Are they bad for you?
GMO products seem to be making the news more and more. Did you know that they’ve been around for years? So, is the media attention just hype or is it really a concern? What exactly are they? Why does it matter? Should you be worried about consuming products that are GMO?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a living organism, such as a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism, whose genetic makeup has been artificially modified. The concept isn’t new. Many people don’t realize that farmers and agricultural scientists have been doing this to the foods we eat for centuries. The earliest forms were breeding programs and the end result is large, uncontrolled exchanges of genetic material. As technology has advanced, in addition to the traditional crossbreeding, agricultural scientists have used radiation and chemicals to induce gene mutations in edible crops to try to produce desired characteristics. While these are all forms of genetic modification, what most people think of when they hear the term GMO is scientists in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology to create combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. While this image maybe true, this new type of genetic engineering introduces only one or a few new genes with a known function into a crop. Occasionally, the new genes come from an unrelated species. For instance, a gene meant to encourage better frost tolerance into spinach, could come from a fish that lives in icy waters. This type of adjustment is more precise and targeted than traditional GMO practices. Some positive results from this include papayas that are free of viruses, corn plants that can survive drought conditions, soybeans that are able to stand up to weed killer, potatoes that don’t bruise, and crops that yield more products and cost less. In addition, there isn’t any evidence that exposing foods to chemicals or radiation is a safer way to genetical engineer it.
You probably don’t even realize that you are eating GMOs every day, but you are. The majority of corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets grown in the United States is genetically engineered and is often used as ingredients in processed foods. So much so that at least 80% of processed foods have them. For example, most of the sugar in our diet comes from beets and the majority of them have been modified so they grow bigger, better sugar beets that are stronger and last longer. The end result isn’t something different just because it was modified, it’s still sugar (sucrose). The most widely planted GMO crops are corn and soybeans. They are used in a variety of products, some that you might expect and others you might not, like seasoning mixes or soft drinks. Gene modification scientists and the food industry are increasing their focus on developing foods that offer an ample variety of health benefits. The first genetically engineered animal was approved by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015. It’s a new form of salmon that is able to grow to maturity twice as fast as wild salmon. Some GMO products are specially made to be packed with extra vitamins, minerals and other health benefits. One of these, Golden Rice, is genetically engineered to have more vitamin A than spinach which could prevent irreversible blindness and more than a million deaths a year. Both of these advancements are important for several reasons. People in developing countries have to deal with famine and malnutrition. By altering the nutrition content and rate at which food grows, they will get more of the nutrients they need to survive. Also, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that food production will need to double in some parts of the world by 2050 due to increases in population size. With limited land, water and other resources, GMOs are one way to make sure that there is enough nutritious food available. It’s vital to note that as much as 90% of GMOs that are grown are actually used as animal feed. This is key for several reasons because this goes to show how much of GMO food is produced since the 10% that isn’t being used as animal feed is what we are directly ingesting and how there doesn’t seem to be any major health consequences associated with them. Numerous studies show there is no difference in the composition of meat, milk, eggs or other food that comes from animals who’ve been fed GMO feed versus those that have been fed non-GMO feed. Billions of edible animals are raised every year on GMO feed with no evidence of harm. In fact, according to a review in 2014 from the Journal of Animal Science, animal health and growth efficiency improved on the genetically engineered feed.
One of the FDA’s jobs is to make sure all food safe to eat. In order to do this with GMO foods, they review information provided by the developer and look at how it compares to the original. They are checking to see if it’s different nutritionally in the way that the developer says it is and if the new genes introduced anything that could be harmful. Many people are especially concerned about genetically modified animal products because viruses that typically affect animals may be used to make the modifications and they fear that the viruses could infect humans or other animals that eat meat produced this way. This is why the FDA takes a slightly different approach with these types of products by issuing guidance to help developers meet high standards based off of the Codex Alimentarius (a set of science-based standards, guidelines, and practices put forth by the World Health Organization, or WHO, and FAO) and US food safety regulations. In order to make sure that the animal is different in the way the developer says it is and safe to eat, the Center for Veterinary Medicine is responsible for verifying all of the information and doing any necessary testing before the animal meat is sold to the public. Before any GMO food is allowed in stores, the FDA has to be convinced that it’s safe for human consumption.
