Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are foods that have been produced from plants or animals that have had their DNA altered by genetic engineering techniques. According to the American National Center for Biotechnology Education, the first plant that was genetically modified in 1983 was tobacco, making it antibiotic resistant. Following this, the famous 1994 tomato, Flavr Savr started to be grown for consumption in California following just two years of assessment. Then, there began a slough of GMO plants released on the market, particularly from the companies Monsanto and Calgene. As of this year, according to the Center for Food Safety, roughly 85% of corn, 91% of soybeans, and 88% of cotton produced in the United States are genetically modified. GMO animals are also making their way onto the market, particularly pork, salmon and other animals used for food production.
Though the alleged scientific consensus on GMO foods is that they pose no greater risk than conventional foods, there are a number of organizations that oppose their use and introduction to the food system based on the precautionary principle. This is the idea that GMO foods have not been properly tested prior to their introduction to the environment and consumption by humans and other animals. Additionally, regulation of GMOs is of major concern as those crops not used for human consumption aren't monitored by food regulatory organizations. And those that are lack appropriate standards across the board and adequate lengths of time for study in the human organism.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, GMO crops, when first introduced, were touted as the answer to world hunger. The argument was that by developing pesticide and herbicide resistant crops, farmer's would be able to increase their yields and decrease their costs. This has not proven to be the case. Instead, bugs and weeds have become increasingly resistant to the widespread applications of these chemicals, leading to increased use of both. More spraying means more costs for the farmers, more damage to the environment and more health concerns.
In the US, where GMO farming started, only the California counties of Mendocino, Trinity and Marin have successfully banned GM crops. Voters in other Calilfornia counties have tried to pass similar measures but failed. Elsewhere around the world, the use of GMOs is a mixed bunch. No GMO foods are grown or cultivated in Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, France, and Switzerland.
In India, The government placed a last-minute ban on GM eggplant just before it was scheduled to begin being planted in 2010. However, farmers were widely encouraged to plant Monsanto's GM cotton and it has led to devastating results. The UK's Daily Mail reports that an estimated 125,000 farmers have committed suicide because of crop failure and massive debt since planting GM seeds. Farmers were convinced to spend what was often 1,000 times the cost of conventional seed on the "magic seeds" after listening to Monsanto's promises of increased yields and resistance to pests. Despite the promises, the crops were often destroyed by bollworms. In addition, the farmers weren't warned that the crops would require twice as much water as conventional cotton, leading to many crops drying up and dying. The "terminator" seeds also must be purchased again every year. For farmers used to saving seed from year to year, this was often a final financial blow that led to insurmountable debt.
Canada has widespread GM crop usage. Nearly all Canadian canola is GM, as is a large portion of the country's soy and corn. Prince Edward Island tried to pass a ban on GMO cultivation but failed, and GM crops in the region are currently increasing.
Here is the list of the top GMO foods on the market today:
Sugar Beets : According to the GMO Journal, the sugar beet is one of the newest GM foods and one under severe scrutiny. Researchers produced an herbicide-resistant crop of GM sugar beets that was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 but banned in August 2010. The genetic modification was meant to improve production because beets grow slowly and tend to battle for light and nutrients with nearby weeds. In 2010, however, federal judge Jeffrey S. White revoked the USDA approval of genetically-modified sugar beets based on the USDA's failure to present an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS"). Until an EIS is conducted, planting, harvesting and processing of GM sugar beets has been halted.
Potatoes : The following information is from the Biotech Institute. In 1991, the World Health Organization challenged scientists to look for a way to make vaccines accessible to everyone. This would mean that children in impoverished areas of the world wouldn't have to travel for hours to a nearby village to get a shot. The scientists succeeded faster than expected, creating a cholera vaccine-like component by injecting a series of genes into a potato. These genes prompt the human immune system to produce its own cholera antibodies or "vaccine."The "anti-cholera potatoes" have not made it to the market yet; scientists need to figure out how to package the potatoes to easily distribute and market them.
Corn : According to Bionet, Bt-corn (named after the Bacillus thruringiensis bacterium) is a form of sweet corn that has been genetically modified to include an insect-killing gene. This means the farmer doesn't have to spray with pesticides, because the insects die from eating the corn. No spraying means less harm to the environment and the workers handling the toxic spray. The move has caused debate, however. The same gene that attacks corn predators also appears to kill the Monarch butterfly.
According to the USDA, farmers in every state in the U.S. are growing at least some GM corn at any given time. The numbers are higher in the Southern and Midwestern regions, but South Dakota leads the pack, lending 47 percent of its corn crops to GM varieties. Because the U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world, these numbers have a significant impact beyond the American borders. Most of the corn eaten by families in the U.S. is genetically modified. It allegedly is said to help farmers and the environment, but does it help your kids? In September 2012, Russia banned the importing of American GM Corn after Russia Today revealed a study on the organism, pointing to the results that GMO corn causes cancer. Experts at the University of Caen conducted an experiment running for the full lives of rats - two years. The findings found raised levels of breast cancer, liver and kidney damage and minuscule levels of the commonly used weedkiller, Roundup.
