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The real issues surrounding GMOs

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are a political hot topic. With a GMO labeling initiative on Washington’s voter ballot in November, we will hear a lot about it.

Over fifty countries, including the European Union, either ban GMOs outright, or require labeling of foods containing them. Arpad Pusztai is a reputable UK expert in feeding studies. When he publicly shared preliminary results of his safety tests for GM potatoes, the EU decided to require labeling. In response, large corporations producing processed foods in the EU chose to use only non-GM ingredients. However, those same companies still put GMOs in their products in North America. We should have GMO-free food too!
Because corporate interests are so politically powerful, the citizens of the U.S. are fighting first for labeling requirements. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature considered labeling bills, and private citizens swarmed Olympia for House and Senate hearings. Last year Californians voted on a labeling initiative. In 2013, it’s up to Washington’s voters.
The real issue in the GMO debate
Understanding the precautionary principle and the scientific method is important when considering implementation of anything that has a potential for risk. Let’s ask Wikipedia for definitions.
“The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an act.”
Basically this means ‘do no harm’. We are considering the wisdom of spreading GMOs around the world, and of consuming them as food. Do any aspects of doing so have the potential to cause harm? The burden of proof falls upon the individuals and the corporations who promote the spread the GMOs. The corporations need to prove that GMOs are safe, that they cause no harm.
The scientific method is how we prove things. The scientific method is “a method or procedure consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
Scientists develop a hypothesis, a theory that they wish to prove. They perform experiments that clearly test the hypothesis. If even one experiment has results inconsistent with the hypothesis, then the hypothesis is false.
The theory being tested is that GMOs are 1) safe to produce and to consume, and therefore that doing so causes no harm; and 2) that they are effective in solving several related problems: world hunger, crop yields, pesticide and herbicide use, and protecting the environment.
 What is it not being studied?
When it comes to food for consumption by people, the ultimate criterion of safety is this. It needs to be proven safe for human consumption. That is why the FDA exists, why we have food safety and labeling standards.
The following is the FDA Statement of policy on GMOs, since 1992. “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” As far as the FDA is concerned, GMOs are substantially equivalent to non-GMOs. This means the FDA considers GMO and non-GMO corn to be the same. That there is no difference between the plants. And that foods consumed by animals or humans impact health in the same way.
Because of this assumption of substantial equivalence, the FDA does not require safety testing of GMOs. Industry voluntarily submits their own studies, but they are understandably biased. We can’t trust them to honestly report results. To our detriment, the FDA trusts industry and does not perform independent testing.
In actuality, it is documented that FDA scientists were aware of the risks, before this 1992 policy was approved. They warned that GMOs could result in allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They said that extensive feeding safety studies should be conducted prior to approval of each individual GMO.
Human feeding studies are not being done! There should be thousands of human feeding studies in the published literature.
To my knowledge, there is only one published human feeding study [that was in the February 2004 issue of Nature Biotechnology] . In this small study, the genetically modified DNA section from GM soy was found inside the DNA of the gut bacteria of human volunteers—before the volunteers consumed the soy foods being studied. The gut bacteria had incorporated the DNA segment at some earlier time when those volunteers consumed GM soy! These DNA insertions continued to function in the gut bacteria, making GM soy proteins. Though this does not prove actual harm resulting from human consumption of GMOs, it does provide evidence that GMO soy is different from non-GMO soy, and that it affects our bodies differently.
Industry argues that they have done safety studies. They perform animal studies. Animals are not humans. Their bodies respond differently, and they are not able to give verbal feedback of suffering. Even if every animal feeding study showed the absence of risk for animals, that is insufficient to prove safety for humans.
Release of GMOs into our food supply began in the 1990’s. Since then, you, the members of the public, have been the lab rats for the ongoing GMO feeding experiment!
Children and reproduction
The people most likely to be negatively affected by the consumption of GMOs are children. Their rapidly growing brains and bodies are much more susceptible to harmful substances. Several animal studies (see Genetic Roulette) have shown altered structure and function of reproductive organs. A senior scientist from the Russian National Academy of Sciences fed female rats GM soy two weeks before they conceived, continuing through pregnancy and lactation. More than 50% of their offspring died within three weeks, compared with 10% offspring death for mothers who ate non-GM soy. The offspring of GM fed mothers were also smaller and more aggressive than normal. When the scientist tried to mate the offspring of the GM fed group, they did not conceive.
