Editor’s Note: As you know, we try to keep this blog on the positive side, because let’s face it, there’s so much negativity out there regarding our predominant food system right now that we could easily get sucked into it if we’re not careful. But GMOs are becoming such an increasingly real threat to the future of organic farming and beyond that we’ve decided to take a brief stroll to the dark side, since there really is no greater weapon against this alarming trend than knowledge. We hope the following two posts will do just that. (And then we will return to our regularly scheduled dose of inspiration!)
by Cricket Rakita
CFSA Saving Our Seed Project Coordinator
GMO crops today are very common. It seems like every few months, some government regulator approves a new type of GMO product for use in the food stream. But what are GMOs really, and why should we really be concerned about them?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” To genetically modify an organism, a technician will, through artificial means, insert a gene from one species into a complete other species. When one imagines this for the first time, one imagines a clean process whereby a scientist cuts a chromosome, inserts a gene, and then lets the plant grow naturally. This is actually very far from the truth.
The first stage in genetically modifying an organism is to pick your gene to insert. For example, the most common GMO gene, the roundup ready gene, was found at a Monsanto plant. They noticed that in their roundup sludge behind the plant, there was a bacteria strain growing where they thought nothing could grow. It turned out that this bacteria had a gene that allowed it to live in the toxic mess. They isolated this gene and have since inserted it into corn, canola, alfalfa, soybeans, beets, and a few other crops. To do this insert, they took segments of genes that they believed contained the GMO gene (there are a few extras that came with it as genes are very small and hard to separate), attached them to tiny slivers of gold, and shot them at healthy cells in a petri dish. Also attached to the gold were an antibiotic “marker” gene and a cauliflower mosaic virus (CMV). The healthy cells are then sprayed with an antibiotic to test weather or not they actually picked up the genes through the random bombardment. Everything that lives is grown to a mature state and sprayed with roundup. Then, these are used to produce a seed crop.
You may be wondering, why the CMV? Genes are very tricky; they are not always expressing themselves. Think of your eye color; every cell in your body has the gene that expresses your eye color, but it only expresses itself in your iris. I can look at your fingernails all day and I will have no clue what your eye color is, even though the gene is there. CMV is what is known as a promoter. When it latches onto a gene, it makes that gene express itself everywhere, all the time.
This is especially important in the bT gene. bT is a common bacteria born disease that causes insects in their larval state to fail to digest properly, leading to death. It has been used by organic farmers for many years. It has been applied in a way that does not persist in the environment; a few days after it is sprayed, it will be gone. However, when the bT gene is inserted into a plant with the CMV, it is in every cell of that plant, root to seed, expressing itself all the time, at least as long as it is fresh, and possibly well beyond that. Dr. Arpad Pusztai did a study on rats and bT potatoes and determined that the bT potatoes caused low organ weights, unexplained death, and what appeared to be pre-cancerous states. Funding for his studies was then pulled.
In fact, GMOs are generally not independently tested for safety in the food supply. This is because of the work of then vice president Dan Quayle. He chaired a committee which determined that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to the crops they were modified from, and therefore no extensive independent safety testing should be required. To this day, all required tests pertaining to the safety of GMO crops are conducted by the entity seeking approval to produce the crop. There is no standard test, and if they conduct a test and do not like the results, they are under no obligation to share them; they can just run a less rigorous test and share those results.
In the past, there has been a legal assumption that if a person owns an organism, they are responsible for what that organism does. For example, let’s say I buy a cow. If my cow breaks down my fence and tramples into your yard, destroying your garden, it is my fault and I can be held liable. This is not the case with GMOs. In fact, if I purchase GMO seeds and plant them, I do not own them; the company holding the patent to the gene does, and I just have the right to plant them one time. If the pollen carries from those plants to your yard and pollinates your plants, the company that owns the patent to the gene then owns your plants as well, and if you save the seeds from them, you are liable. Moreover, it does not matter if those genes got onto your farm by seeds flying off a truck, wind born pollen, etc; if they contaminate your crop, you no longer own it, and if you get caught trying to sell it, you can lose your farm in legal fees.
GMOs often seem to come with unintended consequences. I believe this is a function of the imprecise method by which they are produced. For example, Dr. Joy Bergelson of the University of Chicago found that pollen from GMO canola is 20 times more virulent than the normal canola pollen. Also, GMO L. Tryptophan (a dietary supplement) and Starling Corn were both found to produce proteins that cause life threatening reactions in people. Again, due to “substantial equivalence,” it is difficult to find good data on whether the GMOs on the market today are safe, but it was noticed in Great Britain that with the introduction of GMO soybeans, soybean allergies increased by 50%. RBGH milk causes cows to become sickly, requiring large quantities of antibiotics to be pumped into the animals. When RBGH milk was introduced, the allowable residual levels of antibiotics in milk was increased by 100 fold.
There are a lot of GMO products currently on the market, including milk, corn, soybeans, canola, plum, cotton (including cottonseed oil), beet, and others. Alfalfa may be on the market in the next year. For a full list of currently available GMOs and pending applications, see http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/not_reg.html. Also, note that a GMO salmon (that grows much bigger than the natural salmon) and apple (that will not turn brown when cut) are currently under development. If you buy conventional processed products that contain these ingredients, you are probably buying GMO foods. If you buy conventional animal products, they were almost definitely raised on GMO grains, though interestingly enough, anytime you give animals a choice between GMO crops and non-GMO crops, they will choose the non-GMO. For this reason, GMO crops have less mammalian pest problems in the field (deer, etc).
GMO pollen has also been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder in bees; see http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,473166,00.html.
There has also been a long and protracted legal fight over GMO beets. These are not the type of red beets that you eat on the side of your black eyed peas (though they will cross pollinate with them); these are bred for sugar production. You may notice a lot of products advertising “Natural Sugar” instead of corn syrup. These are made from GMO beets.
Currently, we are in the process of determining if GMO salmon should be introduced into the wild. These salmon grow over twice the rate of natural salmon. But if you’re worried about these salmon getting into the wild population, never fear—there’s a plan for that, too! It just so happens that the female GMO salmon are sterile, so to prevent cross breeding, the plan is that males will be discarded at birth at the hatchery and only the females will be let out. Unfortunately, as anybody that has spent the day sorting tiny things into 2 bins can tell you, every now and again, a male will get into the female stream. I predict the effect on the wild salmon population will be devastating. To oppose this introduction, see the Center for Food Safety’s website, http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/ There are also action steps you can take there to oppose the introduction of GMO Alfalfa and an appeal of the Beet approval.
In my opinion, GMOs have the potential to be the most insidious type of pollution ever know to mankind, as every other type of pollution that has ever been developed will eventually dissipate. GMOs, on the other hand, will naturally increase themselves, like the classic Von Nuemann machines of science fiction. I urge you to frequently check with the Center for Food Safety to see what action you can take to oppose the spread of these franken-foods on our planet.