Ascertaining the bad guys: GMO foods

Genetically modified organism. I’m uncertain how you might feel; but for me, hearing that phrase has a pretty negative effect on my palate. Still, we’re all surrounded by these…*ahem*…organisms, even ingesting them daily as part of foods from junky to supposedly healthy. Anyway, I’m here to pass along a few GMO facts which will hopefully turn you in the other direction of these nasties, opting instead to check ingredients labels. (You have to specifically read that a product is organic or non gmo; genetically modified foods are not required to be marked).

Bureaucracy in action!

Yeah, that's Kafka and Weber; HOW CLEVER. But yeah, GMOs have been banned from their native lands.

The government is in charge of regulations concerning genetically modified food, with the agencies of the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA taking on the task. In the UDSA’s case, they’re assigned field trials of GM foods; primarily making sure such foods don’t swap genes with conventional crops or weeds. Problem is, they’ve had over 100 infractions of their rules in the past few years, resulting in contaminations. Also, some sites that fall under USDA oversight have not ever even been visited by one USDA inspector. It gets better! The USDA is also in charge of giving the green light for potential genetically engineered crops to be commercially cultivated (grown). While the USDA requires more data to be sent for a crop to be deregulated than is done so for a field trial, once a crop is deregulated that is the end of the story. They lose the lawful ability to subject it to further review. If the FDA chooses to balk on reviewing said crop, it will enter the marketplace with no checks on its effects on its consumers, whatsoever. Remember, the USDA only cares if the plant can’t mix genes with other plants, doesn’t seem to be 100% with that, and can “okay” the crop for production despite a lack of clinical trials on its consumption’s effects. The USDA is not wholly to blame for some of their mishaps, as regulations stipulate that some companies who produce GMOs can claim what are essentially intellectual property rights in “confidential business information” clauses, and thus have USDA employees barred from reviewing certain information. Perhaps they have something to hide? Perhaps not, the plant is safe, and they just want to protect their patent? We’ll never know. Onward to:

The EPA

These guys have the role of regulating plant pesticides, amongst them genetically-engineered pesticides like Bt (Bt for “Bacillus thuringiensis,” a bacterium deadly to insects found primarily in top gmo food listers like corn), which is contained within the food itself. [more on that fun, later]. Companies developing genetically-modified pesticide plants must report to the EPA, but the guidelines for reporting are just that: guidelines. There is to be data for short-term oral toxicity and digestibility tests, but there is no specific instruction or guidance and how to go about it. In fact, studies have been cited which lasted but 9 days for honeybees (non-target insects) exposed to Bt corn, against the recommendation of scientists hired by the EPA for their opinion who noted that the whole life-cycle should be taken into account. It is also apparent that the EPA is not immune to corporate lobbying power, as they have taken up agro- and pharmaceutical giants like Monsanto and Bayer on petitions for allowance to raise herbicide levels on crops; in at least one case (with rice), allowing extra herbicide to be sprayed on an already genetically-engineered-for-insect-removal crop.

The FDA

Well, these are the people who are supposedly in charge of making sure these genetically engineered crops’ changes don’t harm the health of the consumer. I say “supposedly” since the process for the review of health effects is completely voluntary. That’s right; if, as mentioned above, the USDA deregulates a crop for cultivation, the company that developed whatever gene changes doesn’t even have to consult with the FDA. Add to that the fact that the FDA has left it to the biotech industry (corporations like Monsanto) to decide if transgenic/genetically engineered crops are safe, based almost entirely on the promise that the GMO crops look like and grow like their conventional counterparts. All transgenic changes have been characterized under the blanket term GRAS (generally recognized as safe), so you can bet your bottom dollar that your bottom dollar is going to a useless agency! When these conclusions were being drawn by the FDA in the 1990s, many of its own scientists spoke out about the lax potential standards, mostly in protest to the random introduction of genes to a plant and the lack of technology to do better. However, these protests were unheeded by FDA administrators and the White House, for whatever reason, giving us the inefficient, bureaucratic, and highly oversimplified process we have for GE additive regulation in the FDA today. The FDA has not ever approved even one transgenic crop, relying on the GRAS label and issuing approval to companies that submit scientific studies done from within the companies’ own test environments, whether the submissions are missing key factors under the umbrella of “proprietary business secrets” or not. Since this is all voluntary and allowing of intellectual property protection, the FDA simply cannot carry out its intended duty. In the area of drugs and food additives not “generally recognized as safe,” they have full authority to obtain exhaustive studies; so why not for transgenic crops? Search me, I’m asking you!