Tomatoes : Although tomatoes were the first genetically modified food to reach the market, they have since been altered for only one reason: to make them last longer. GM tomatoes don't rot as quickly as regular tomatoes, so they can tolerate longer periods of transportation. GM tomatoes also can be left to mature on the plants, rather than being picked green. This results in a more tasty tomato that doesn't need to be stored until ripening.
Squash : Squash is more prone than some crops to viral diseases, which is why it was genetically modified to ensure crop survival. The original purpose was achieved, but the modification backfired in an unexpected way. It seems cucumber beetles that carry bacterial wilt disease like to feed on healthy plants, like the GM squash. After visiting unhealthy plants, they land on the nice, healthy GM squash plant and pig out, wounding the leaves and leaving open holes on them. When the beetles' feces fall on the leaves, they're absorbed into the stem and cause bacterial wilt disease.
Experts also believe that the GM squash may have already found its way into the wild by accident. GM foods are meant to be grown under controlled environments, in well-tended fields. If they're introduced and mixed with wild varieties of the same species, a number of unpredictable environmental issues could occur, such as gene transfer or the plants becoming more vulnerable to bacterial diseases.
Golden Rice : According to Biotech Institute again, Golden rice was first created to fight vitamin A deficiency, which affects 250 million people around the world and can cause blindness and even death. Rice is one of the most common foods on Earth. In fact, almost half of the world's population survives on a single daily bowl of rice. Because getting vitamin supplements to every single person on the planet would be impossible, scientists believed that the answer was to create a grain of rice that already had vitamin A in it. And so golden rice was born. Its name came from the bright golden glow added beta-carotene causes.
Soybean : According to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, as of 2004, 85 percent of the soybeans grown on U.S. soil have been genetically modified. Because soy is widely used in the production of other items (including cereal, baked products, chocolate and even ice cream), chances are everybody in the U.S. is eating GM soy. It might be worth noting, however, that tofu and soy sauce are usually made from non-GM soybeans, a variation from most other soy products, which likely are GM-based. The bulk of the soybean crop is not destined to human consumption but instead used for livestock feed. For those who aren't vegetarians, this becomes another source of GM foods, as the gene is passed on through the meat.
Oils : The following information comes from the GMO Compass. The U.S., India and China are the world's largest producers of GM cottonseed oil. As a result, it's hard to avoid this GM food, even if you don't buy it bottled. In the U.S., GM-modified oils are sold as cooking oils, but also commonly used for frying snacks such as potato chips and also used in the production of margarine. Canola or rapeseed oil became an important crop only after being genetically modified. Before that, the oil was too bitter to be used in foods. The modification did away with the bitterness and also increased rapeseed's resistance to herbicides. This allows crops to be sprayed with weed-control products, apparently without running the risk of affecting the actual crops.
Salmon : Genetically engineered food from animals might not be on the market yet, but a few already have been approved. GM salmon is, as we speak, on its way to our dinner table. Wild salmon matures slowly, taking up to three years to reach its full size. GM salmon, on the other hand, not only will grow faster but also should reach about twice the size of its wild cousin. The creators of the GM salmon, a private company called AquaBounty, promises to harvest the salmon before it reaches its full size, thus preventing "giant" versions. The GM salmon, known as AquAdvantage, is meant to be grown in fish farms. According to proponents of the modification, this would reduce fishing of wild salmon, in turn protecting both the wild population of fish and the environment from human intrusion.
Ironically, the major concern in the production of GM salmon is its impact on the environment. Although the genetically engineered fish is supposed to be sterile, experts believe there's no way this can be ensured, because DNA tends to mutate over time.
It should be noted that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine argues against the use of any and all GMOs, reporting that “several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system, and has asked physicians to advise their patients to avoid GMO foods. Some results of GM foods lacking long-term and rigorous study are as follows :
- 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.
In early 2013, a former research scientist for Agriculture Canada named Thierry Vain came out against GMO production, stating, "I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat". The Bt corn and soya plants that are now everywhere in our environment are registered as insecticides. But are these insecticidal plants regulated and have their proteins been tested for safety? Not by the federal departments in charge of food safety, not in Canada and not in the U.S. There are no long-term feeding studies performed in these countries to demonstrate the claims that engineered corn and soya are safe.
One of the major issues for the consumer in countries like Canada is that GMO foods do not need to be labeled prior to hitting the marketplace so there is little way of knowing whether or not something you've purchased contains GMOs. By definition, certified organic foods should not contain GMOs, however; in practice, their crops may have been contaminated by neighbouring fields growing GMOs. Avoiding the top GMO foods and seriously limiting packaged and processed foods is the only certainty that you are decreasing your consumption of these unproven and hazardous foods.
Disclaimer: The above information is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your physician.