Genetically Modified Foods, nothing to fear

corn-1Genetically modified crops (GMOs or genetically modified organisms) have existed for thousands of years, but now that we know how to splice genes in the laboratory, there is concern over food safety. Much of that concern is unwarranted. Nevertheless, there are campaigns to require product labeling when some foodstuffs contain GMOs. (See a story about such a campaign in Tucson here.) The food industry is generally against that requirement for two reasons: 1) it implies that the produce is somehow inferior to non-modified foods, and 2) costs; it could require companies to have separate processing lines for GMO and non-GMO foods.

Humans have been genetically modifying food crops for a long time. Ever hear of teosinte? It is a grass that grows in Mexico and Central America. Many thousands of years ago, farmers began selecting the seeds from certain individual teosinte plants that favored larger seeds or kernels and planted theses larger seeds to encourage the trait. This process is known as selective breeding or artificial selection. Eventually the plant became known as maize (corn). The maize or corn cob looks nothing like the original plant but, according to the University of Utah,  “at the DNA level, the two are surprisingly alike. They have the same number of chromosomes and a remarkably similar arrangement of genes. In fact, teosinte can cross-breed with modern maize varieties to form maize-teosinte hybrids that can go on to reproduce naturally.”

Beginning in the 1950s, Norman Borlaug, so-called father of the Green Revolution, took selective breeding to new heights. His work helped save millions of lives. An article in Forbes Magazine recounts the story:

“First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20% to 40%.

“Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain. The yields were boosted even further.

“Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”– growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.”

As a result, Mexico became an exporter of wheat and India and Pakistan doubled their production.

Borlaug’s work also led to the development of high-yield rice, including vitamin-A-rich “golden rice” in Asia.

Advances in molecular biology allow gene splicing to produce GMOs faster than the older method of selective breeding. Is this unnatural? I suppose that strictly speaking it is, but it just continues a process that we have been using for thousands of years. Modern gene splicing makes it easier to create crops with desirable characteristics and also easier to make sure undesirable traits are prevented or eliminated.

GMOs have been a controversial topic in the European Union. Last year, however, the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor said “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are no riskier than their conventionally farmed equivalents…There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”

Professor Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at UC Riverside wrote a book called “Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods” in which he reviews the fears and facts surrounding GMOs.. McHughen is generally in favor of GMOs. In a recent article he claims: “GMO technologies have been around since the early 1970s and have given us many useful products, from human insulin to safer crops grown with fewer pesticides. Moreover, in over 30 years of experience, according to authoritative sources such as the U.S. National Academies and the American Medical Association, there is not one documented case of harm to humans, animals or the environment from GM products.”

McHughen does note that “Recently, French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini and his team published a peer-reviewed paper that claimed harm to test animals after they were fed GM corn for two years.”

Andrew Revkin of the New York Times writes of that study here. The study claimed to find big impacts on longevity and cancer rates in rats fed Roundup-ready corn. Revkin notes some red-flags in the study: “One issue is that, while the experiments ran for two years, far longer than most rat studies of food safety, the chosen rat breed commonly develops tumors after two years. Combined with small sample size (the different test groups had 20 animals each), this has led even some advocates for GMO. labeling to question the results….Another red flag was that tumor rates didn’t increase in line with the dose of GMOs fed to animals, as scientists would expect to see if the genetically engineered corn were to blame…”

A study reported in , April, 2012, examined 12 long-term projects and 12 multi-generational studies of the effects of diets containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) on animal health. ” Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.”
These are just some examples of the many studies of GMO foods. As far as I can tell, there are no health safety issues associated with GMO foods. Calls for labeling such as the one reported recently in the Arizona Daily Star seem to be based on ignorance and fear rather than evidence.

For more information see an article by molecular biologist Michael Eisen “How Bt Corn And Roundup Ready Soy Work – And Why They Should Not Scare You.” He writes: “Approximately 90% of soybeans, maize, cotton and sugar beets grown in the US are have been genetically modified to produce a protein that kills common insect pests or to make them highly tolerant of an herbicide used to control weeds, or in some cases both. To make a rational judgment about whether these specific GMOs are good or bad, it’s important to understand exactly what they are and how they work.” He also notes that use of GMOs has greatly reduced the need for pesticides. See the rest of his article here.

Copyrighted by Jonathan DuHamel. Reprint is permitted provided that credit of authorship is provided and linked back to the source.

5 Comments

  1. This article refers to traditional selective breeding and cross breeding of grains and grasses that exist naturally, a process that has been happening since farming began. However, the GMOs of today are a very different story.

