Monday, March 7, 2011

GMOs - what they are and why they're bad

Over the last two weeks, I have been reading the book "Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating," by Jeffrey M. Smith. I just finished it this past weekend and felt compelled to blog about it.

I'd been wanting to read the book for awhile and checked it out from our WAPF local chapter library. I'm very glad I read it. I've been apprehensive about genetically modified (GM) foods for quite a few years now, but I never really understood the depth of the political corruption and cover-up behind them. Wow. I really think anyone even remotely curious about GM foods should read this book. And I wish that our political leaders would, as well. Michelle Obama is such a health advocate, emphasizing our need to know what is in our food... I wish she would read this... and maybe bend her husband's ear about some things!

The book basically covers the many significant health dangers of consuming GM foods. It highlights that GM foods are not a religious issue (as some have argued in the past), rather a food safety issue. However, the U.S. media generally does not pick up on the safety issue. The book discusses the reasons behind this. It was very disturbing to read the factual accounts of Monsanto and other large biotech corporations, in cooperation with government agencies, strong-arming their way through the media, scientific institutions, and politicians.

Not only do I want to recommend that everyone read this book (or at least check out the websites I have listed at the bottom of this post), but I wanted to also provide some information on GMOs. I know much of my own family and many of my friends are unaware of what a GMO even is, let alone the risks associated with them. So here is my attempt at providing a little education on the subject.

What is a GMO and where do I find them?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are made by blasting certain genes from one species (bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans) into the DNA of a food crop or animal to introduce a new trait. Genetic engineering (GE) creates unpredictable changes in foods. The composition of a GM food may be quite different from its natural counterpart.

The major GM crops in the U.S. are cotton, soy, canola, corn, and sugar beets. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, approximately 91% of the soy, 88% of the cotton, 88% of the canola, 85% of the corn, 90% of the sugar beets, and 50% of the Hawaiian papaya in the U.S. markets are genetically modified. Others include a small amount of zucchini and summer squash, and some tobacco. There are others, as well, but these seem to be the biggest offenders. The two main traits that have been blasted into these GM foods are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. These traits do not increase nutrition of the foods, whatsoever.

Nearly all processed foods contain one or more of the typical GM ingredients, in one derivative or another - soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, textured vegetable protein, corn meal, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, citric acid, lactic acid, corn oil, soy/soybean oil, etc.

Common items that probably contain GMOs include: infant formula, salad dressing, bread, cereal, hamburgers, hot dogs, margarine, mayonnaise, crackers, cookies, chocolate, candy, fried foods, chips, veggie burgers, meat substitutes, ice cream, frozen yogurt, tofu, soy sauce, tamari, soy cheese, tomato sauce, protein powder, baking powder, alcohol, vanilla, powdered sugar, peanut butter, enriched flour, pasta, cosmetics, soaps, detergents, shampoos, bubble baths.

So what's the big deal?

"GM foods have been linked to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. The effects on humans of consuming these new combinations of proteins produced in GMOs are unknown and have not been studied.

Crops such as Bt cotton produce pesticides inside the plant. This kills or deters insects, saving the farmer from having to spray pesticides. The plants themselves are toxic, and not just to insects. Farmers in India, who let their sheep graze on Bt cotton plants after the harvest, saw thousands of sheep die!

Genetic engineers continually encounter unintended side effects – GM plants create toxins, react to weather differently, contain too much or too little nutrients, become diseased or malfunction and die. When foreign genes are inserted, dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown." (Source: Institute for Responsible Technology)

Something else I found disturbing - Antibiotic Resistant Markers (ARMs) are attached to the foreign gene(s) during the GM process. If this makes it into the DNA, the ARM renders the cell invincible to a normally deadly dose of antibiotics. Many scientists have expressed concerns that these ARMs may transfer into our human digestive systems. The effects of this are not entirely known. Of course, the biotech companies insist that the ARMs are not transferred to the human gut. But we know we cannot trust much of what the biotech companies tell us. This raises the question (at least to me) as to whether this process may be one of the reasons we are seeing so much antibiotic resistance in humans these last few years.

Government is protecting the public, though, right?

From what I read in "Seeds of Deception," the answer is a big fat NO. This is very disheartening to me, especially considering that I work for my state government. My organization is (thankfully) filled with upstanding individuals that are really in it for the right reasons - to look out for the best interests of the public and make our state a better place. But this isn't so for all governmental agencies.

The foundation of the U.S. FDA policy on GMOs is a non-scientific, non-binding guideline. They do not perform any of their own independent tests on GMOs, rather they solely depend upon the large biotech companies to perform the tests. If the biotech companies say it's safe, the FDA agrees.

