Genetically Modified Food: Why the fuss?

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My sister had visitors from California. She said her friends wouldn’t eat corn because they were aware almost all corn is genetically engineered and they didn’t want to ingest GMOs — genetically modified organisms. Discussion revealed that nobody could put their finger on what they feared exactly. They weren’t sure about the difference between genetically engineered corn and what she called the “good old Luther Burbank” variety.

Another thing wasn’t clear: “What really is the scary part of GMOs?”

Some of the scariest part for me is the part we don’t know. But you have to picture just a little bit of the science to think about it.

The Luther Burbank tradition, a process thousands of years old, selects “parent” plants with desirable traits — say, disease resistance or high yield — and hopes the offspring will reflect them. It is gradual refinement over generations. It’s politer and does not mess with DNA.

Genetic engineering is sort of a rape of a plant’s DNA. A single gene from one organism is forcibly inserted into the DNA of another. This is an event that doesn’t happen in nature. The transfer can even be trans-species, between animal and plant — something else that never happens naturally.

The most common point of such gene transfer is to enable food crops to resist weed killer, or produce their own pesticide, or do both.

That new gene, called a “transgene,” is forced into the receiving plant’s DNA in one of two ways:

• A bacterium can serve as the messenger, “infecting” the plant in a way that marks which gene scientists need to remove and replace with the special-performance gene.

• A gene gun may “shoot” the new gene into the plant’s DNA.

The process is like genetic roulette. How the transgene expresses itself within a cell’s DNA can be wildly different every time one is inserted. GMO supporters and opponents agree it is highly disruptive to the DNA.

Unlike old-fashioned plant breeding, gene implantation creates dramatic genetic changes that can’t be predicted or controlled. Some mutations might even be good, and all the more reason for testing, says molecular biologist Nina Federoff, author of “Mendel in My Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food.”

Agribusiness holds that no one’s been made sick by GMOs. But 64 countries, about 40 percent of the world’s population, now ban, limit or at least label them.

Genetic engineering came on the scene in the late 1990s.

The UN and World Health Association stated in 2011 that biotech-engineered foods are “different enough from regular breeding that they should go through a safety assessment before being allowed on the market.”

In the United States, whether a GMO food product is judged safe has since 1992 rested on the term “substantial equivalence.” The USDA determines if a GMO plant is sufficiently similar to its non-GMO counterpart, based on an opinion voluntarily supplied by the biotech company seeking approval. If it is, the GMO crop is considered “without risk” and doesn’t have to undergo human safety testing.

Independent studies globally have focused on risk aspects, some of them well known.

They include: detrimental effects on organs and reproductive ability of animals fed GMO food. Animals refusing to eat GMO feed. GMO transgenes not being excreted but remaining in the blood and digestive tracts of living creatures. Toxins built into plant DNA remaining in the soil, harming beneficial bacteria and soil health. Plants engineered to resist herbicides facing new “superweeds,” demanding more and different herbicides. Increased water pollution. “Drift” of GMO seeds, contaminating non-GMO crops. GMO crops failing to fulfill productivity predicted.

Two forces undermine people’s efforts to educate themselves about GMOs. On one hand, the federal government does not require testing (or labeling). On the other, independent testing faces many obstacles. Researchers must have the company’s blessing for their work, which is not readily given. They are threatened with lawsuits if they reveal information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Farmers are forbidden by contract to sell GMO seeds to scientists. Scientists need the seeds for objective research and seldom get them from the patent-holders.

“The Scientific American” reports industry bias. The 168-year-old science magazine says scientists who support GMOs in food production are often “overly dismissive of critics.” The journal noted several studies that were first approved by seed companies, then blocked when they returned “unflattering results.” The journal called for such restrictions to be lifted immediately.

“Food Policy,” global publisher of science papers including Britain’s venerable “The Lancet,” analyzed how researchers’ connections to the biotech industry affected outcomes of studies on GMO foods. Its analysis found a significant correlation between an author’s industry affiliation and results that “cast the GMO products in a favorable light.”

Meanwhile, seed-company and food-industry lobbyists, maintaining that labeling will raise prices and confuse consumers, have won big-stakes campaigns against state’s voter efforts to mandate labeling.

As much as 70- to 80 percent of the processed food in the United States is said to contain GMO ingredients.

Ninety percent of Americans want labeling. As many as 30 states are expected to propose legislation this year to give it to them. But grocery manufacturers have joined farm and food industry groups to mount an end-run around state lawmakers. They’re pressuring the FDA to approve a voluntary label they can use that would override any state legislation.

With wary consumers more vocal, food retailers feel the pressure. Trader Joe’s for some time has claimed its house brands to be GMO-free. Whole Foods vows to identify GMO products by 2018. Cheerios made a recent gesture of making its original recipe non-GMO. Leading food chains, including Giant Eagle, say they won’t sell the proposed transgene salmon, should it be approved. For its part, Monsanto will submit no more proposals for genetically modified crops in Europe.

Opponents hope that more transparency will cause a substantial market rejection of GMOs. That happened with the milk hormone, rGBH, which is now less commonly injected into dairy cows to increase milk production.

For Legume’s Trevett Hooper, a vision of how things might go relates to the misuse of antibiotics by factory farms, another project he’s working on. “Antibiotics in our food supply was a fringe issue that is now becoming more mainstream, and I imagine a similar thing will happen with GMOs.

“It’s a fringe issue now, but I think it’s important to push it into the mainstream.”


Virginia Phillips: phillips.virginia.r@gmail.com.

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