Are GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) safe and what foods contain them?


corn-63061_640Hey everyone. Someone emailed me asking about GMO’s and I happened to write a report on this topic for a class a few years ago so I decided to post it for everyone to see. Please write any questions/comments!

• GMO foods are not labeled
• Organic foods should not contain GMO ingredients
• The most common GMOs are soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, and squash (zucchini and yellow).
• Many European countries restrict or ban GMO foods
• GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE).
• Merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

Here is a report I wrote a few years ago for a class:

Genetically modified organisms and food present ethical, environmental and health concerns. They have the capacity to eradicate the world wide food system. The science of inserting genes from one species to another is still in its infancy and the outcomes of these gene insertions are not understood well enough to warrant the widespread creation of genetically modified food. Numerous studies have shown the disastrous consequences eating genetically modified food has on rats and mice. To understand the controversy surrounding genetically modified food and its potentially disastrous impacts, a brief history on the creation of genetically modified food must first be looked at.

Recombinant DNA, or rDNA, was discovered in the early 1970’s. (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 4). From the onset of this new technology, scientists were concerned with the negative impact this technology may have on organisms and the environment. (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 4). Because of this fear, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) put together an rDNA advisory committee, to formulate rules to govern this new technology. (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 4). The first GMO that was approved by the NIH was an ice-minus bacterium. (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 4). The US decided it was not worth the money or effort to establish a new agency to regulate and approve GMOs, so that job fell to the USDA, FDA, and EPA (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 4).

From the onset of GMOs being released into the wild, there have been unforeseen negative consequences, including negative health effects on humans. One such example is the Lenape potato, which was taken off the shelves after it was discovered that these potatoes produce dangerously high levels of the glycoalkaloid solanine (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 3). In 1989, the Eosinophalia-Mayalgia Syndrome epidemic in the United States was caused by the GM dietary supplement L-tryptophan, and caused 37 deaths. Despite numerous examples of what can go wrong when GMOs are introduced into the wild, the United States considers the risk to be so small as to not need regulation of new GMO crops. Instead, farmers are expected to regulate their crop use in a safe manner. (McHughen & Smyth, 2008, 3). Likewise, the FDA’s procedure to regulate GMOs involves a consultation process, which is voluntary (Chetty & Viljoen, 2007, 269).

Further, one of the biggest criticisms of GM food is their potential to produce allergic reactions in humans. Introducing proteins into food, like when methionine from the Brazil nut was put into soybeans, and when GE corn modified to produce a Bt endotoxin, can cause an allergic reactions in sensitive people (Bernstein, Bernstein, Bucchini, Goldman, Hamilton, Lehrer & Rubin, 2003).

Numerous studies have been conducted showing the effect of a GM food diet on animals. An increased mortality was noted in rats fed with GM tomatoes; seven of the forty rats died within two weeks (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009, 170). It is also possible to pass the GM food to the newborn baby through the placenta. Food ingested M13 DNA fed to pregnant mice, was detected in various organs of fetuses and newborn animals (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009, 170). The birthrates of piglets fed GM corn showed an 80% decrease in weight because of high levels of Fusarium mold infecting the corn (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009, 170). A study of female rats fed GM Roundup Ready soybeans gave birth to stunted pups, half of the litter was dead by 3 weeks and the remaining pups were sterile (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 66).The GM corn these rats were fed has been available as food for humans since 1996 (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 66).

Several varieties of GM crops with different transgenes that were fed to rats, mice, cows, sheep, chickens or humans have resulted in illness and death (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 66). Between 2005 and 2006, thousands of sheep died after eating Bt cotton crop in India (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 67). In 2004, Monsanto’s research showed that rats fed MON863 maize containing Cry3Bb protein developed kidney and blood abnormalities (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 66). A paper that had originally said Bt-pollen was safe to the black swallowtail butterfly under field conditions was found to be erroneous and it was proved that Bt-pollen was highly toxic to the butterflies in lab experiments (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 71). A study looked at many generations of mice that were fed GM corn carrying cry1AB from Bt. After the first litter, mice fed the GM maize gave birth to fewer and fewer pups in each subsequent litter, and the average litter weights of the pups feed GM food decreased over time (Sinha, 2009, 592).

