GMO’s or Non-GMO’s, What is the difference? Why does it matter? What are GMO’s?
To be or not to be, that is the question. What does it mean when something is Genetically Modified?
I will try to dispel some of the Myth’s and offer a few facts about this recently relevant topic.
“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and refers to plants, animals or other organisms whose genetic material has been changed in ways that do not occur naturally. The “non-GMO” claim means that the food is made without ingredients that were derived from genetically engineered organisms.
Here are 6 Reasons to Avoid GMO’s:
1. Human Health Concerns
Many scientists, doctors and health advocates raise concerns about the unintended impact of GMOs on human health. Yes, because there is no independent research (and in fact, seed companies’ agreements forbid the use of seeds for independent research), nobody can say with any degree of certainty that GMOs are safe. And so it is not surprising that there are unresolved questions concerning the potential alteration in human genome, allergenicity of introduced genes and high toxin production in plants and animals that may lead to long-term health effects.
What’s more is that certain GMOs may also have the potential to further lower the effectiveness of antibiotics in the population. Amflora, the GM potato, for example, that was recently approved in the European Union for industrial uses, has a gene for antibiotic resistance. Superbugs anyone?
While biotech supporters often argue that GM crops have been around since at least 1996 and that people have been consuming GM foods or foods with GM ingredients for a long time without alleged side-effects, the argument is misleading. There are no specific tests designed to analyze the long term safety of GM foods, no independent research, and no post-marketing follow-up analysis.
Furthermore, from a policy standpoint, since the safety assessment of GMOs at the Food and Drug Administration (”FDA”) has been based on the idea of “substantial equivalence” such that “if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as safe as the conventional food,” FDA gives its stamp of approval. Interestingly this substantial equivalence determination is made by the biotech company and not FDA. Obviously this policy is fraught with problems and is a creature of politics and not science. Moreover, such policies create the undeniable impression that government agencies charged with regulating GMOs and ensuring public safety are pandering to industry interests. (Read here, here and here to find out how government regulatory agencies suffer from the revolving-door syndrome as industry insiders go back and forth between leading industry jobs and government regulatory posts.)
If this makes you think that the fox is running the chicken coop, you would be correct. Just take a look at this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the issue.
It is inappropriate, at best, for biotech companies to prevent independent testing of its products, as they hide behind the wall of intellectual property protection, and then go on to argue that their products are safe. As Scientific American noted, “when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.”
It is the same merry-go-round with GM animals, whose approval is within the jurisdiction of the FDA. The FDA relies on company data to evaluate the safety of the GM animal. Even so, since the FDA does not have an approval process designed specifically for GM animals, it evaluates the GE animal under the process used for new veterinary drugs. As demonstrated by recent submission for approval of GE salmon, what that means is that much of the data provided to the FDA to demonstrate the safety of the GM animal is considered a trade secret.
That’s not safety. That’s secrecy enshrouded in enigma, and tied tightly with a pink bow of pro-gmo policies.
2. Animal Health Concerns
Often less discussed is the impact of GMOs on animal health. While we should be altruistically concerned about the well being of our fellow creatures, the fact is that if they are impacted by GMOs, we are not far behind.
Animals, especially insects who feed off GM crops, are our canaries in a coal mine. Take bees and the colony collapse disorder. Many scientists believe that while several causes may have contributed to the massive bee die-offs of the last four years, at least one contributing factor is the increased use of pesticides.
If there is anything we learned since GM crops went commercial is that pesticides and GMOs go hand-in-hand.
In fact, recent research indicates that since GMOs were introduced, farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides than compared to the amount of pesticide likely to have been applied in the absence of GM seeds. Now, you’ve heard it before: if bees become extinct then humankind has about four years left.
Oh, and by the way, increased use of pesticides and herbicides leads to superweeds, the weeds that are resistant to those same pesticides we are told are “safer” (ahem, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup line of pesticides). Such superweeds include the common ragweed, common water hemp, giant ragweed, hairy fleabane, horseweed, Italian Ryegrass, Johnson grass, palmer amaranth and rigid ryegrass.
This resistance to glyphosate, which is now ravaging the nation’s South and Midwest, leads to the use of more toxic pesticides such as paraquat and 2,4-D, one component of the Vietnam War defoliant, Agent Orange. (See our discussion on GMOs leading to the use of more toxic pesticides here.)
In addition to impacting bees, GMOs may also be negatively impacting other insects — insects that serve as food for larger animals or serve other beneficial purposes in the ecosystem. For example, some researchers point out that the monarch butterflies are at risk and that more long term studies are needed. There is also research demonstrating that glyphosate adversely impacts the composition of soil thereby causing adverse impact in nematoes (earthworms) and other beneficial soil bacteria. Finally, plants engineered to express toxic substances could present risks to other organisms, thus disrupting the natural food chain.
3. Environmental Concerns
In addition to the threats that GMOs may have on human and animal health, there are also numerous pressing environmental concerns. The list of potential problems highlighted by the Union of Concerned Scientists is long and portentous. First, the engineered crops themselves could become weeds. For example, some compared the recently approved for trial planting of GE eucalyptus trees with kudzu, a plant imported for purposes of preventing soil erosion but which became a pest throughout the southern U.S. states.
Second, the crops might serve as conduits through which new genes move to wild plants, which could then become weeds.
Third, crops engineered to produce viruses could facilitate the creation of new, more virulent or more widely spread viruses.
