Sunday, June 5, 2011

Waiter, There's a Fish in My Tomato!

Produce is organic if labeled with a number that starts with 9.
The other day I was in the health food store picking up a few things when a woman asked me my opinion on something she was buying for her child. I looked at the ingredients and noticed non-organic corn on the list. "That corn is probably GMO," I said. "I wouldn’t buy it."

Then, to my surprise, she asked me what GMOs were. If someone perusing a health food store doesn’t know what GMOs are, then who does? Unlike Europe, where all foods are labeled by law to show if they contain GMOs, that is not required in the U.S. So most people in this country are eating them without knowing it, and have been for years.

So if you don’t understand what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, here’s a brief primer on what it’s all about.

What are GMOs?

A genetically modified organism (GMO, also called "genetically engineered") is a plant, animal or microorganism (eg, bacteria) that is created by means that overcome natural boundaries. Genetic engineering involves crossing species that could not cross in nature. For example, genes from a fish have been inserted into strawberries and tomatoes. While the Food and Drug Administration insists that foods produced by genetic engineering are the same as foods from traditional breeding, their own scientists reported that, "the processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and... they lead to different risks." (Source: Discovery documents from the lawsuit against the FDA, Alliance for Bio-Integrity et al v. Shalala, May 1998. Center for Food Safety, 666 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 202-547-9359.)

How does genetic engineering differ from traditional grafting or breeding?

In traditional breeding, it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.

With genetic engineering, scientists can breach species barriers set up by nature. For example, they have spliced fish genes into tomatoes. The results are plants (or animals) with traits that would be virtually impossible to obtain with natural processes, such as crossbreeding or grafting.

What combinations have been tried?

It is now possible for plants to be engineered with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. The Institute for Responsible Technology reports that scientists have been busy throwing together some creepy combinations. Here are some of the ones they list on their website:
  • Spider genes were inserted into goat DNA, in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bulletproof vests
  • Cow genes turned pigskins into cowhides
  • Jellyfish genes lit up pigs' noses in the dark (a truly useful application)
  • Arctic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost
  • Potatoes were developed that glowed in the dark when they needed watering
  • Human genes were inserted into corn to produce spermicide (yuck)
Current field trials include:
  • Corn engineered with human genes (Dow)
  • Sugarcane engineered with human genes (Hawaii Agriculture Research Center)
  • Corn engineered with jellyfish genes (Stanford University)
  • Tobacco engineered with lettuce genes (University of Hawaii)
  • Rice engineered with human genes (Applied Phytologics)
  • Corn engineered with hepatitis virus genes (Prodigene)
Just think, some of your descendants could be vegetables! Wait. Will that make us cannibals?

How do scientists interbreed these species?

Nature gave living organisms barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, so genetic engineers have to find ways to "force" the DNA from one organism into another. (Think of it as interspecies rape.) These methods include:
  • Using viruses or bacteria to "infect" animal or plant cells with the new DNA
  • Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells
  • Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle
  • Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes 

Why are companies spending billions on GMOs?

Because they want to own patents on genes that no one else owns so that they can make billions of dollars from them. Isn’t that the American way?

Who is worried about GMOs? 

Well, the Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of 
Science and Technology (PSRAST) is one group. Here’s what they say: “Considering that GE organisms are unsafe to eat and that they expose the environment to unpredictable and irreversible risks, they should be banned. It is not justified to take any risk at all in using them as there is no need for them to feed the world and because they perpetuate unsustainable agriculture that is harmful to health and to the environment.”

Okay, so one group of jittery physicians and scientists are whining. Does anyone else in the scientific community have problems with GMOs? Well, yes.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has called on "Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM (genetically modified) foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks.” 

An AAEM position paper stated, "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. They conclude, "There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation," as defined by recognized scientific criteria. "The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies."  

After reviewing more than 600 scientific journals, world-renowned biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava concluded that GMOs are a major contributor to the sharply deteriorating health of Americans. 

 Biologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute warns that "children are the most likely to be adversely affected by toxins and other dietary problems" related to GMO foods. He says without adequate studies, children become "the experimental animals."  

The AAEM adds, "GM foods have not been properly tested" and "pose a serious health risk." Not a single human clinical trial on GMOs has been published. A 2007 review of published scientific literature on the "potential toxic effects/health risks of GM plants" revealed "that experimental data are very scarce." The author concludes his review by asking, "Where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies?"  

