GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Other names for the process include Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM), which are one and the same.
How is a GMO Different from Hybridization / Cross-Breeding?
Genetic modification is the process of forcing genes from one species into another entirely unrelated species. Unlike cross breeding or hybridization—both of which involve two related species and have been done without ill effects for centuries—genetic engineering forcefully breaches the naturally-occuring barriers between species.
Example: Corn + DNA from soil bacteria that is naturally immune to RoundUp herbicide + e.coli bacteria + soil bacteria that causes tumors in plants (which enables the plant’s cell wall to be breached) = RoundUp Ready Corn (one of several RoundUp Ready crops engineered by Monsanto).
Other examples of GMOs include strawberries and tomatoes injected with fish genes to protect the fruit from freezing, goats injected with spider genes to produce milk with proteins stronger than kevlar for use in industrial products, salmon that are genetically engineered with a growth hormone that allow them to keep growing larger, dairy cows injected with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH (also known as rBST) to increase milk production, and rice injected with human genes to produce pharmaceuticals.
How are Crops Genetically Modified?
Foreign DNA is inserted into the primary plant species using one of three methods:
- E.coli bacteria is combined with a soil bacteria that causes tumors that allows the foreign bacteria to breach the host plant’s cells.
- Electricity is applied to the host plant to rupture its cell walls, thus allowing the foreign DNA to invade; or
- A “gene gun” blasts the engineered DNA directly into the plant’s cells.
For a more visual explanation, watch this video (the process graphics begin at the 2.20 minute mark).
Because the injected genes can come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans, GMOs are also known as “transgenic” organisms. Because genes operate in a complex network in ways that are still not fully understood (as discovered during the Human Genome Research Project), genetic engineering can result in both known and unknown / unintended consequences.
What is the Intended Outcome of Genetic Modification?
The websites and marketing materials of the companies that are conducting genetic modification would have you believe that GMOs will feed the world’s ever growing, hungry population—with greater crop yields, more drought resistance, increased nutrition, and other worthy-sounding benefits.
However after nearly two decades of development, none of these traits have come to market. View a list of the top ten genetically modified crops and see which genetically engineered traits are most predominant.
Instead, nearly 100% of genetic modification is devoted to the increased use of herbicides and pesticides, which these “ag-bio” corporations also develop and sell. The majority of their research and development has been focused on genetically altering plants to do one of two things:
- To produce their own internal pesticide to kill or deter insects; and
- To remain alive when repeatedly sprayed with weedkillers that are manufactured by these same corporations, including glyphosate (aka RoundUp), glufosinate, and 2-4,D (one of the primary ingredients of Agent Orange).
So what’s the real motive? Profit.
Genetically modified seeds can be patented as intellectual property, which enables GMOs to be owned, sold, controlled, and legally protected by a corporation, giving these corporations ultimate power over food. No surprise these corporations have focused on genetically modifying corn and soy, since these two products are used in almost 90% of processed food for humans, and in 100% of the grain fed to (non-organic) animals raised for meat.
Why is our food being made and modified
by the world’s largest pesticide manufacturer?
What Corporations Manufacture GMOs?
The #1 company developing GMO plants and controlling the largest market share of GMO crops in the world is the same company selling the weedkiller called RoundUp: Monsanto.
GMOs are the latest innovation in Monsanto’s long line-up of questionable products, including Agent Orange, PCBs, DDT, Dioxin, Aspartame, Saccharain, rBGH / rBST, and Terminator Seeds that grow for only one season, forcing farmers to buy their genetically modified seeds each year instead of saving seeds from the prior harvest as they have done for centuries.
No wonder Monsanto re-branded themselves from a “chemical” company to a “bio-agricultural” company back in 1997 (with the new tag line “imagine”)– GMOs, and the weedkillers they are engineered to withstand, are an extraordinarily profitable loop!
Other companies in the “Big Six” include Pioneer Hi-Bred International (a subsidiary of DuPont), Syngenta AG, Dow Agrosciences (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, BASF (which is primarily a chemical company that is rapidly expanding their biotechnology division, and Bayer Cropscience (a subsidiary of Bayer).
Where are GMOs found?
Although the list is changing all the time, GMOs are currently labeled, extremely restricted, or banned in 64 countries, including the entire European Union (United Kingdom, Norway, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland).
Elsewhere in the world, GMOs are similarly restricted or banned in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria, Poland, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, China, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Fiji, Sri Lanka, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
In Canada the debate is still underway: as far back as 1998, scientists employed by Health Canada who were concerned about human health impacts complained that they were being pressured to approve the GMO milk hormone, which is injected into cows to increase milk supply. They testified that the drug maker, Monsanto, offered them a bribe of over $1 million to approve it. They also reported that their research study documents were stolen from a locked file cabinet in a government office.
In response, a Monsanto official went on Canadian national television saying that the scientists had “misunderstood an offer for research money.”