    For example, the GMO company Monsanto offers seeds that contain biopesticides. That’s right, pesticides are a part of the plant – and you’re eating them! Through natural selection, pests are mutating as they become tolerant to these pesticides. Thus the farmers have to use more pesticides.

    The companies that make GMO seeds, like Monsanto and Dow, have patented these seeds and own them. The plants do not reproduce seeds. The farmer must buy new seeds each year. And since these seeds are patented, you can just image the court battles that the farmer’s DO NOT win if pollen from a neighbor’s GMO plant breeds with their non-GMO plant.

    What happens if the pollinating gets out of hand? What if heirloom plants that produce seeds and have lived for generations get overtaken by the new GMO varieties that don’t reproduce new seeds? Who owns the seeds again?

    These are just a few of the dangers of today’s GMOs. Research for yourself!

    Also, just because something can yield more doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. For example, “modern wheat”, the one crossbred in the 1950’s, doesn’t seem to be doing any good for anybody. Look around you! Did your grandparents and great-grandparents go to the doctor every week for diabetes, cancer, glaucomas, etc., etc. If you want to feed third world countries, then help them with infrastructure instead of dropping bags of nutritionless wheat from a helicopter. Ah, but where’s the profit in that?

    Here’s another thought: organics are for elitists snobs. Well, here’s the other side of the coin: processed, GMO filled foods are the ONLY options available to many, many people in our country. Research GMOs. Decide for yourself. Stop eating wheat for a couple weeks and see how you feel! Although many, many people won’t be able to do that because there is no other option available.

    This article is so misguided and I was actually surprised to read such disinfo on a news source that is usually, refreshingly – news.

    “You are what you eat!”

  2. This article is about food safety. It does not address the issue of cross-pollination which is of great concern to organic farmers. There are methods whereby both GMO farmers and organic farmers can minimize potential cross-pollination as discussed by the University of Minnesota (http://tinyurl.com/npr8uwf ) and by the University of Arizona (http://uanews.org/story/how-genes-jump-crop-crop ). Organic farmers can also use GMO-resistant strains. For instance, a new lineage of organic corn hybrids, known as PuraMaize®, seek to end the battle of GMO corn contamination. Boasting a natural gene blocking system, these organic hybrids are able to prevent fertilization of foreign GMO and colored corn varieties.

    • GMOs have been banned in 27 countries. GMOs require labeling in at least 50 countries. Very recently, in Hungary, 500 hectares of GM corn were ordered to be burned by the government! Hungary has criminalized the planting of genetically modified crops of any kind. And get this, just recently China (yes the dead pigs floating in the rivers on fire, one child policy China) destroyed two shipments of GM corn that originated in the USA.

      A hybrid seed is not an heirloom seed! And the new lineage seed that you’re referring to is trademarked.

      I’ve read so many horror studies about the dangers of GMOs. By the third generation, 70% infertility rates among female rats. Rats growing huge tumors. One can do the research and see for themselves.

  3. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs then the makers and farmers using GMOs should not fear their products being labeled as GMO. Label the GMO products and let the market place decide.

    Walmart required this due to consumer demand and GMO milk (rBGH/rBST) died off as a result. Consumers didn’t want it.

    Walmart is now moving to labeling of all GMO foods. This gives information to the consumer. Labeling advocates for nutrition, ingredients and allergens all claim that the consumer has the right to know and that it helps consumers make better health and food buying choices. Same goes for GMO. Label it. Let the buyer decide what they want.

    The fact that the GMO companies oppose labeling demonstrates they’re trying to hide something.

  4. And not a single one of these “rebuttals” cited a shred of verifiable or trustworthy evidence or sources, rather merely parroted the same fear-mongering catch-phrases, subjective/circumstantial arguments and outright misinformation (rBGH and rBST are hormones/steroid treatments, Mr. WJ, not bovine genetic engineering or “GMO Milk”) found on half the websites parading the “why GMOs are the end of humanity as we know it” argument (naturalnews.com anyone?). Saying “Research for yourself” merely illustrates how lazy your argument is that you were unwilling to provide a credible source for your information, and merely repeated the same narrative of those with whom you agree.
    I am just fine with someone citing an opposing study and providing a logical, well thought out argument illustrating your opposing viewpoint, but if all you’re going to do is tout conspiracy theories with no evidence, hopefully people will be smart enough to see through that and research for themselves.
    Good day Ladies and Gents, no hard feelings, eh?

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