GMO are three letters that I am always on the look out for when I am grocery shopping. Unfortunately, they are not always easy to find. The United States does not require labeling, despite the fact that 89% of Americans polled by the Mellman Group, Inc. in 2015 favored mandatory labeling on all foods that have been genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients.
What are GMOs?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. This means that scientists modified the DNA of the plant, animal, or microorganism in question. These scientists use a laboratory process in which the genes from the DNA of one species are “extracted and artificially forced” into the genes of another plant or animal.
This type of genetic manipulation differs from traditional crossbreeding and grafting. For centuries, farmers have bred plants together to enhance favorable traits, such as sugar content. For example, traditional methods may breed two varieties of corn to produce an ultra sweet corn. Alternately, a pig may be bred with another pig to create a new variety. But, it would be impossible to breed the corn with the pig naturally.
However, in the genetic modification (GM) or genetic engineering (GE) process, the combinations may involve the mixing of genes from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, and humans. So that pig’s DNA could be forced into the corn!
Humans aren’t giving their consent for eating unlabeled GM products any more than the organisms whose DNA is being altered.
In nature, living organisms have natural barriers that protect them against DNA from other species. Nature knows that fish genes have no business being mixed with tomato genes. As a result, scientists must force the introduction of foreign DNA to create plants or animals with traits that would be impossible to obtain naturally.
Scientists may use viruses to infect plant or animal cells with the new DNA. Alternately, they may coat DNA onto tiny metal pellets and shoot the pellets into the plant or animal cells with a gun. They may inject the new DNA into fertilized eggs. Or, they may use electric shocks to perforate the membrane of sperm and squeeze the new DNA through these holes.
Sounds a lot like rape to me.
But GM is safe, right?!
Unfortunately, the technology is very imprecise, creating unstable combinations of genetic material. Moreover, it is impossible to predict and control any unintended side effects.
For example, the foreign gene could be selected to enhance a plant’s herbicide resistance. It may very well do a great job of “helping” the plant survive copious amounts of pesticides, while all surrounding plant and animal life dies. However, the new gene may disrupt the DNA of the plant, alter chemical reactions within the cell, and disturb cell functions, yielding new toxins and allergens.
This reminds me of Western medicine and big pharma. A drug is prescribed to treat depression by “correcting” the chemical imbalance in the brain. The drug effectively produces the intended effect: it inhibits the reuptake of serotonin, allowing serotonin to circulate in the synapse longer ostensibly to “treat” the depression. Additionally, the drug produces unintended side effects: constipation, diarrhea, increased suicidality, weight gain, acne, changes in blood pressure, insomnia, irritability, fatigue, low libido, inability to orgasm, etc. But we’re curing depression right?! That’s a topic for another blog post entirely.
To date, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM and GE. The majority of the research to date is funded by the same biotechnology companies selling the GMOs, which is a major conflict of interest in the production of unbiased scientific literature.
What’s the point of GE? Case Example of Bt Toxin
I am equal parts enjoying and being super creeped out, as I do the research for these articles on GE and GMOs. Today’s post draws from the findings presented in a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.
Why are we GE?
- To introduce genetic traits that can’t be introduced or altered by conventional breeding alone. In other words, GE allows us to violate natural boundaries in a way that conventional breeding does not.
- For longer-shelf life, higher vitamin content, and resistance to diseases
- Heribicide resistance and insect resistance
How it works: The Example of Bt Toxin
Specific modified genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are forced into the plant genome. The desired trait is the effect of Bt protein on insects: when insects eat Bt protein, holes are created in the insect’s digestive system, causing death. The goal is to increase yield.
Studies indicated that “Bt in maize and cotton from 1996 to 2015 contributed to a reduction in the gap between actual yield and potential yield under circumstances in which targeted pests caused substantial damage to non-GE varieties and synthetic chemicals could not provide practical control.” What a convoluted reporting of the data!
In plain English, researchers drew a causal relationship between Bt and higher yields WHEN the non-GE varieties were substantially damaged by pests. This sounds like a really specific, reductionist, and virtually meaningless way to determine whether the pest resistant GE crops actually have higher yields than the conventionally grown crops. And what about a comparison to organically grown crops? Researchers aren’t even gonna go there, I guess. Or have they?
Moreover, the committee listed a number of study disadvantages and possible third variable explanations for the observed differences in yield. The GE and non-GE crops were not isolines; they were genetically dissimilar, and had different characteristics that affect yield. Additionally, differences in insect damage, the farmers who plant Bt versus non-Bt varieties, and other production differences could have explained the observed effect.
Statistical evidence indicates that targeted pest populations are greatly reduced in areas where Bt crops are grown, which is beneficial to farmers of Bt and non-Bt varieties. This begs the question: why are they still using the Bt varieties if the problematic pest is gone? Moreover, continued use will encourage Bt-resistant pests. Oh, great.