Due to these regulations, 90% of scientists believe GMOs are safe. Several organizations, like the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization, also agree that they are safe. According to a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, genetically engineered crops create no additional risks to humans and the environment when compared to conventional crops These results are from a review of nearly 900 publications on the effects of genetically modified crops. It’s key to realize that Americans have been eating foods containing GMOs for more than 15 years and so far, there’s no credible evidence that people have been harmed. Also, according to the report, genetic engineering has helped agricultural producers, including small farmers, prosper. However, the report did include some bad news. With more than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide engineered for herbicide tolerance, there is concern that genetically modified crops have contributed to worrisome levels of pesticide resistance in weeds and insects. These pests are able to improve in their ability to resist pesticides every time the chemicals are sprayed, resulting in a fifteenfold increase in the use of toxic herbicides when compared to when GMOs were first introduced. In March 2015, the WHO found that the herbicide called glyphosate, which a key ingredient for many of these products, is probably carcinogenic to humans. Unfortunately, the “superweeds” and “super-insects” can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons such as 2,4-D, which is a major ingredient in Agent Orange. The main issue is that significant increases in the use of these types of herbicides could potentially affect the health of consumers because residue from the chemicals can end up in the crops. In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a group of 70 scientists, doctors, and other health professionals pointed out that human studies have reported associations between exposure to these herbicides and heightened risks of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, birth defects and other reproductive problems. The problem is that by engineering plants resistance to insect damage, farmers are increasing the yields of their crops, while lowering the cost of food and increasing its availability. Due to this change, some areas have seen the amount of useable corn, cotton and soybeans rise by 20 – 30%. The problem is how much of these pesticides and herbicides are ending up in the food supply.
Only about a third of consumers feel that GMO products are safe. They feel that just because there’s no clear link that GMOs cause harm in humans doesn’t mean they’re safe. Also, consumers can’t wait for epidemiological studies to show whether or not GMOs are harmful because there’s no way to identify who has and hasn’t eaten GM foods due to most of them not being labeled, which makes isolating their effects impossible. They fear that there will be unwanted changes in nutritional content, an increase in food allergies and have toxic effects on bodily organs. Due to these safety concerns, several things have happened. The demand for non-GMO foods has skyrocketed. This demand for non-GMO products has driven a growing number of companies to avoid using GMOs in new products or to willingly reformulate existing ones. Also, an estimated 92% of Americans feel that GMO foods should be labeled before they’re sold according to a survey from Consumer Reports. This is the result of not knowing the extent of the health impact of GMOs and they feel that shoppers have a right to know what’s in their food. Some companies are expressing strong opposition to the idea of mandatory labeling, but are experimenting with and turning out new non-GMO products, in case labeling does become mandatory and heightens demand further for non-GMO products. In 2013, sales of non-GMO products that were certified organic or had the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal printed on them increased by 80%, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal was launched in 2010 and appears on more than 22,000 products that represent $8.5 billion in annual sales at retailers across the country. Many products prominently place the “No GMOs” label, but it’s much harder to see the small print on many other foods stating that it was “partially produced with genetic engineering.”
GMO labeling is definitely a hot-button issue. Much of the opposition comes from GMO seed manufacturers, like Monsanto, and the food industry. Monsanto is a multinational corporation that is immense enough to make sure government regulations fall in their favor. The food industry fears that if consumers know that a product contains GMOs, they’ll think that the product is unsafe and won’t buy it. In order to replace GMOS, food producers would have to use more expensive organic ingredients causing food prices to escalate. However, in other countries where GMO labeling is required, including areas where American food companies sell their products, there hasn’t been an increase in food prices as a result of mandatory labeling. The Consumers Union states that, in the US, mandatory labeling informing consumers about whether their food contains GMOs would add less than a penny a day to their grocery bills.