Forget the red tape, are these crops even unsafe anyway?

Well, most data I’ve found on the crops in question tout their scientific achievement in using science and technology to eliminate pests without the use of poisons, grow crops bigger, fuller, and where crops haven’t been previously been able to have been grown, et cetera. Unfortunately, much of this data and its resulting opinion are from the biotech companies themselves. In fact, the myriad of scientific studies on transgenic crops are by companies like Monsanto and ADM. If you’re like me, you can see through that and look for peer-reviewed independent studies, which I did; guess what? I found opposite results! It was actually pretty hard to weed through all the company-sponsored junk to find scientific studies that would stand on their merits, but I did.

One assessed problem in the ingestion of GM-created transgenes is that they can survive normal digestive processes, and mix and mingle with the flora and fauna in your gut; that means possible gene transfer with the “good” bacteria of your small intestine. This has been shown in mice to go so far as penetrating the white blood cells of healthy mice and placentas of pregnant mice, affecting fetus and transferring said genes. GM-fed mice have also had adversely-affected liver cells after an extended diet of GM food. Liver cell damage was not limited to the odd shape of liver cells, but also included evidence of a high metabolic rate (This could seem like good news to those of you trying to lose weight, but I’d think one would rather keep his/her liver cells intact. Just me!)

Mice fed GM junk have also suffered from dilated smooth endoplasmic reticulums, which are parts of cells that help in metabolism and in particular, detoxification. Dilated and degenerated SERs are usually attributed to problems like acute alcoholism, and can result in one being more prone to sickness and aging. This wasn’t the only negative that befell these po’ rats, but I mention it specifically because it was found to be one of the ills that became irreversible 8 months after a GM diet was started.

Where humans are concerned, these GM traces are a bit different. For the most part, studies have found that the normal human digestive system can digest and therefore filter out transgenes; but in ileostomics (people who have had to have their small intestine surgically altered to have an opening on the skin; mostly due to diseases like Crohn’s which limit the large intestine’s processing abilities) it has been shown that these transgenes do indeed survive passage through the small intestine, so the possibilities for geneflow to the microflora inhabiting your gut are present. One potential major danger here is that a transgene coded to kill off a certain organism or bioelement could end up also encoding resistance to antibiotics found in our medicine.

The fall of Rome, pesticides, and anti-pesticide genetically coded pesticides, by Aesop.

It has also been found that the very prominent and aforementioned insect-repellant transgene, Bacillus thuringiensis (commonly referred to as Bt) [which is, of course, registered by Monsanto] has found some resistance from insects in a non-experimental environment i.e. in the actual outdoor fields, which raises a couple of concerns. Firstly, that the genes are no longer working as well to combat pest problems which will result in possible further pesticide spraying to cover for the lost efficacy and/or further genetic engineering to raise said efficacy. One idea used to fight the potential for pests to acclimate themselves to the transgenic crops has been by using what is called a “refuge.” The refuge is a small area within the environs of the transgenic crop lot which has conventional crops. The idea here being that if some insects feed on the small (FDA recommended at about 15-20% of total) areas of conventional crops and they mate with insects feeding on the transgenic crops, there will always be offspring that experience some debilitating defects from the transgenic crop. The usefulness of this method has been called into question, and the result is basically that it doesn’t work; maybe due to sheer ratio of transgenic crop-fueled pests to the relatively small number of potential conventionally-fed ones. If you ask me, though, it seems that the refuge idea is a waste of farm space as the refuge plants could be utilized for human food and are instead not really tended to with pesticides or otherwise. A better idea would be to use organic farming methods and introduce natural predators to the pest of whatever particular area or season offered.

