Frankenfoods: The debate over genetically modified (GM) foods

GM foods have fervent supporters and critics Photo: The Knowles Gallery

WASHINGTON, DC, April 15, 2013- Also known as genetically engineered (GE), genetically modified (GM) foods have passionate opponents as well as supporters.  Unfortunately, clear and reliable information about GM foods and their impact, especially regarding health effects, is difficult to come by. 

Derived from genetically modified plants or animals, GM foods are created in a laboratory where their genetic makeup is altered to yield desired qualities.  GM foods include corn, soybean, canola, and cottonseed oil; fruits; vegetables; trees and even salmon.


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Even though there has been a series of studies that conclude that genetically modified foods are just as safe for human consumption as natural foods, opponents raise several criticisms including health, environmental, and economic objections to GM foods.

Additionally, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require special labeling for GM foods, many American’s may consume GM foods without even knowing it.  Some reports estimate up to 60% of processed food contain ingredients made from GM corn, canola, or soybeans, including ice cream, baking powder, salad dressing, chips, cookies, and pizza.

Proponents of genetically modified foods cite their ability to meet a rising demand for food as the world’s population grows.  Certain GM species of corn, potatoes, and cotton, for example, have been modified to include Bt genes, which make these crops more pest resistant.  Other GM crops have been bred to resist high doses of herbicides, allowing farmers to remove weeds without harming the crop. 

Other crops are modified to withstand cold, drought, and salinity in water, allowing farmers to grow them in areas where they would previously not have survived.  Rice has even been modified to trigger the production of more vitamin A, making it more nutritious; and to reduce concentration of gluten, making it better for brewing wine or beer. 


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Opponents of GM foods have varying motivations.  While some would like to ban GM foods and organisms altogether, others want them labeled so consumers can make informed decisions.  Some object to GM foods because of the possible environmental repercussions, while others do so on an economic level.  Still others object to GE foods because they believe- correctly or incorrectly- that they pose health risks. 

Some are weary of the business practices of biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta.  Others argue that the commercialization of GM foods is being rushed without fully understanding its impact on our health, our environment, and the world economy.

Environment

There are several environmental concerns relating to GM organisms, including heavier use of herbicides, the possibility of creating “super weeds” and “super bugs,” and unintended harm to other species and ecosystems.


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Greater use of herbicides:  Many GM crops are designed to be herbicide resistant, allowing farmers to use higher quantities without killing the crop.  Not coincidentally, companies that produce herbicide resistant seeds also produce the particular herbicide that their seeds are resistant to.  For example, Monsanto produces Roundup, a potent herbicide, as well as a variety of Roundup Ready seeds- soybean, alfalfa, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola- that tolerate Roundup.  

Despite Monsanto’s assurances that herbicide use would decline with GM seeds, the opposite has occurred: in the 13 years since the 1996 introduction of Roundup Ready seeds, total use of herbicide in the US rose by 10%, rising by about 383 million pounds. 

For years Monsanto claimed that Roundup was biodegradable.  However, several court cases both in the U.S. and Europe have shown that only 2% of the product breaks up in soil after 28 days.  Additionally, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) builds up in soil after subsequent uses and accumulates for six to eight years in perennial crops like alfalfa.  

“Super bugs”:  Some scientist believe that planting pest resistant (Bt) GM crops will endanger other non-targeted animals and insects as well as speed up the evolution of insects that can withstand pesticides, creating “super bugs.”

“Super weeds”:  Still others worry that through gene flow and outcrossing, genes from GM plants designed to withstand higher doses of herbicide, harsh weather conditions, droughts, and pests could produce “super weeds.”  Allison Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University says “genes flow from crops to weeds all the time when pollen is transported by wind, bees, and other pollinators.  There’s no doubt that transgenes will jump from engineered crops into nearby relatives.”  

Unintended harm:  Another environmental concern is that these more robust, resistant, and faster growing organisms will compete with other species for food and sunlight, damaging delicate ecosystems and reducing biodiversity.   For example, one of the concerns related to the AquAdvantage GM salmon is that they will escape into the wild and outcompete other fish for food, since GM fish grow twice as fast as natural salmon, eat five times as much, have less fear of natural predators, and can reproduce throughout the year. 