Here in the United States (where several of our largest corporations have a vested financial interest in GMOs), the proliferation of misinformation has resulted in very little progress: Maryland has banned genetically engineered fish; North Dakota and Montana filed bans on genetically engineered wheat; Burlington, Vermont declared a moratorium on genetically engineered food; Boulder, Colorado banned genetically engineered crops; and GM crops have been banned in the California counties of Mendocino, Trinity and Marin, the big island of Hawaii, and the San Juan county of Washington state.
As of 2013, after the FDA denied more than 1 million signatures in a national petition to label GMOs, more than two dozen states began working on state-wide labeling measures, including Maine, Connecticut and Vermont.
But state efforts have not come without a price: Monsanto sued Vermont and Connecticut’s GMO labeling measures into silence for over a year, and with donations from multiple large U.S. food manufacturers who rely on genetically engineered corn and soy, nearly $70 million was spent to confuse voters in California and Washington state into (narrowly) defeating GMO labeling propositions.
Even if some states are successful down the road, there’s no guarantee that their efforts will be upheld: the U.S. Senate recently decided that it does not want to give states the authority to tell people if they are eating genetically modified food—with a vote of 71 against 27.
What Foods Contain GMOs?
As of 2014, the USDA reports the following percent of all crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified:
• Soybeans – 94% (up from 93% in 2013)
• Corn – 93% (up from 90% in 2013) *see note
• Cotton – 96% (up from 90% in 2013)
• Sugar Beets – 90% as of 2013 (2014 data not yet reported)
The following represent percentages from 2012, as no current data can be found on the USDA site:
• Canola – 88%
• Hawaiian papaya – more than 50%
• Zucchini and Yellow Squash – small %
• Quest brand tobacco – 100%
• Alfalfa (recently approved by the FDA; widely fed to animals to produce meat and milk)
• Kentucky Bluegrass (recently approved by the FDA; even more widely fed to animals to produce meat and milk; already an invasive grass in its natural state, it will spread even more uncontrollably with genetically engineered resistance to RoundUp)
• Farmed salmon (as of 2014, the FDA is still considering comments about their conditional approval of salmon containing a growth hormone)
*Because corn has been engineered to produce its own insecticide as it grows, the Environmental Protection Agency now regulates corn as an insecticide.
While this list may look short, the byproducts of these crops result in a far longer shopping list. GMOs are used in thousands of processed foods, ranging from infant formula to bread, tofu, and tomato sauce. Meanwhile GM feed is widely fed to animals that produce milk, eggs and meat, which means GMOs are also getting into products like ice cream, mayonnaise, cheese, and veggie burgers (whey protein!). Even non-food items such as cosmetics, soaps, detergents, shampoo and bubble bath often contain GMO ingredients.
According to a 2005 estimate by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, 75% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.
Why Worry About GMOs?
The most common argument in favor of GMOs is that “humans have been genetically engineering species for hundreds of years,” resulting in larger corn plants, dog breeds that serve unique purposes, seedless grapes, and the like. But this too is another misleading statement. What humans have been “doing for centuries” is called hybridization. Hybridization is NOT genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering involves the combination of two entirely unrelated species in a lab—species that could never cross or coexist in nature and thus require complex techniques to forcefully combine the genes.
The second most common argument in favor of GMOs is the biotech industry’s claims that the FDA has “thoroughly evaluated” GM foods and found them safe. This too is untrue.
For nearly two decades, NO studies have been performed on the human safety of GMO products — in fact the first research is only now emerging, and almost all of it is appearing only in countries outside of the U.S.
To date, no American scientist has investigated the levels of toxic residues in GMO foods.
There have been no studies to determine how much of the herbicides and pesticides that are genetically engineered into the crops remain inside the plant, once it reaches our dinner plate.
There have likewise been no studies to determine how much toxic residue is left over on crops which are heavily saturated with additional pesticides and herbicides during their growth, because they were genetically engineered to withstand it (kills all the weeds around them, while they remain alive).
No long-term testing has been performed to assess the impacts of any of these toxic substances — neither on human health nor on the environment.
What then, has been studied?
To date, any studies done that relate to GMOs have been performed on animals, with consistent, documented effects of GMO toxicity, including immune dysregulation (asthma, allergy, and inflammation); accelerated aging; infertility; dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation; as well as altered structure and function in the liver, kidney, pancreas, spleen and gastrointestinal system, still birth, birth defects, and early death. Details on a few of these animal studies can be found here.
Meanwhile, related studies on Glyphosate (the key ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp; for which the majority of GMO crops have been engineered to withstand) have uncovered a whole host of toxic effects in humans, plants and soil. View one of the man study reports here; watch an easy-to-understand (and very informative) interview video with the scientist by clicking here.
Why is there a lack of thorough evaluation?
Scientists who study genetically engineered crops are scorned if their research doesn’t promote GMOs in a positive light.