French feeding study
Recently there has been tremendous publicity about a [toxin] study conducted by a team of scientists led by molecular biologist and endocrinologist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, co-director of the Risk Quality and Sustainable Environment Unit at the University of Caen. This was the first ever study to examine the long-term (lifetime) effects of eating GMOs. Rats fed  [Monsanto’s Roundup Ready] corn developed horrendous tumors. Read the paper here:
Of this study, Dr Michael Antoniou, molecular biologist at Kings College, London, and a member of the Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering scientific council, says: “This is the most thorough research ever published into the health effects of GM food crops and the herbicide Roundup on rats. It shows an extraordinary number of tumours developing earlier and more aggressively —particularly in female animals. I am shocked by the extreme negative health impacts.”
Genetic Engineering Technology
Biotechnology companies claim that genetic engineering technology is precise and safe. But actual studies show substantial risks and problems.
Genetic engineering changes the DNA, the plant’s genetic blueprint. Nature fine tuned the DNA for each organism over the course of eons. How can we mess with the blueprints and still have viable organisms? Genetic engineering is imprecise, resulting in massive collateral damage to the plant’s DNA. One genetic modification may produce thousands of mutations. Doesn’t it make sense that there will be unintended consequences? These consequences impact the viability of the plants, and the nutritional qualities conveyed to animals or humans that consume them. Toxic substances may be produced, impacting the consumer. Any of these consequences could damage health.
Genetic Roulette, by Jeffrey Smith, of the Institute for Responsible Technology is an excellent, well documented book. He references scientific studies that demonstrate a wide variety of risks inherent in the process of genetic engineering. I highly recommend this book for anyone wishing to understand the science.
As mentioned above, the FDA was aware of risks before the FDA official policy on GMOs was approved. They said there was potential for allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems.
Genetic Roulette cites numerous feeding studies that showed negative impacts on animals.
Hunger, crop yields & herbicides
The sales pitch for genetic engineering hypes high GMO crop yields as the solution to world hunger. But the promised yields don’t materialize in real life. Yields may (or may not) be good when a farmer starts planting GMOs, but over time the yields fall.
What could make a GMO crop fail? Genetic engineering produces massive collateral damage to the plant’s DNA blueprint. Resulting in plants that may struggle to thrive.
Long term herbicide use contributes to plant failure. Plants need minerals to be healthy. RoundUp, Monsanto’s popular weed killer is the most commonly used herbicide on GM crops. It is extraordinarily effective at chelating minerals, making them unavailable to the plants. RoundUp makes the soil unhealthy, so it can’t adequately support plant life.
Dr Don Huber is a soil scientist with decades of research focusing on the long term impacts of RoundUp on soil, plants, and animals. He explains it in easily understood language. An internet search for his name provides links to numerous interviews.
With continued usage of herbicides over time, weeds become resistant to them. The amount of herbicide applied increases, and farmers turn to even more toxic herbicides.
Bt corn and cotton
Corn and cotton are genetically engineered to make Bt toxin. By itself Bt toxin is commonly used to kill insects. The toxin is produced by every cell of the plant, so biotech companies claim that pesticide application is not required. In the beginning, yields may be high and pesticide usage low. But over time, plant-produced Bt loses effectiveness and increased pesticide application is required.
The film Unnatural Selection shows a host of Indian farmers whose livelihoods have been devastated by the cultivation of Bt cotton. They complain about the high cost of Bt seed, low yields and crop failures, and ineffectiveness of the plant’s pesticide. You see farmers with cotton plants looking quite unhealthy and showing very few cotton bolls. A farmer picks a boll of cotton and shows it to us, through the camera. There is a boll worm crawling on the cotton!
This contributes to farmer suicides in India. Farmers are in debt (partly due to high costs associated with GM cotton cultivation), and with smaller yields than they had with non-GM cotton. Non-GM seed is no longer available for purchase. Frequently they commit suicide by drinking the pesticide!
Indian farmers customarily allow their livestock (sheep, goats, buffalo) to eat non-GM cotton plants after the cotton is harvested. When they allow their animals to eat Bt plants, the animals die.