Scientists fear that GM food ingested by humans can exhibit horizontal gene transfer, which is the transfer of genetic material between organisms. It was originally thought that DNA would be broken down before our body could absorb it, but studies have shown that DNA can survive in all environments and transgenic DNA enhances and starts horizontal gene transfer (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 68). DNA breakdown is extremely slow in saliva, and thus horizontal transfer could occur in the oral cavity (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 69).). Transfer of transgenic maize DNA antibiotic resistant marker could occur before the DNA was broken down (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 69). Transgenic DNA and viral DNA fed to mice showed up in several tissues, and when fed to pregnant mice, the DNA crossed the placenta and went into the cells of the fetus and newborn (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 69). DNA ingested from food plants were also taken up into tissue cells (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 69).

Milk from cows treated with rbGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) could have negative effects on human health. Milk from these cows leads to an increase in IGF-1 in humans because IGF-1 survives digestion (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009, 171). Absorption of IGF-1 can stimulate the proliferation of cancer cells. (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009, 171).

Currently, 750,000 dairy cows are being injected with rBGH on a regular basis (Food inc, 80).
A major argument that pro GMO individuals make is that there are no studies showing that GM crops are dangerous to humans. That is not entirely true. It is very hard if not impossible to study the effects of GM food on humans; humans are not lab animals and cannot be isolated and fed only a diet of GM food. There are far too many variables to study the effect of GM food on people in the real world. However, there are numerous animal studies showing the negative effect GM food has on rats and mice. Obviously humans and mice are not too similar but we do share a similar DNA and organ systems.

Besides having the capacity to produce negative health effects on humans, GMOs can also cause disastrous consequences for crops when they are blown onto non GMO crops. In 2002, Prodigene’s pharmaceutical maize mixed with soybean fields (Chetty & Viljoen, 2007, 269). Also in other field in 2002, cross pollination with conventional maize was found (Chetty & Viljoen, 2007, 269). The financial loss to Prodigene’s was more than 3 million dollars, including clean up costs (Chetty & Viljoen, 2007, 269). Similarly, in 2001, a Canadian judge ruled that a farmer must pay royalties to large GM producing company Monsanto for growing a genetically modified seed without its permission (Spurgeon, 2001, 615).The farmer maintained that the seed had blown onto his land from nearby GM crops. (Spurgeon, 2001, 615).

Also well documented are many instances of unintended killing of non invasive species by GM plants. As just one example, in 2000, a report showed that pollen from Bt corn could kill the larvae of monarch butterflies (Varzakas, Arvanitoyannis & Baltas, 2007, 340). This Bt corn was approved by the EPA prior to the discovery that this corn could kill monarch butterfly larvae (Varzakas, Arvanitoyannis & Baltas, 2007, 340). Feared consequences of a release of GMO into the wild also includes the ability of GMO crops to travel to and take over wild populations of the crop (Varzakas, Arvanitoyannis & Baltas 2007, 340)

Other additional areas of concern are the increased use of chemicals in agriculture, the stability of the gene, and loss of biodiversity (Varzakas, Arvanitoyannis & Baltas, 2007, 340). Studies have shown that Bt corn planted heavily in the Midwest above streams, causes corn byproducts to be released into the streams and negatively affecting the aquatic ecosystem (Marshall & Tank, 2007, 16204) . Runoff of Bt corn entering the water are subject to storage, consumption, and transport to downstream water bodies (Marshall & Tank, 2007, 16204) Bt corn runoff can have a negative impact on the aquatic insects, which in turn would affect the aquatic predators and so on. Corn byproducts exhibit the furthest downstream travel during a storm (Marshall & Tank, 2007, 16205)

Moreover, another major concern regarding gene insertions is that they may cause the silencing of genes, changes in the level of gene expression, and the turning on of genes that were not originally expressed (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165). Because of the infancy of this new technology, it is not fully understood what happens to the organism when a new gene is introduced. It is possible to cause disruption of metabolisms in unforeseen ways or development of new toxic compounds or the increase of already present toxic compounds (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165) Such possibilities have been realized in the wild, in the case of the L-tryptophan mentioned earlier, and the case of the g-linoleic acid. It has also been shown that inserting a new gene can lead to an increase in existing levels of anti-nutrients, which are compounds that interfere with absorption of nutrients (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165).

One example is the commercial GM product glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready soybean which may show an increase in anti nutrients (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165). Heat stable anti-nutrients like phytoestrogens, glucinins and phytic acid were shown to cause infertility problems in sheep and cattle (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165). They were also shown to bind to zinc and phosphorus, making them unavailable to the animal (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165).

In recognition of the potentially dangerous consequences presented by GMOs, the US courts have ruled on a few occasions that GM crop field tests and releases were illegal. In three particular cases, the courts ruled against the USDA for failing to carry out necessary environmental impact assessment (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 73). One case took place in Hawaii, in which a judge ruled that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act as well as the National Environmental Species Act in allowing drug producing GM crops to be grown throughout Hawaii, and for failure to conduct investigations on environmental impact before the approval of planting (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 73).