Thankfully, evidence shows decreased use of synthetic pesticides on Bt crops and non-Bt crops. Some non-targeted pest populations have increased, but not to the extent that it is considered an agronomic (read: soil management and crop production) problem. Bt resistant insects have been slow to evolve thanks to a US government-mandated regulation.
This strategy requires:
- Bt plants to contain a high enough amount of Bt protein to “kill insects that have partial genetic resistance to the toxin.”
- Maintenance of refuges, or the planting of non-Bt crops near the Bt varieties so that some target insects survive and mate with resistant individuals.
Supposedly, the strategy has been successful so far, but Bt resistant insects have evolved in US and non-US farms where the regulation was not upheld.
All this sounds like a lot of trouble and tinkering with nature to control, control, CONTROL. It’s laughable to me to think that these Bt proponents think they are powerful enough to control nature and outsmart her. As if!
Keep in mind that Bt is always present in Bt crops. You can’t peel it off, or wash it off with your favorite produce cleanser. It doesn’t go away. Regardless of health findings, I don’t want to eat food that contains a protein that bores holes in digestive systems to kill other living creatures. We’ll get into the health effects of GMOs in a subsequent post.
 –  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23395.
GMOS & Human Health
The Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops claimed to have heard presenters on both sides of the issue: those who believe GMOs are safe, and those who believe GMOs are unsafe. Researchers assessed GMO safety by animal testing, compositional analysis, and allergenicity testing.
The ethics of animal testing aside, these experimental studies divided small samples of rodents into treatment groups that were fed GE food or conventional food. Low statistical power limited the ability of these studies to detect real, biologically relevant results. So what’s the point exactly? The committee concluded that GE food did not harm laboratory animals.
Additionally, long-term data on livestock compared their health and feed conversion efficiency before and after the introduction of GE food. Researchers found no adverse effects of GE food on the livestock.
Moreover, the committee concluded that gut disturbances in livestock fed GE food are probably okay too. They reported that horizontal gene transfer (e.g. Bt genes that bore holes in intestinal walls passing from the GE food to the human) is unlikely to happen or cause health problems either.
The committee analyzed comparative data from the United States and Canada, where citizens consumed GE food since the mid-1990s, to the United Kingdom and Western Europe, where residents avoided GE food. They found no differences in health and disease between the two groups. The data they used indicated no relationship between consumption of GE foods and cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, chronic kidney disease, Celiac disease, and autism spectrum disorder.
Apparently, widespread public concern about the safety of GMOs is much ado about nothing.
Oh, and that pesticide used in massive quantities all over the United States: glyphosate… It’s probably not that big a deal either. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) deemed glyphosate unlikely to cause carcinogenic risk. Canada’s health agency viewed glyphosate use to be safe as long as workers follow the product’s instruction label carefully. **See the importance of labeling!**
On the other hand, the monograph by the World Health Organization (WHO) changed glyphosate’s classification from Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans) to Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans). Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t think GE food adversely affects hormones. Clearly, expert committees need to talk to one another, and sort glyphosate safety out!
Compositional analysis: GE crops basically the same as non-GE
Compositional analysis involves the submission of comparative data on the nutrient and chemical composition of GE crops and conventional crops. For example, analysts compared GE corn to a genetically similar conventional variety. Results indicated statistically significant differences between GE and conventional crops, but researchers considered these differences to be natural variation. Except that it’s not natural variation! GE is intentional manipulation of the integrity of the plant’s genetics to meet corporate interests…
Allergenicity studies use “indirect methods” to evaluate whether proteins intentionally or indirectly added to GE food caused an allergic response. The report committee recommended standard testing to determine whether new GE proteins are similar to known allergens, and see whether GE proteins are novel allergens that are not digested by gut fluids (a sign that something is an allergen).
However, the report indicated that allergenicity research has not been done, and that “post-commercialization allergen testing would be useful in ensuring that consumers are not exposed to allergens.” Since we are in post-commercialization, this would be really nice to see! Plus, if the GMOs were found to be possible allergens, then labeling would be required, so that people with the allergen could avoid the product. Excellent.
GMOS: Labeling and Common GE Crops + 2 Freaky Facts
Over 60 countries require GMO labeling. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of them. Powerful food, agriculture, and biotech corporations spend millions of dollars to protect their interests and prevent GMO labeling in the US.
This begs the question: What are they so afraid of? Why are they going to such great lengths to prevent labeling? What are they hiding? If GMOs are harmless to human health and environment, why not slap the label on to be transparent?
Despite widespread public opposition, Congress passed Monsanto’s Dream Bill or the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act in July 2016. This bill prohibits state governments from requiring GMO labeling. The law is a federal response to Vermont’s state law that required GMO labeling. The DARK Act effectively blocks states like Vermont that want GMOs labeled.