Contamination of organic crops
Well publicized is the case of Percy Schmeiser and other organic canola farmers from Saskatchewan. Their crops were contaminated by GMO plants blowing onto their land from neighboring fields. These farmers have lost their livelihoods, and in some cases, had Monsanto sue them for unlicensed usage of GM seed. Courts determined that Percy Schmeiser was guilty of violating Monsanto’s patent. But he was not charged damages, because he did not financially benefit from use of Monsanto’s seed.
Now that GM Alfalfa is approved, I assume that a similar contamination methodology will be possible for alfalfa. All it takes is a couple of seeds being dropped (like from a truck), blown (the most common contamination mechanism for canola), or floated (on water) from one field to another.
Genetically modified corn has been found in Mexico, though I believe that no GM corn has been intentionally planted there. All it takes is one dropped kernel that grows. Corn contamination also occurs another way. Pollen from GM corn can fertilize non-GM corn plants, producing GM kernels. An ear of corn can have mostly non-GM kernels and one or more GM kernels.
Corporate money
Corporations provided millions of dollars to influence public opinion and defeat Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative on California’s 2012 election ballot. Funding came both from biotechnology companies directly, and from manufacturers of processed foods who wish to avoid announcing the presence of GMOs in their products. These enormous multi-national corporations have absorbed smaller companie. Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms are subsidiaries of General Mills. Coca-Cola owns Honest Tea and Odwalla. Kellogg’s owns Kashi, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger. Smucker’s owns R.W. Knudsen, and Santa Cruz Organics. Dean Foods owns Horizon, Silk and White Wave. Each of these huge corporations contributed to defeating Proposition 37. If you choose to boycott them, Organic Consumers Association publishes a list.
Fear of increased food cost
This was a big argument used to defeat California’s 2012 labeling initiative. Biotech and food processing representatives argued that requiring labeling would increase the cost of food for consumers. Many Californians initially supported labeling, but voted no in the election. Industry spent millions—daily—on television advertising in California leading up to election day.
Changing packaging and labels would not increase costs. The frequent changing of labels is a marketing strategy. Examples are the heart healthy, low fat, and sugar free claims plastered on our food products. If the industry-claimed consumer benefits of GMOs were proving to be actual benefits, then packages would proudly proclaim the presence of GMOs.
What would increase costs? Requiring ongoing testing of finished products. Knowing this, my assumption is that the writers of Washington’s current initiative did not include such testing in the initiative. (The 2012 Washington legislative bills did not require testing, and I imagine the California initiative did not, but I do not know.) Increased food costs resulting from labeling requirements would be insignificant.
Non-GMO project
Some small companies voluntarily label their products as GMO free. Read labels and support them. There is an independent organization, the Non-GMO Project, to which companies submit products for labeling. Because they believe in the cause, companies voluntarily pay to join the project and conduct testing. Plus Non-GMO Project certification increases their sales.
Precautionary Principle and Scientific Method
Remember, the theory being tested is that GMOs are 1) safe to produce and to consume, and therefore that doing so causes no harm; and 2) that they are effective in solving several related problems: world hunger, crop yields, pesticide and herbicide use, and protecting the environment.
There is much more than one piece of evidence showing the harm resulting from GMO production and consumption. Even without human feeding studies, that is clear. If the government continues to approve of the cultivation of GMOs, then scientifically conducted human feeding studies should be performed. We are not laboratory animals.
The public
Since GMOs are currently allowed in our foods, people deserve to be informed of their presence. The voice of the public should be taken into account. Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The people demand labeling.
Corporate interests spent many millions of dollars to defeat California’s Proposition 37, yet the margin of defeat was small. The organizations supporting passage of the labeling bill had a pitifully small funding pool, contributed by individual citizens and small private companies. Corporate money convinced enough people that labeling would increase the cost of their food.
It’s Washington’s turn. We represent everyone this year. When people are informed, the decision is obvious. Educate each other and get out the vote.
Sandra Lee gives educational presentations about genetically modified foods. She has been a health care provider in Olympia since 1992. She has a bachelor of science degree in Chemistry. However, it is her 10+ years of self-directed education in health and nutrition that she considers the most valuable. In 2011, she received training in giving presentations about GMOs from the Institute for Responsible Technology. She now lives in British Columbia and visits Olympia frequently. You can reach her at

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