Between 2001 and 2003, four companies- ProdiGene, Monsanto, Hawaii Agricultural Research Center and Garst Seed – were allowed to plant corn and sugarcane genetically modified to produce experimental pharmaceuticals like vaccines and hormones that are still under development and therefore should not have been released (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 73). In 2007, a Federal District judge ruled that the USDA must stop approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 74). In the past, the USDA has approved GM herbicide tolerant creeping bent grass that led to widespread dispersal of pollen from the GM grass, and the USDA’s approval of bent grass were ruled illegal (Ho, Cummins & Saunders, 2007, 74).

The European Union (EU) adopted a much more scrupulous evaluation of GMO crops. There are guidelines for the safety assessment process of GM foods (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,164). The EU mandates that all novel foods, which are foods that do not have a history of consumption in the EU before May 1997 (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165). Because of this mandate, GM foods are assessed for safety, which includes toxological, nutritional and allergenic potential, on a case by case basis before the product may be approved to be marketed (Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009,165).).

This difference in outlooks between the EU and the United States have caused some tension as the United States would like to have GM foods introduced into Europe. In the late nineties the European Commission approved GM food MON810 (Sinha, 2009, 592).. This did not stop individual European countries to ban GM food MON810. Recently Monsanto made a failed attempt to get Germany to suspend a government ban on its GM maize- also known as GM food MON810. (Sinha, 2009, 592).There are many individual European countries that invoke the safeguard clause, which says that if a country has justifiable reasons to believe that GMOs may harm human health or the environment, they can restrict the sale and use of the organism (Sinha, 2009, 592).

The making of GE foods is a fairly new and not completely understood science. As a result, there must be strict regulations in terms of allergen testing, nutritional value testing, and whether or not any toxic chemical is produced in this new GE food. Despite what scientists say, GE food is not the answer to world hunger. GE foods are more likely to infect and destroy traditional crops than they are to end world hunger. Although touted as being exactly the same as their conventional food counterpart, these GM seeds are patented and controlled. There are only a few major companies that produce the world wide supply of GM foods, and these companies have the potential to essentially control the world’s food supply.

From an ethical or health related standpoint, GM foods must be more strictly regulated and tested. There must be more long term animal studies. Scientists must have the freedom to test GM foods like they test other products, without the fear of their grants being cut of their jobs lost. Only with complete openness will GM foods be better understood and perhaps start to win over public opinion.

4 thoughts on “Are GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) safe and what foods contain them?

  1. Lucia Henkle

    It is very interesting to read the history of GMOs foods.
    In my family we eat a lot of corn based foods and from the GMOs food list you provided, I consume a lot of soy, corn as mentioned, squash (both zucchini & yellow), beets and sugar (a lot of products contain sugar). Based on the studies on your article GMOs have negative effects. What is your advice and/or opinion on the consumption of these products? Is it OK to continue eating them?

  2. RobertRobert Post author

    Hey Lucia. I tend to eat a lot of soy but I always make sure that it is organic. If the food is organic it cannot use genetically modified organisms. There are a ton of organic tortilla chips that you can buy in any store. You really cannot find organic squash or beets. I believe that eating large amounts of foods with GMO ingredients every day may have a negative effect on health long term. It is okay to eat GMO foods in small amounts. Unfortunately most processed foods contain GMO ingredients which you will never know since they do not have to be put on the label.

    If you are worried about GMO foods stick to buying organic foods and cut out any vegetables or fruits that are not organic and have a high likelihood of being GM. I do not think this is necessary but if you do not mind spending a lot of money on organic food by all means go for it!

  3. Bernal Herrera

    Here in Latin America we have a great issue because of GMO’s, specially for a company that is called “Monsanto”.

    We are a country who basically the 90% of its people eats corn, and believe me, scared me a lot reading about the “side effects” of GMO in corn.

    This topic I personally will be glad to read more……nice work with your posts !

    1. RobertRobert Post author

      Hey Bernal. I am well aware of Monsanto. They are pretty powerful in the United States and are making their way into Europe. They are present in Guatemala as well? I really do not have anything good to say about them. They lie and their studies cannot be trusted. A lot of European countries chose to burn crops with GM foods rather than eat them even in the face of starvation. That is a bit extreme but their point is well made. The problem with Monsanto is all the influence they have in Western governments. They try to sabotage and repress any studies that talk badly about GM foods. I will most likely write a blog about them in the coming months!


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