Thankfully, online petitions and efforts have been made to combat the DARK Act and give Americans the right to know what they are eating. You can see the petition and take action here.
According to the comprehensive GE report (2016), the most common GE crops with herbicide and/or insect resistance grown commercially in 2015 included:
- Soybeans (83% of all soybeans)
- Cotton (75% of all cotton)
- Maize (29% of all maize)
- Canola (24% of all canola)
Freaky fact #1: In 2015, GE crops were also grown commercially with traits for viral resistance and to reduce browning in apples and potatoes. I don’t know about you, but if my apple or potato is over the hill, I want it to turn brown so I know not to eat it!
In 2015, farmers planted 180 million hectares of GE crops:
- 70 million hectares in the US
- 90 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada
- The remaining hectares in 23 countries, including: Portugal, Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Sudan, South Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile
The GE crops that were planted in 2015 included:
- sugar beet
This makes me very uncomfortable. The list of four crops was disquieting enough, but 12 is simply too much. That means that the majority of processed foods are made with GMOs, as processed foods draw heavily upon maize, soybeans, and canola oil. It also means a large portion of cotton clothing is GMO. And it means everyday produce at the supermarket and restaurants probably contains some GMOs: apples, beets, papayas, squash, eggplant, and potatoes.
Freaky Fact #2: “As the approaches to genetic engineering of crops change, some regulatory regimes may not be equipped to regulate traits introduced with newer approaches. The committee found that to be the case for the existing regulatory regime in the US.” 
So even if the US government wanted to protect consumers and allow them the right to choose whether or not they eat GMOs via food labels, they might not be able to regulate the technology. Sounds like the attempts to control and outsmart nature have gotten a bit out of hand. Surprise surprise.
[2-6] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23395.
GE: herbicide resistance, NO increased yields & inconclusive environmental effects
GE for herbicide resistance
Recently, we discussed GE for the trait of pest resistance with the case example of Bt toxin. Now, we are going to explore crops that are GE with herbicide resistance traits. These GMOs are designed to survive exposure to herbicides that would normally be fatal.
The goal of GE herbicide resistant crops is to increase yield via enhanced weed control. The goal is to kill all plants except the GE crop, and to prevent casualties of the intentional GE crop thanks to its forced-in herbicide resistance.
One would hope that herbicide use may decrease as a result of GE crops. Not so. While herbicide levels initially decreased with the adoption of the GE crops, these decreases have not been sustained. In other words, farmers still depend on copious amounts of chemical weed killers.
Moreover, the way corporate scientists report herbicide use is sneaky: they simply report kilograms per hectare per year without factoring in the differences in toxicity amongst the various chemicals used. It sounds like lying by omission to me by excluding the practical MEANING of study results.
According to the #GECropStudy, “the herbicide-resistant trait selects for weed resistance only if the corresponding herbicide is applied to the field.” This sounds admittedly cool, but I would like to see further clarification. My understanding is that if farmers were to decide not to use weed-killing chemicals then the GE plant would grow normally without expression of the herbicide resistant trait. Not sure what the point is here. Perhaps to make GE look precise?
Similar to insects able to resist Bt toxin, weeds become able to resist herbicides over the course of repeated exposure. Nature is smart! The weeds that survive the herbicide application proliferate, stronger and more resilient than ever. As a result, farmers must utilize diverse weed management strategies, like “cropping systems and regions where weeds have not yet been exposed to continuous glyphosate applications.” The report concluded that more research is necessary. Read: they don’t know how to outsmart nature on this one.
GE crops are not really increasing yields in US agriculture. Oops.
When considering USDA data of changes in yield in maize, soybeans, and cotton fields before, during, and after switching from conventional breeding to GE crops, scientists found “no significant change in the rate at which crop yields increase.” This is in contrast to experimental data—done by biotech corporations themselves—that showed yield increases related to the introduction of GE crops.
This begs the question: why are we using GE crops if they don’t accomplish the desired end: increased yields compared to conventional breeding?
Money? Power? I don’t know. The possibilities aren’t super awe-inspiring.
So far researchers have not found a decrease in diversity among crop varieties, weeds, and insects. Although they admit it is possible to occur in the future.
Conclusions about the environmental effects of GE Crops
The report concluded a lack of conclusive evidence that GE crops are CAUSING environmental problems. However, the report added that “the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.”
I sense more convoluted bullshit, how about you? In other words, they don’t know. Either the data really aren’t there to determine the effect of GE crops on the environment, OR corporate interests are blocking scientists from reporting data that do show a causal relationship between GE crops and environmental harm.
The researchers called for lots more research. In the meantime, GE crops are still being commercially grown on millions of hectares of land in the US, showing up in millions of grocery stores worldwide, and ending up in the food eaten by millions of Americans. Shouldn’t the research have been done before such widespread adoption of GE? I would think yes.
[1-8] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. GeneticallyEngineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23395.