Fourth, plants engineered to express potentially toxic substances could present risks to other organisms like birds or deer thereby potentially disrupting the ecosystem and, as such, have a negative impact on the natural food chain.
Fifth, crops may initiate a perturbation that may have effects that ripple through an ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict. Finally, the crops might threaten centers of crop diversity.
Similar alarm bells are ringing for GE animals. As examples, take this report from Greenpeace concerning GE fish and a recent Jill Richardson article discussing the “science” behind testing of GE salmon.
In addition, the World Health Organization also noted that concerns about GMOs impact on the environment include the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested as well as the stability of the gene.
While GMO supporters argue that there have been no major environmental catastrophes, the absence of something that we are not looking for is not evidence of non-existence. As authors of the Union of Concerned Scientists report point out, “[o]ther than for insect resistance, there is no systematic monitoring underway in the United States to detect adverse effects of genetically modified crops. So much may be going on that we are simply not aware of.”
4. Moral and Ethical Concerns
In addition to the practical and earthly concerns over the health and ecological impacts of GMOs, there are also considerations of the higher sorts. Since genetic modification, by its very essence, requires manipulation of the genetic make-up of an organism, the very core of its existence, some religious scholars question whether scientifically altered crops and animals are unnatural or threaten the natural order, whether genetic manipulation is tantamount to playing God, whether it is a violation of the laws of nature or tampering with nature. (See GMO Journal’s series of articles regarding religious perspectives on GMOs.)
In a some cases, GM manipulation involves using animal genes from different species and, for example, if these were pig genes, consuming derived foods may be prohibited by some religions. Vegetarians and vegans would also want to avoid consuming foods containing genetic material from animals.
Genetic modification of animals also raises animal welfare concerns because such mutation may result in animal suffering.
Even if you are told that GMOs are permitted under your religious or philosophical point of view, you should still engage in some soul searching to determine if you believe that all is right with the world if GMOs are what you eat.
5. Socioeconomic Concerns
Socioeconomic concerns stem in part from intellectual property protection and the profit interest that flows from it. Fundamentally, however, it is not simply the profit-driven perspectives of the biotech industry that have so many civil society advocates concerned. Knowledge that once belonged to everyone, a communal understanding of seeds, crops, farming practices, and an appreciation for biodiversity is now being gobbled up, privatized, patented, and sold to those same farmers in licensed chunks.
As many farmers have painfully discovered, using GM seeds comes with legal strings (and penalties) attached. Biotech companies require farmers to enter into license agreements in which farmers waive rights, including the right to save seeds. These contracts also, among other things, “encourage” farmers to use company specific pesticides. And thanks to the advocacy of the United States State Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, biotech companies are exporting and imposing their idea of agricultural practices to many impoverished parts of the world with great success.
No wonder many farmer advocates are concerned that such imposition of GM seeds is tantamount to corporate colonialism.
And while biotech companies want us to believe that GMOs will save the world from hunger (it sure makes for a great PR message), in reality, complex problems such as hunger and malnutrition will not be solved with GMOs. Hunger has many contributing factors, as Jim Goodman wrote in a recent article, such as natural disaster, discrimination, war, poor infrastructure and ineffective or corrupt governments. Similarly, food shortages often have little to do with lack of food and more to do with, as Francis Moore Lappe’ put it, a lack of justice.
And, by the way, the best hope for ending hunger lies with local, traditional, farmer-controlled agricultural production, not high tech industrial agriculture.
So let’s dispense with the faux humanitarianism and call spade a spade.
6. Labeling Concerns
Just recently, an article appearing on The Daily Green reported on a survey about American attitudes on GMOs. According to the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53% of Americans would not eat GM foods if given the choice, while 87% believe GM foods should be labeled as such regardless.
Furthermore, broad public opposition to GMOs in the United States and abroad goes back many years. Another survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted in 2002, reported that 55% of Americans considered GMOs bad. According to that survey, the opposition to GMOs was far less wide-spread in the U.S. than in Europe and Asia. Nearly nine-in-ten in France (89%) said it is bad to scientifically alter fruits and vegetables. More than seven-in-ten in Germany (81%), Japan (76%) and Italy (74%) also took a negative view of scientifically altered produce.
At the same time, the research fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still citing a 1999 study that boldly proclaims that American “consumers are quite positive regarding continued acceptance of biotechnology.” The statistic would be different if those same consumers had a better understanding about what was involved in the process of genetic modification, what types of tests were conducted on GE animals and crops to assess their safety, as well as the duration of those tests, and the type of non-health related consequences that they may be facing. (We’d also like to see what types of questions were asked during that study and how the questions were worded.)
Mass media is also not free from blame for the lack of public debate about labeling. Genetic modification is an obscure topic that is hard to explain in a 30 second sound news byte. It is much easier to talk about the alleged benefits of biotechnology in those 30 seconds — feeding the world, sustainability, saving fish populations, making hardier, drought resistant plants, lowering the costs of foods — than to discuss the lack of progress on those lofty goals and the adverse impacts of GMOs. It is also too convenient that the biotechs purchase plenty of ad space and air time in many news media outlets.
Consumers not only want to know, they also deserve to know if their food contains GMOs or GM ingredients.
Note that the Food and Drug Administration does allow voluntary labeling and some “No GMOs. No Bioengineered Ingredients.” labels have started to appear on packaging.
Next time you shop, consider if you can avoid GMOs and use this Non-GMO Shopping Guide (or the iPhone version) to help you navigate the store isles. And remember, if you are what you eat, then aren’t you a GMO?