On the other hand, the pesticide in Bt crops is not selective, killing not only the targeted pest, but similar pests as well. One study found that genes from Bt corn migrated to nearby milkweed plants, which in turn killed monarch butterfly caterpillars that fed on them.

Economic concerns

Other critics oppose GM foods because of opaque practices of many biotech companies.  Many believe that the high price of GM seeds, their reliance on herbicides, an the patent issues related to GM seeds trap farmers in a vicious cycle that makes them heavily dependent on these companies. This factor as well as others mentioned above brings up the specter of an intended or unintended monopoly.

Cost of seeds:  Many critics believe that GM crops are driving small family farmers out of business.  GM seeds are usually more expensive that natural seeds, because they carry a “technology fee” that adds 20 to 40% to seed costs.  While biotech companies claimed GM crops would be less expensive to grow, this has not been the case.  According to a study conducted by Michael Duffy at Iowa State University, farmers who planted Roundup Ready soy lost more money than those who planted natural soy (GM soy lost $8.87 per acre, natural soy lost $.02).

Patent issues:  When farmers purchase GM seeds, they are forced to sign a contract stating they will not save seeds from the GM crop, forcing them to buy seeds every year.  Monsanto and other companies aggressively pursue farmers suspected of saving seeds through expensive lawsuits and intimidation. Monsanto has even pursued patent violation litigation against farmers who plant non-GM seeds after their crops have been contaminated with GM material from nearby GM crops. This again brings up the possibility of unfair commercial practices.

Rising prices of herbicides and pesticides:  Farmers who buy certain GM seeds are also forced to use a particular herbicide exclusively, while biotech companies continue to raise the price.  According to the 2009 fact sheet from the Institute for Responsible Technology, “retail prices for Roundup herbicide have increased from just $32 per gallon in December 2006 to $45 per gallon a year later, to $75 per gallon by June 2008 – a 134% price hike in less than two years.”

Terminator seeds: “Terminator seeds” are a hot topic when discussing GM foods.  Known as genetic use restriction technology (GURT), these are seeds that are engineered to produce sterile second-generation seeds.  Developed in the 1990s by the USDA, Delta and Pine Land Company, and other corporations, GURT technology is not commercially available.  In 1999, Monsanto signed a pledge to not use terminator seeds, despite acquiring Delta and Pine Land Company in 2007.    

Health

The effect of GM foods on human health is the most controversial.  Reliable factual information is difficult to come by.

While there have been a series of studies that claim that GE food is as safe as natural food, many are not convinced, questioning the long-term health effects of GE foods.  This uncertainty about the dangers of GM foods among the general population is related to the industry’s lack of transparency on one side, and activists’ over-zeal on the other.  Debates revolve around allergies, gene transfer, and outcrossing.  

Allergies:  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “no allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market.”  However, many critics disagree.  For example, according to a publication from Harvard University School of Public Health, “the decrease in glutelin levels in (GM) rice, …was associated with an unintended increase in levels of compounds called prolamines, which can affect the nutritional quality of rice and increase its potential to induce an allergic response.” 

Gene Transfer:  Gene transfer refers to the transfer of genes from GM foods to human cells or bacteria in the intestinal tract.  Of particular concern are antibiotic resistant genes from GM foods.  Even though the WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have encouraged the use of technology that does not contain antibiotic resistant genes, the industry claims that probability of gene transfer to humans is “low.” 

OutcrossingOutcrossing happens when pollen from GM crops fertilizes conventional crops or wild species as well as when GM seeds are mixed with conventional ones.  The WHO has stated that outcrossing “may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security.”   

This was indeed the case when in 2000 StarLink, a GM variety of GM corn, was found in the human food supply including taco shells, chips and other foods.  This prompted a massive recall because the corn used was approved only for animal consumption since it was found to cause possible allergic reactions in humans. 

Over-zeal from critics:  Many GM critics lose credibility when discussing the health effects of GM foods, as many rush to report incorrect information without checking facts.  For example, much was made late last year about a French study that concluded that rats fed a diet of GM corn developed large tumors and experienced organ failure.  The study, conducted at Caen University, was largely criticized as poorly designed, inadequately executed, and biased.   

The lack of long-term data combined with questionable motivation on both sides of the GM debate at a minimum raises questions about the safety of GM foods.

Part II of this article, which will appear in the column next week, will discuss the fact that the FDA does not currently require labeling of GM products. Should Americans know what they are eating?

 


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.

 

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