As for the FDA, it favors voluntary labeling because they don’t feel that it’s necessary since they don’t view GMO foods as any different than regular ones. Despite their stance on GMO food products, the agency also takes public comments about the guidance the agency provides and is reviewing some citizen petitions. According to the FDA’s guidelines, food that is created by changing genes with radiation or chemicals don’t fall under GMO regulations, so they don’t have to be labeled. Any foods that are marked “certified organic” or “USDA organic” are labeled on the honor system, which means they aren’t checked by the government. It’s ok for these claims to appear on foods developed from genes originally altered by chemicals or radiation. It’s important to note that food products don’t have to contain all-organic ingredients to qualify as non-GMO. Also, the latest methods of genetic engineering aren’t covered by older rules, so you won’t see labels on those foods either. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the inconsistency doesn’t make sense because what should matter is the fact that genes have been artificially changed, not how they were changed.
After all of the years of confusion, in 2016, Congress passed a bill that will require food companies to disclose GMOs in their products by 2022. The catch is that they can do this without using a GMO label on the packaging. In fact, companies would have several disclosure options. One way they can accomplish this is by placing a QR code on the packaging that shoppers would have to scan it with their smartphones. For smaller food companies, they can put a website URL or a phone number that customers can call for more information. The new law leaves many details of the labeling system to be figured out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One such conundrum is whether refined products like soy oil or sugar from beets will need to be labeled because even though they are made from GMO crops, the final product doesn’t contain any genetically modified material.
GMOs in agriculture are just a small part of a much larger picture. The concept of GMO is not new and its applications are around us everywhere saving lives every day. One of the best examples, is in the area of life-enhancing and life-saving medicines. When insulin first came to market, it came entirely from the pancreases of slaughtered pigs, cows or sheep. Due to this, it sometimes caused allergic reactions. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists, using GMO methods, made a new form of insulin that was the result of bacteria being given the human insulin gene. At first, it raised concerns similar to those about GMO foods. However, in 1982, the FDA approved it, making human insulin the first GMO medical product. Now, about five million Americans use it daily and it’s unimaginable how diabetes would be treated without it. Several forms of cancer are commonly treated with a new GMO technology called Avastin bevacizumab. It’s a drug that contains a humanized monoclonal antibody (an antibody made from human and mouse genetic material) that stops blood vessel growth in patients’ tumors. People with anemia are often treated with epoetin alfa, which is a hormone produced through genetic modification that stimulates red blood cell production. The treatment of Ebola is currently in the forefront GMO research. ZMapp, a drug showing great promise in the treatment of this alarming virus, is a blend of three GMO monoclonal antibodies that are produced in GMO tobacco plants. Vaccines that we’ve had for years are derived from GMO techniques and have been preventing numerous other diseases, such as hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and polio. GMO vaccines to fight cholera, malaria, and many other diseases for which non-GMO methods have proved ineffective are under development.
GMO advancements aren’t limited to medications. In order to make cheese, milk needs to curdle and this is caused by an enzyme called chymosin, which is found in coagulants called rennet. Rennet used to come from the stomachs of young calves that were slaughtered for veal. In 1990, as the cheese demand exceeded the supply of young calves, cheese makers started to shift to GMO-derived chymosins. It’s produced under sterile lab conditions through the genetic modification of bacteria, fungi or yeast, so these chymosins are free of the allergens, bacteria and other pathogens often associated with animal extracts. Today, GMO chymosins are used to make 80% to 90% of the cheese in the United States. Also, essential vitamins that we need to survive, such a Riboflavin (B-2), Vitamin B-12, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, are all made through the fermentation of GMO microbes. Besides medication and food, GMO products have an impact on the household products you use daily. In the 1960s, laundry and dishwasher detergents started having featured enzymes that help digest and remove different types of stains. This has been increasing steadily ever since even though few people recognize that many of the enzymes used in these detergents today have been genetically modified.
GMOs are present in many of the products we use or consume on a daily basis. They are important, prevalent and often unrecognized part of our lives. One thing for sure is that all the publicity generated by the debate regarding their safety is definitely increasing awareness among consumers. While certain GMO practices, such as the development of crops that are herbicide and pesticide resistant, should be reviewed and changed accordingly, for the most part, GMOs are a tool that have the potential to solve many different problems and improve our lives in many unique ways. In order to get the most benefit from GMOs, we need to open our minds from being so narrowly focused on one aspect of the debate to be able to see the incredible value that they provide.