Information was obtained through FOIA to reveal that some "agency scientists did warn that GM foods might create toxins, allergies, nutritional problems, and new diseases that might be difficult to identify. Internal FDA memos reveal that the scientists urged their superiors to require long-term safety testing to catch these hard-to-detect side effects. Nothing was done that would protect consumers. In fact, in the case of genetically modified bovine growth hormone, some FDA scientists who expressed concerns were harassed, stripped of responsibilities, or fired. The remaining whistle blowers had to write an anonymous letter to Congress complaining of fraud and conflict of interest at the agency." (Source: Institute for Responsible Technology)

One might ask how government can get away with something like this, or maybe more importantly why they would even want to. You need to do a little digging and follow the money trail and you will find your answers. Everything revolves around money and profit these days, doesn't it? It makes me sick! Many government officials (mostly in the politically appointed or elected seats) have held previous positions with Monsanto, or other large biotech companies. Others accept financial contributions and then later go on to work at one of the big biotech companies after their duties have been fulfilled "serving the public."

Agribusiness seems to target both sides of the aisle, though they do tend to find more friends on the Republican side. From the information I reviewed at the Center for Responsive Politics, large agribusiness firms lobby the Republicans with almost double the dollars that go to the Democrats, although the spread was closing in recent years. 

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Monsanto spent just over $8 million lobbying in Washington in 2010. Their highest year was 2008 at nearly $9 million. The overall lobbying total (for all companies) for agricultural services for 2010 was $33.3 million. Monsanto was the #1 lobbying client at nearly a quarter of the total and trumping the American Farm Bureau (#2) by over $2.5 million.

Like I said, just follow the money trail...

So how do we know GMOs are dangerous, if government is not requiring the studies?

Various independent feeding studies (by concerned or interested scientists) in animals have resulted in potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies and higher death rates.

"Thousands of sheep, buffalo, and goats in India died after grazing on Bt cotton plants. Mice eating GM corn for the long term had fewer, and smaller, babies. More than half the babies of mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks, and were smaller. Testicle cells of mice and rats on a GM soy change significantly. By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. Rodents fed GM corn and soy showed immune system responses and signs of toxicity. Cooked GM soy contains as much as 7-times the amount of a known soy allergen. Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% in the UK, soon after GM soy was introduced. The stomach lining of rats fed GM potatoes showed excessive cell growth, a condition that may lead to cancer. Studies showed organ lesions, altered liver and pancreas cells, changed enzyme levels, etc.

Unlike safety evaluations for drugs, there are no human clinical trials of GM foods. The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function. This means that long after we stop eating GM foods, we may still have their GM proteins produced continuously inside us." (Source: Institute for Responsible Technology)

OK, so how do I avoid GMOs?

Buy 100% organic. The easiest way to do avoid GMOs is to always buy certified 100% organic products, which, by law, cannot contain GMOs. You can also look for the Non-GMO Project seal on the packaging.

Avoid processed foods. Nearly all processed foods contain one or more of the typical GM ingredients, in one derivative or another.

Be wary of vegetable oil and margarine. Most vegetable oils and margarines on the shelves in grocery stores and used in restaurants and in processed foods are made from soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed. Unless the label on the bottle of oil specifically says "Non-GMO" or "Organic," chances are it is genetically modified. Some good alternatives that do not typically include GMOs are: olive oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, almond oil, coconut oil, and pure butter.

Be wary of your vitamins. Vitamin C is often made from corn. Vitamin E is often made from soy. Vitamins A, B2, B6, and B12 may also be derived from GMOs.

Where can I get more information?

Check out:
Non-GMO Shopping Guide 
Institute for Responsible Technology
Non-GMO Project
Center for Food Safety

This post is part of Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist, Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, and Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.


Jaime and Jeff said...

ugh...yikes. scary. thanks for your research! this is how i get the majority of my food knowledge :)

The Voogts said...

Great info, Sara. It's almost scary enough that you don't really want to know it. Ignorance is bliss :P It's so hard to avoid GMOs all of the time. And so sad that it is so hard. How is it ok for people to engineer our food and make it bad for us?? Sometimes technology is not a good thing.

Sara said...

I agree, it is pretty scary. I can't tell you how many times I literally felt sick to my stomach as I was reading that book... just out of disgust for the shenanigans surrounding GM food!

Keep a look out for a follow-up post that I'm working on with more info on GMOs (hopefully to post in the next week or so, depending on how much time I have to research this weekend). I am really just feeling compelled to help spread the word and share info on how we can take action to make a difference! :)