Thursday, November 29, 2012

GMO - Hazard or Hype?

GMO foods – should we be worried? What about all that GMO corn in the kibble we feed our dogs?

There has been a modern movement in opposition to foods that are genetically modified. Here in California, there was recently a proposition presented to the voters that would have required labeling of foods that contained materials derived as a result of genetic engineering. I am genuinely surprised that prop 37 didn't pass, because usually the electorate votes based on emotion, not logic. Additionally, European countries have "banned" (if it were possible to physically do so) GMO foods to appease the fears of their populace. However, a bit of research on genetic engineering might surprise you regarding the benefits of such methods.

What is “genetic modification” of foods? The process involves the science of splicing genes into the DNA of the original organism. Sounds ominous, right? Some of these genes are from related organisms, like other plants. Some of the genes are from completely unrelated organisms, like bacteria. Now before you get too upset at the prospect of genes being added where they seemingly don't belong, consider this. All plants and animals derive a large proportion of their existing DNA from viruses that infected their ancestors. (1)

Genetic modification of foods can confer on them a desired quality without waiting for random chance/mutation from nature to help out (which may never occur).

The best example is the papaya crop. The Hawaiian papaya crop was nearly wiped out in the 1990s by the ringspot virus. There does not exist a cure or a preventive treatment for this virus. Genetic modification produced a papaya resistant to the virus, and today, >80% of the Hawaiian papaya crop is the GMO variety. With absolutely NO evidence that there is any harm to anyone from eating a papaya, or consuming foods made with the enzyme papain which is derived from papayas, why should every papaya and every prepared food containing papain (meat tenderizers etc) be labelled for consumers to reject out of unfounded fears?

Crops have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits, such as resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. Some are bred for drought tolerance, increased crop amount or size of grain/fruit, and improved shelf life. There is even a variety of rice that has been genetically modified to be yellow, and loaded with healthy beta-carotene. Nice!

Admittedly, herbicide resistant crops are problematic because then farmers tend to spray more weed-killers, which are not desirable to have in our foods, but one can always look for labelled "organic" produce to avoid that. But it is not the modified food itself that may be bad for us, it's the herbicides that are thrown on top on the crops.

There has been a much-touted study done on the effect of GMO corn on rats; this study has even been cited by health groups like Kaiser healthcare in their health newsletter. However, researcher bias was evident and the study was profoundly flawed. The study used very small sample sizes of only ten animals per group, including the control group. WAY too small to produce any reliable results. They also used a strain of rats prone to develop cancer. Oddly enough, the study found that rats who consumed the largest amount of GMO foods lived the longest, and it also showed that rats who consumed the most Roundup (herbicide) lived the longest! The control group also developed cancer, but the moderate GMO consumption group developed a higher percentage of cancer than the control group. This study is, in effect, BUNK. (2)

On the other hand, there are multiple independent studies done on GMO foods that verify their safety. Many of these studies have been conducted independently of the biotech and food industries. (3)

Another example of unfounded fears is the modification of crops for worm-resistance. Many crops have been modified with genes from Bt. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a bacteria that has been applied to crops for decades as a natural pest control. It selectively kills worms and guess what, it is completely nontoxic to humans and other animals. Actually, the use of Bt is considered compatible with organic gardening! Bt is applied to crops right up to the day of harvest. You have eaten Bt for years!!! I myself use Bt on my tomatoes to kill the darn nasty green hornworms.

There is a particular chemical in the Bt bacteria that causes worms's digestive systems to fail and subsequently kills them. Scientists have been able to isolate that particular protein, insert the gene that produces it into the plant so that it will produce it without having us spray the crops with Bt (a hit-or-miss process, and economically impractical for anyone with a large-scale agricultural operation). et Voila Natural crop resistance to worms!

Most genetically modified crops are sold as commodities, which are further processed into foodstuffs. Large amounts of soy are produced for use as livestock feed. If there were something harmful in those foods, our animals used for meat would be dropping in droves, as would we for eating them.

Vegetable oil used for frying, cooking, shortening, margarine, sauces, soups, mayonnaise etc is produced almost exclusively from GMO-derived crops. These ingredients go into almost all of our foods!! However, the refining process removes proteins produced by the genes that have been inserted, and leaves just oil.

To give you an example of how widespread GMO foods are, at last tally, 95% of the US soybean crop is genetically modified. 93% of the US canola crop is genetically modified. 86% of the US corn crop is genetically modified, while 95% of sugar beets are genetically modified. 93% of the cotton crop (cottonseed oil) is GM cotton. In addition, pollen from the genetically modified types crosses with neighboring non-GMO crops, making it practically impossible to definitely pronounce that any certain crop is absent GM genes. The vast majority of our foods would have to be labelled that they are derived from genetic engineering.

The FDA does need to promote standardized testing for such crops, in order to make sure that along with the desired trait there are not other problems included, such as increased allergens for those who are sensitive.

Remember, those people who produce the crops eat food too. They would be foolish to introduce something risky into the food chain that their own families will be eating.

Proposition 37 would have required labelling and the ability to bring suit without any proof of damages if they allege a food is improperly labelled. This seemed to me to be nothing more than a shakedown effort by trial lawyers for easy money. And it would have promoted unfounded fears about foods.



  1. Anti-vaccine and GMO fear mongering are elements of the anti science left. The labeling initiative was not about health or safety or even the right to know, it was about fetishizing valueless "organic" foods and demonizing GMOs by people hating dirt worshipers.

  2. This shows there are anti-science people across the political spectrum. Perhaps a by-product of our very poorly-run public educational system. I can't explain why so many fall for the junk science lines they are fed. No critical thinking skills? No understanding of basic concepts in science?
    I was shocked to learn that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi actually was an assistant professor at Cal State Northridge during the eighties. I can only imagine how many of our kids were unduly influenced by his extremist views. Morsi, while elected in a democratic process, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is pushing repressive Sharia law in Egypt, and has set himself up as a virtual dictator (at least for now).
    One can hardly imagine the scope of the propagandizing that occurs on our college campuses. Probably a lot of it is railing against "Big Ag" in the vein of the Occupy movement. This produces citizens who are irrational, paranoid and anti-success.

  3. It seems I fell prey to an internet hoax. Kaiser Healthcare DID NOT post an anti-GMO article in their newsletter.

  4. Anti-GMO activist: "I was wrong to oppose GMOs":