that correlation does not always imply causation, but it just so happens that some of the most commonly genetically modified crops are also the crops that are most heavily government subsidized.
While farm subsidies are intended to support farmers as they manage agricultural profit variables from year to year—like the effects on crop yields due to weather, market prices, drought, etc—as well as to ensure a stable food supply for us all, the reality is that the financial assistance is highly unbalanced, and weighs heavily on the side of five main commodities: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. Sugar beets receive a top share of farm subsidies as well.
The top GMO crops are corn, soybeans, sugar beets, cotton, canola, alfalfa, zucchini/yellow summer squash, potatoes, apples, and papaya. There are some new genetically modified crops that are awaiting approval for the market: wheat (though it is believed most wheat crops are already contaminated by the GMO wheat), tomatoes, peas, rice, and salmon. GMO yeast for use in winemaking has been approved.
You might be wondering how this really matters for you. There are two major things to consider, and one is whether there is an effect on your health or the environment, and the other is the question of who receives the major benefit of this multi-billion dollar industry. The biotech companies would have you believe that they have noblest intentions, and that people are benefitting, and that there will be more food security for the planet, but, let’s look at that. If GMOs are receiving the largest farm subsidies from the government, then that means that Big Ag and Genetic Engineering companies (who dare to patent seeds, preventing farmers from seed-saving for replanting so that they have to buy new and expensive seed every year) and their company shareholders profit the most. Farmers are in a position where they are almost forced to grow these subsidized GMO crops for the Big Ag companies because they either won’t be able to earn a living with other crops, or they are in danger of having their crops contaminated by a neighbors GMO crops anyhow.
Even more complex—many smaller and non-GMO farmers have actually been successfully sued by the big biotech companies for growing their patented GMO seed by accident (from what blew in to their fields from trucks and neighboring farms). If you want to find the truth behind any product, your best bet is to follow the money. There is a lot of money involved in genetic engineering, and the bulk of it is not going to the grower, the field worker, nor to any enrichment efforts.
The claim that GMOs will be a treatment for world hunger is a dubious claim, because GMOs have been on the market since the 90s, and people are still hungry all over the world. Yemen, for example, is facing a devastating famine because of war—children are dying from starvation and malnourishment—and food aid is not reaching the 6 million+ starving people. Increasing GMO crop yields have not affected, nor have biotech companies worked towards, the issue of access. Hunger all over the world has to do with access. People without money cannot buy food, people in arid/infertile lands cannot grow food, and those living in war-torn areas have difficulty (logistically) receiving food aid.
Disease resistant crops have increased yields for US farmers, and people in Yemen are starving. People in The United States are still starving. Yet, biotech companies have long cried that they will end world hunger. In fact, in an article on AgBioWorld.org, an author claims their GE disease resistant crops will increase yields the world over, and further, blames environmentalists (who protest the use of GMOs and the pesticides that go along with them, in the interest of a non-toxic environment) for stopping the biotech companies from ending world hunger. Says author Michael J. Centrone for AgBioWorld, “Sadly, affluent Western environmentalists are more concerned with rigid adherence to their wrongheaded ideology than saving the lives of millions of people in the developing world.”
Again, GMOs have been in the marketplace for 30 years. Biotech companies are multi-billion dollar corporations with wealthy shareholders. GMO crops are prevalent. And people are still starving. I think we can all do the math without listening to a political agenda from either side.
Environmentally, there are many issues up for debate, but a major issue is the increasing use of Glyphosate. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in the pesticide Round-Up, and it is widely sprayed on GE Round Up Ready crops. That means the seeds have been genetically engineered to resist the pesticide, and the pesticide has to be sprayed more and more heavily on these crops as pests develop resistance to the chemical (some refer to the phenomenon as superbugs). Pesticides are not only consumed directly from the produce, but agricultural run-off causes the pesticides to contaminate lakes, rivers, streams, drinking water. This does not just affect humans, but all living creatures. It also contaminates any other nearby crop fields, as well as wild plants. Glyphosate has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a “probable human carcinogen”.
That means it probably causes cancer. We have to think about language. Organizations use “legal speak” when they when they make statements and claims. The World Health Organization, who is accountable and does thorough research used the word “probably”—not “could”, or “might”, or “possibly”. They used the word “probably”, which means “in all likelihood”.
Lastly—let’s think about GMOs and our health. The FDA finds GE foods to be “nutritionally equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts. Okay. That makes sense. Regular corn has Vitamin A, GM corn has vitamin A. However, there currently has still not been extensive and conclusive research as to whether there are other health effects from the foreign genetic material in these crops. Neither the biotech companies nor the FDA are looking at how genetically altered foods act in the body once consumed.