Some plants that have genetically been modified to be herbicide tolerant have negatively affected bee, butterfly, and even bird populations (they feed on the butterflies, after all), while also devastating weed populations that were simply meant to be kept under control, forcing any manner of animal that might feed on said weeds to have a starving proposition. Bt corn byproducts (pollen, et cetera) have been seen to have a similar effect when they migrate to nearby water supplies, reducing growth and mortality rates of non-target insects, which are fed on by fish and other aquatic life. Sorry fishies, unmitigated genetic engineering über your meal plans! One should probably be alarmed at this related fact, as well: In 2011, 65% of all U.S. corn crops were genetically-modified Bt corn. Anyway, the studies about such food chain destruction go on and on, and show negative effects on everything from birds to bacteria. This type of destruction can affect even you, as it has been found that attempts to genetically engineer certain crops to fortify them with otherwise non-present proteins has resulted in potential allergens being injected into the plants. Hope you vegans don’t have a nut allergy, or some of that genetically-modified fake soy meat might give you hives! (Or death, whatever) Funny thing is, even hotbeds of terrible dietary choices like McDonald’s and Burger King refuse to use Bt corn and potato products, so that should speak volumes.

Conclusions, and what we can do.

Well, I have to say that my two overwhelming conclusions are these:

1- We are not yet ready to implement genetic modification within plants. Great theory, since it’s already been started, but I’ll expatiate anyway. I’ll say, from my opinion, that I feel that genetically modified foods do have the potential to help humanity and the greater ecosystems of the world. One of the studies I read, for example, talked about the accidental finding of a potential vaccine in a mucosal adjuvant (helper) toxin expressed in Bt crops. This said, these studies and discoveries should be made and officially written in stone well before any such genetically-modified foodstuff goes on the market or is even planted anywhere remotely near farms or crops which are fed on; whether those feeding on them are human life or any other life. Every attempt should be made, and it has most certainly not, to ensure these GM crops are safe and/or beneficial before any sort of roll-out occurs. An arbitrary “nutritional equivalence” branding, which is what we have in place now, is not scientifically-tested and is thus unacceptable.

2- Big agriculture businesses need to be severely limited in their intellectual copyright claims. No business should have the authority to keep out agencies, whether they be government or third party, which endeavor to ascertain the safety of any genetically-modified crop based solely on a claim of business secrets. Though this is obvious and the thought of it happening is laughable, we consumers can stage a boycott against these practices by simply not buying gmo foods; instead picking up foods that are marked as organic or GMO-free. You go-getters out there can even start your own garden with non genetically modified seeds! Just don’t blindly trust government agencies and products’ claims of “all natural,” as there’s no requirement for “all natural” items to be organic or non-GMO.

As for solutions which don’t implement genetic modification in the short term (assuming we left genetic modification up for study and use in the future, ha), there are options. An example is a practice called marker-assisted selection, which uses modern genetic knowledge (read: KNOWLEDGE i.e. things we know, not things we kind of take a stab at by inserting genes semi-randomly with mixed and mired results). This, while certainly not easy, has shown brilliant results in the fields of more pest/drought-resistant, more nutritious, more fertile and even more *tasty* strains of new plants based in old-fashioned breeding but with 21st century scientific know-how. The bureaucratic, corporation-driven way of things just ain’t doing it, for us or the hungry droves in Africa, et cetera. A refusal to buy GMO along with support of organic farming and proven technologies via purchasing locally, keeping informed, and perhaps even bitchin’ to your congressman or senator (Dennis Kucinich seems to be pretty-well morally guided on this topic, so maybe just watch his website) about any questionable food bill in the favor of big agribusiness or GMO-as-usual is the way to go.

Happy mutant-free eating!