Famed Canadian geneticist David Suzuki says, "The experiments simply haven't been done and we now have become the guinea pigs." He adds, "Anyone that says, 'Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,' I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying." 

AAEM has called for a moratorium on GM foods, long-term independent studies, and labeling. 

What is everyone so upset about?  

Genetically engineered foods often present unintended side effects. GMO plants create toxins, react to weather differently, contain too much or too little nutrients, become diseased or malfunction and die. When foreign genes are inserted, dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown. Here are some of the results, according to PSRAST:
  • Some crops have been engineered to create their own pesticides that can harm animals who ingest them. At least 1,820 sheep were reported dead after grazing on post-harvest Bt cotton crops in India; the symptoms and post-mortem findings strongly suggest they died from severe toxicity
  • Hazardous genes from GMO foods can become inserted into your own genes. Genes (DNA) from the cells of chickens who had eaten only genetically engineered Bt corn contained pieces of DNA from the GMO food. This DNA contained virus genes that are suspected to be carcinogenic or otherwise pathogenic. This means that if you eat GMO foods, virus genes that may be harmful, can end up in your cells
  • An unexpected poison appeared in a GMO food supplement. The poison was not discovered because a careful search for unexpected harmful substances was not made. After eating a food supplement produced by genetically engineered bacteria, 37 persons were killed and 1,500 people were permanently disabled in the U.S. in a disease called eosonophil myalgia syndrome (EMS). It was caused by one or more extremely poisonous substances that unexpectedly appeared in this food supplement. A PSRAST analysis, against the background of the new evidence, concluded that it is extremely unlikely that anything other than genetic engineering caused the appearance of the poison
  • Unexpected dangerous substances may be present in GMO foods. This is because the procedure for assessing the safety of GMO foods is not designed to detect them. Most of soy and corn products in the U.S. and Canada are GMO and labeling is not required there. Organic products for corn are no longer reliably GMO-free because of GMO pollen traveling on the wind
  • Toxins in GMO food crops are reaching the bloodstreams of women and unborn babies. A recent study carried out by independent doctors at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Quebec, Canada, found 93 percent of blood samples taken from pregnant women and 80 percent from umbilical cords tested positive for traces of GMO chemicals. There is speculation these chemicals might lead to allergies, miscarriage, abnormalities or cancer, but no one really knows 
  • Top researchers confirm that the results of genetic engineering are unpredictable. This is why unexpected harmful substances may appear in GMO food. Gene technology is based on the belief that genes are carriers of single traits. So it was believed that you can transfer traits by transferring single genes. But in June 2007 a worldwide consensus was reached among leading scientists that this is definitely wrong. The effects of every gene is determined by the total situation in the cell. When genes are transferred to a foreign environment, their effects are therefore inevitably unpredictable. Unexpected substances may appear, which may be harmful
  • Scientists are being harassed if they tell the truth about GMO hazards. Research on GMO hazards is being suppressed and negative research reports have been destroyed. Scientists who say GMO-foods are safe are often lying out of fear of becoming unemployed and unable to get any new research job. Read about what happened to the people who cared about our health. 
This is just a small sampling of what is out there. To read more, click here. 

How can you avoid GMO foods?

If you live in Europe, just read the food labels. If you live in the U.S., you may want to write to your Senators and Representatives in Congress to demand food labeling here. Some articles I've read say that up to 70 percent of our food contains one or more components of genetically modified organisms.

Organic foods are less likely to contain GMOs.
The fact is that most processed foods use GMO ingredients and most livestock are fed GMO feed. The only way you can reduce your chances of eating GMO food is to eat organic meat and produce. The cheapest source for that is a Community Supported Garden. To find one in your area, click here. To download a non-GMO shopper's guide, click here.

    In a world where millions of people are starving and hundreds of millions more are undernourished, it is disturbing that Monsanto, Dow and DuPont are intent on patenting food for profit.* It is equally as troubling that corporations would experiment with the existing food supply in their pursuit of greed. The only thing more distressing is the fact that our government agencies—charged with the job of protecting us—have allowed them to get away with it.  

    *Learn more from watching  The World According to Monsanto, a film by French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin.
    To find out more, consider visiting these sites: 


    1. Nice experience! Thanks for make a good explanation about GMOs 'cause for real I didn't know what that is.

    2. Sadly, we all need to know or we will have no other types of food in the future. That would not bode well for human health.

    3. Nancy, what a wonderful, comprehensive overview of the GMO situation. A good article for consumers. The demand for accountability is on the rise and hopefully the tides will return to responsible agriculture in the near future.