The leading scientific journal Science Direct published a study in 2011 showing significant conflict of interest in so-called “research” done on the health risks and nutritional assessment of genetically modified products.
In 2014, a comprehensive peer review of the Ag-Biotech industry’s so called ‘long term safety studies’ found them to be significantly inaccurate or flawed and no proof of safety.
Says Scientific American Magazine, “Agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.”
Key corporations responsible for genetic engineering are doing everything in their power to prevent unbiased research, while distributing mass media “greenwashing” (or providing donor support to public media sources such as NPR) to confuse Americans until they’re too frustrated to care what’s really going on.
Yet despite the lack of human studies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all determined that genetically modified food is “the same as, or substantially equivalent to, substances commonly found in food.”
Which means GMO foods are not required to undergo specific safety tests prior to entering the market. If the makers of the GM foods claim that they are safe, the FDA has no further questions.
(If they truly are “substantially the same,” why are these corporations able to have them protected by intellectual property patents?)
In fact the FDA recently granted Monsanto the ability to conduct their own environmental impact studies. The 2012/2013 Farm Bill currently contains a rider that if passed as is, grants Monsanto complete immunity from FDA control over where and how they plant future GMO test crops.
If no less than 64 other countries in the world have laws in place to label, restrict, or outright ban GMO food and/or grains, why not the U.S.? Norman Braksick, President of Monsanto subsidiary Asgrow Seed, explained it way back in 1994: “If you put a label on genetically engineered food, you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it.” (Source: Kansas City Star, March 7, 1994.)
What is the Current Status of GMOs?
• GMOs are now present in the majority of processed foods consumed in the U.S. (unless they’re organic).
• US cancer rates are the 7th highest in the world, having skyrocketed during the same timeframe GMOs were introduced into our food.
• Natural crops are being infected through cross-pollination; some are developing a form of auto-immune dysfunction that causes plants to die before harvest.
• Fish, wildlife and insects are being born with defects, infertility, or dying prematurely, either from direct exposure or consuming exposed prey.
• Bees, which we rely upon to pollinate our crops, are dying at unprecedented rates… whether due to the increase in herbicides that came about during the rapid adoption of herbicide-resistant GMO crops, or colony collapse disorder, or a relationship between the two… no definitive cause has been determined.
• As pesticides gradually kill soil microorganisms, crops become reliant on fossil fuel fertilizers.
• Millions of acres of soil and the natural aquifers underneath the soil are being saturated with toxins, due to the ever-increasing use of herbicides and pesticides to counteract resistant weeds and insects.
• Coincidentally during the same two decades, our national health costs have tripled, while our overall national health has sunk lower than almost all the civilized countries in the world.
How do the Ag-Bio Corporations Respond to These Problems?
• By continuing to tell the world they are improving crop yield and nutrition to “Feed the World,” even though they continue to focus more than 90% of their efforts on herbicide and pesticide resistance.
• By forcing organic companies to create 100 foot “no-farming” buffer zones around their fields, to prevent the GMO plants, seeds and pollens from invading.
• By suing the farmers when cross-pollination does occur, accusing them of patent infringement and non-payment of licensing, royalty, and seed fees.
• By blocking attempts at scientific research when it doesn’t present GMOs favorably.
• By creating organizations to mislead farmers and consumers.
• By lobbying the federal government to protect GM crops and prevent GM product labeling… to the tune of $1.4 million in just the first 3 months of 2011.
• By focusing their current marketing efforts on third world countries with the promise of feeding their hungry.
• By labeling any public outcry — whether scientist or consumer — as misinformed, progress-phobic, anti-science propaganda.
How Do You Know Who to Believe?
If you’re like us, you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed at this point. The more you read, the more you’re wondering how something like this could have gotten so far without your knowledge.
Please don’t take our word for it. Do your own research. Yes, you’ll find some muddy waters when you do. Wherever possible, we encourage you to do what we did: ask these three key questions (courtesy of the Label GMOs website):
- Who is conducting the research and what is their relationship with the biotech industry?
- Who is funding the research? Who is their parent funder? And theirs? And theirs?
- Who monetarily benefits from the results of the research?
Last but not least, when you read information from the FDA and USDA, take the time to investigate the names behind the statements, and do a quick Wikipedia search on those individuals. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn how many of the people currently employed by the FDA were formerly employed by key corporations responsible for genetic engineering before they were “assigned” to work for the FDA.
Since this technology is comparatively new, and there is still no data on the long term effects of human consumption of GMOs, are you comfortable being part of an experiment?
Sadly, most US consumers have no idea about any of this.
Where Can You Learn More?
To view (or download if you wish) a PDF document containing an in-depth, evidence-based examination of the “Myths and Truths” about GMOs written by a noted geneticist, click here.
To keep abreast of breaking news, information and helpful recommendations about avoiding GMOs, consider “liking” our GMO Awareness Facebook page.
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