What is being called the ‘world’s first ever comprehensive and independent study on the safety of GMOs and their associated pesticides’ is expected to launch in 2015. At a cost of around $25 million, this international effort will be an approximately three year study of rats with the goal of answering these questions:
Are GMOs (or their associated pesticides) toxic to organ systems over the long-term?
Do GMOs (or their associated pesticides) cause cancer?
Do GMOs (or their associated pesticides) reduce fertility or cause birth defects?
Is the mixture of chemicals present in Roundup herbicide more or less toxic than its active ingredient glyphosate?
This is a BIG deal. Monsanto had used a 90 day study which showed no ill effects, while a two year study by others showed tumors in the rats (only detected after around 18 months) – source. A three year study will help address the concerns raised by that two year study, and may also lead to regulators requiring long term studies for future GM products (currently, long term studies are not required in any country).
There’s a new category of genetically modified crops on the horizon that utilize a technique known as RNAi, or RNA interference. For a recap of what RNA does, check out wikipedia, but in summary: it’s primarily a messenger, carrying instructions from DNA to control the synthesis of proteins. RNAi is an attempt to interfere with this process; an insect (the corn root worm, in this case) takes up small siRNA (small interfering ribonucleic acid molecules) from a corn plant, which then turn off the production of critical proteins in those pests, killing them. It’s a pretty amazing technology, and one that’s also being explored in the fight against cancer, to interfere with cell division of cancerous cells.
So there lies the concern. The medical field is looking at ways to help the human body absorb those siRNA molecules. The food industry wants the opposite, for there’s justifiably a lot of uncertainty and concern about the effect this may have on the body. Some scientific studies have indicated that the body might be absorbing this, most find no evidence of that. It seems much of the uncertainty comes from the difficulty in detecting these very small molecules in the first place. There is also uncertainty about what other insects may be harmed by this (one study found that ladybugs were one victim). On the plus side, this has the potential to reduce or eliminate two techniques currently employed – spraying crops with Roundup (that then gets into our food supply), or using corn that is genetically modified to produce BT Toxin (which we then consume).
Monsanto is convinced they’ve studied the issue enough, and have applied for approval to sell this new corn variant. There still seems to be quite a bit of valid scientific debate over that subject…but if history has taught us anything, it’s that big business will win out over science and public health concerns.
With all the news about GMOs…what do you really know about them? Ignoring the health concerns for a moment, it’s good to look at some facts about how widespread they are, and that’s what this article at the WSJ does. Some key points:
GMO crops have grown, on average, by 10 million hectares a year since 1996 (when they were introduced).
Most of the world’s GMO crops consist of four types of plants: soybeans (48%, by acreage)), corn (33%), cotton (15%), and canola (5%).
Five countries are responsible for about 90% of GMO crops. US (40%), Brazil (23%), Argentina (14%), India (6%), and Canda (6%) – leaving other countries at 11% total.
In the US, most major crops are GMOs, more than 90% of our top crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton. I think that goes a long way towards explaining opposition to GMO labeling!
Over 75% of GMO seed designs are owned by 10 companies (some of those are GM, some are non-GM but still considered proprietary). Selling seed is a $34.5 billion business.
You can read more at the WSJ article linked above. I’m a huge fan of using science to improve our lives, but believe it cannot be selective science like GMOs are. What I mean is, new seeds are designed, but long term health effects are not adequately studied before the seeds are introduced to market. Instead, seeds are put on the market, making us all guinea pigs, but without adequate control of the variables, any health concerns that may someday surface cannot be accurately tied to any single crop. There can be no accountability, and with neither accountability nor laws requiring extensive testing, there is no incentive for companies to be sure their products are human-safe. While some GMO efforts are likely benign, the idea of engineering corn to produce poison to kill insects for example (read up on BT Toxin)…and then telling us it’s OK for us to eat that poison…that’s a real stretch.Oh, and that picture of a blue strawberry? That’s not photoshop, that’s GMO at its finest, and you can read more about that here.
If you want to know why I’m worried about genetically modified foods, read this article from New Zealand. Scientists are concerned about GM wheat being tested in NZ and Australian, and more specifically, they claim:
SiRNA, a form of ribonucleic acid, like DNA, could transfer to humans through food when produced in GM wheat.
When eaten, the siRNA engineered to suppress the wheat-branching enzyme would also silence the human-branching enzyme which produces energy-storing glycogen.
This “unbranched” glycogen would have low solubility in human cells and could create build-up in the tissues of the body, especially in the heart and liver.
This could lead to the disease Glycogen Storage Disease IV, resulting in an enlarged liver, cirrhosis of the liver, and failure to thrive.
So, do we need to be worried? I think the bottom line is that we don’t know. I think this DOES show, though, that we need to be cautious and thorough in testing GM crops for possible side-effects on people…we must not rush this technology to market, but rather, each and every modification to the genetic code of our food supply needs to be tested. Right now, that’s just not happening, and that’s the scary thing.
This fall, voters in California will decide whether or not food that has been manufactured with genetically modified organisms should be labeled as such (it’s Proposition 37, for you Californians). Considering that polls are finding around 90% of the public supports this, expect this to pass, but also expect it to be challenged in the courts as corporate profits would be impacted by such a law (well, assuming that people don’t want to eat food with GMO, that is). If this passes, you can also expect other states to start following California’s lead with laws of their own, though really, given the size of California’s economy, merely enacting such a law there will have a ripple effect nationwide.
If you’re not sure what all the fuss is about genetically modified crops, you owe it to yourself to check out this quick (4 minute) video that does a great job of explaining the issue:
I’m all for improving our lives through science, but GM foods is not about that…it’s about improving corporate profits through science without scientifically examining what possible effects this has on the species affected by this technology (not just the animals that eat the crops, us, but the animals that live where these crops are grown).