Before we even get into the altered genes of the food, we know the GMO crops are already covered in the likely carcinogen (though glyphosate is not limited to GMO crops). So, there’s already that. Then we have to consider whether we believe if the altered proteins in GMOs will harm us or not, and this is a completely polarized debate.
The Biotech Industry, as well as the FDA, claim that there is no significant difference between genetically altered foods and natural foods. The giant food corporations tell you they are safe, and the FDA lists them as GRAS—Generally Recognized As Safe. Further, there are many Agri-Science articles out there claiming to “debunk the health myths”. The write articles saying why this person or that person is a quack, why this claim is a myth, and why there is nothing to worry about.
Again, I think following the money is your best bet. If agri-business and biotech want you to purchase GMOs, and I want you to buy organic and local for your health—who is gaining what? I know that I make zero dollars off of convincing you to invest in your local economy and protect the environment by getting your produce from a small-scale local farmer (who is likely practicing crop diversity); whereas, if you continue to support factory farming/GMOs (crop monoculture—degrading to the natural environment), a billion-dollar industry gets richer. The latter sends up more red flags, in my humble opinion.
When it comes to the consumption of GMO foods, you can believe they are safe, or you can believe the intelligent assertions of health leaders like Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (The Paleo Mom), or Dr. Joseph Mercola—who talk about autoimmunity and leaky gut, in relation to the increased amount of pesticides and altered food proteins in our diets. Most studies claiming that GMOs are safe have been either conducted or bankrolled by the Biotech companies themselves. The FDA does not conduct its own scientific research into the safety of GMOs. The GMO industry claims that the increase in the prevalence of food allergies and autoimmune disorders in tandem with the increased production and consumption of GMO foods/glyphosate use is purely coincidental. However, I think it is worth researching what health experts have to say about autoimmunity and gut permeability (Leaky Gut), and draw your own conclusions.
One last thing to think about is the history of typically white interests over the various food cultures of the world. In fact, The Gates Foundation has just added $15 million dollars to a global campaign to promote GMO technology around the world, especially in developing nations. We have to pay attention to the history of the colonizing of people’s traditional/ancestral diets. Think about a typical African ancestral diet, which contained whole foods like sorghum, peanuts, okra, goat meat, foraged greens, etc. Think about the traditional foods to come from the black south, when our ancestors were left to their own devices. Despite the issue of scarcity, it remains a quite healthful diet: full of greens, offal (quite nutritive, despite being the parts other people don’t want) and beans. And now think of the current foods offered in typical so-called urban food deserts or through food programs aimed at impoverished African Americans, Latinx and other people of color: processed, genetically engineered, chemical laden, devoid of nutrition.
Feed the world, indeed.
If you think you would like to avoid GMOs, or decolonize your diet—here are some guidelines:
1: Eat/Cook with whole foods, and cook for yourself.
This is in and of itself an act of revolution. Avoid processed, packaged food products, and you will be avoiding a whole world of chemicals and GMOs. Even if you buy GE produce, by cooking at home and avoiding commercially packaged foods, you will be greatly reducing your GMO and pesticide exposure. You will control your ingredients, and you can avoid those vegetables (gene-edited chicken, slightly different than GMO, is coming soon) which you know are GMOs. (So, if you eat conventional produce, avoid: corn, soy, canola, zucchini/yellow squash, papaya, potatoes, apples, tomatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa, and cotton). Know that GMOs are lurking in processed foods in ingredients like corn syrup, lecithin, caramel coloring, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extrat, etc—further case for avoiding processed foods.
2: Look for the Non-GMO Project verification label on any packaged/canned items
The Non-GMO Project is a third party verification label for foods that have been tested for GMOs. The label, an orange butterfly on green grass with a blue background, means the product you are buying does not contain genetically engineered ingredients. GMO labeling is currently not required in the United States, so not all products containing GMOs will let you know about it. (Whereas, in many other countries, items are clearly labeled with “this product contains genetically engineered ingredients”) So, the Non-GMO label is a way to be sure. Check the Non-GMO project website for lots of helpful information on the subject of GMOs.
3: Buy Organic
If you are able to buy organic foods, this is your best insurance that your food is non-GMO, and that seed integrity and diversity is being preserved, and that its production was better for the environment. Foods labeled as organic (look for the green and white organic seal, or produce PLU numbers that start with 9) cannot be genetically altered. Further, organic foods are grown without the use of toxic pesticides. (Organic growers do use some forms of pesticides—conventional advocates will argue; but it is nowhere near the levels of conventional/GMO produce, and not the same toxins, like glyphosate. Talk to your local farmers—some grow organically, yet cannot afford the price for organic certification, or they may use low-spray techniques)