A genetically modified organism is an organism whose DNA has been altered through genetic engineering techniques, also called biotechnology, or recombinant DNA technology. One or more genes can be added in a laboratory from one species to another. Organisms that have been modified in this manner include plants, bacteria and yeast, insects, fish, and mammals. Organisms are genetically altered to produce foods, as well as non-edible goods.
In the case of foods and agriculture, genetically modified crops are engineered for faster growth, to produce extra nutrients (like vitamins and minerals), to be resistant to microorganisms that could harm the crops, like bacteria and viruses, or to better tolerate artificial chemicals, such as herbicides.
In the United States, the first GM crops were approved in 1996. There is now a growing list of GM crops sold to consumers and used to feed farm animals. The Grocery Manufacturers Association states that 70 percent of food items sold in American food stores now contain GMOs.
Eighty percent of the Hawaiian papaya crop is genetically modified — the crop was in danger of becoming extinct at one point, due to a persistent virus. About 13 percent of zucchinis grown in the U.S. are also genetically altered to resist viruses.
GM crops in the U.S. that are more widely harvested include:
- Corn products — including cooking oil, grits, cornmeal, and flour sold to consumers
- Soy bean crops — processed mostly to feed livestock; a remaining small percentage is used to make foods such as salad dressings, non-dairy creamers, infant formulas, and breakfast cereals; oil is also extracted from soy beans and sold for cooking
- Canola seed oils, used for cooking and many processed foods
- Cottonseed oils, used for cooking and many processed foods
(In the case of the above oils, advocates of GM foods say that the refining process removes most or all of the modified DNA that was in the originating crop.)
Critics of GM foods point out that since GM crops have been around less than 20 years, we really don’t know their possible long-term effects on the health of consumers and on the environment.
Still others feel that what we already know about GM crops shows that they are dangerous.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, founded in 1964, is a Kansas-based international association of physicians and other professionals; it is accredited by the U.S. government to provide continuing medical education to physicians. The organization has been at the forefront in acknowledging or bringing attention to many diseases that had been previously unrecognized.
In its position paper on GMOs, available on its website, the AAEM vigorously disputes the claim that GMOs are safe, citing animal studies that produced serious health risks associated with the consumption of GMOs, “including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis (and) insulin regulation … and changes in the liver, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”
Animal studies have shown a change in structure and function of the liver, including impaired metabolism of fats and carbohydrates, as well as cellular changes that could hasten aging and lead to increased free radical formation (free radicals are linked to different cancers).
In a 2008 study with mice, GM corn was linked to infertility and lower birth weight in mice pups whose mothers were fed GM corn. In addition, hundreds of genes were found to be expressed differently in the mice that were fed GM corn.
The Institute for Responsible Technology, which works to educate policy makers and the public about GM foods and crops, points out that most GM crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides – which has led to U.S. farmers using more toxic herbicides on their crops. This results in foods with higher herbicide residues, as well as greater toxic impact on the environment as a whole.
Other environmental setbacks to consider are that GM crop seeds can spread on their own, the way that all seeds do (by wind, water, or through animals): GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California! This GM crop could pass on its herbicide-tolerant genes on to weeds, making weeds more difficult to eradicate.
The GM food industry has stated that GM foods can feed the world through higher crop yields. But in its 2009 report, “Failure to Yield,” the Union of Concerned Scientists states that GMOs do not increase crop yields. And in a study spanning four years, authored by hundreds of scientists, and published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, researchers found that GM crop yields were very inconsistent, and in some cases, yields decreased.
If you are interested in eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, and you wish to avoid GMOs, here are some things you can do:
- Buy organic produce — whether you look for “certified organic” labels at the store, or you shop at local farmers markets whenever possible
- Look for Non-GMO Project seals. Dairy products should be labeled “No rBST (or rBGH) hormone” (these are GM bovine growth hormones) or “artificial hormone-free”
- Opt for olive oil for cooking and salads, over corn, canola, soybean or cottonseed oils
When buying sugar, choose raw, brown sugar, over white refined sugar that may have come from GM beets
- If you have the space and the time, consider growing a vegetable garden
By Lisa Pecos