The GMO problem

Whether it’s online or offline, you see news about this thing that news anchors and reports talk about. They keep saying the term ‘GMO’ again and again and show images of food, supermarkets, farms and other related  ideas. The only thing that can be remembered by the reading and viewing public is the repeated idea of GMOs being harmful to food products and later on, human consumption.

And although the facts are there, it would seem as if only U.S. Americans care about this issue. Some Filipinos are aware of the existence of the idea, however they are not acquainted with the term.

Unfortunately, even though polls consistently show that a significant majority of Americans want to know if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs, the powerful biotech lobby has succeeded in keeping this information from the public. In the absence of mandatory labeling, the Non-GMO Project was created to give consumers the informed choice they deserve.

So, what are GMOs? Where did they come from? And why are they a problem?

The term GMO stands for ‘genetically modified organism’. GMOs are organismswhose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Other names for the process include Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM), which are one and the same.

The term GMO is very close to the technical legal term, ‘living modified organism’, defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, “any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology”).

GMO traces its roots back to the extraction of DNA by Russian scientist Andrei Nikolaevitch Belozersky in 1935 and the creation of man-made DNA or rDNA by a grad student at Stanford University Medical School.

The first GMO patent was issued in the U.S. in 1980. A court case between a genetics engineer at General Electric and the U.S. Patent Office is settled by a 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling, allowing for the first patent on a living organism. The GMO in question is a bacterium with an appetite for crude oil, ready to gobble up spills.

The U.S. FDA approved GMOs in 1982 in which humulin, insulin produced by genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, appears on the market. But it wasn’t until 1994 when the U.S. FDA approves the Flavr Savr tomato for sale on grocery store shelves. The delayed-ripening tomato has a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes. By 1999, over 100 million acres worldwide are planted with genetically engineered seeds. The marketplace begins embracing GMO technology at an alarming rate.

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Flavr Savr tomatos, the first GMO-induced crop to hit the supermarkets. (Photo taken from ucdavis.edu)

Some other experiments actually proved unsuccessful. A genetically engineered variety of pig, called Enviropig was developed by scientists at the University of Guelph, with research starting in 1995 and government approval sought beginning in 2009. In 2012 the University announced an end to the Enviropig program, and the pigs themselves were euthanized in June 2012.

Let’s move on to the question of how it became a problem.

The websites and marketing materials of the companies that are conducting genetic modification would have you believe that GMOs will feed the world’s ever growing, hungry population—with greater crop yields, more drought resistance, increased nutrition, and other worthy-sounding benefits.

However after nearly two decades of development, none of these traits have come to market. In fact, it had caused more harm to people.

Because GMOs are novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents with which to restrict their use. As a result, the companies that make GMOs now have the power to sue farmers whose fields are contaminated with GMOs, even when it is the result of inevitable drift from neighboring fields. GMOs therefore pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country where they are grown, including the United States.

The first harm caused by GMOs was recorded only in 2011 in Canada, when research in eastern Quebec finds Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxins in the blood of pregnant women and shows evidence that the toxin is passed to fetuses.

Bt-toxin-crystals
Bacillus thuringiensis (Photo taken from Wikipedia)

Over a decade ago, a laboratory study published in Nature showed that pollen from corn that was genetically modified to produce its own insecticide caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars; the data was corroborated in a more recent study, as cited in a July 2011 article in the NY Times, and once again in a study by the University of Minnesota, as published online in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity in March 2012.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) states the environmental impacts of GMOs will include an “uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and a potential contamination of all non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.

Fifteen years of research by the USDA indicates that the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in RoundUp herbicide which is genetically engineered into, and heavily sprayed onto all GMO crops, could be causing fungal root disease resulting in detrimental impacts to the root structure of plants, said Bob Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. GMO crops are also responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs:’ which can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange). GMOs are a direct extension of chemical agriculture, and are developed and sold by the world’s biggest chemical companies. The long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown, and once released into the environment these novel organisms cannot be recalled.

Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. Increasingly, Americans are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment.

So what is next for GMOs? Insecticide and fertilizer producer Monsanto’s patents have expired since 2014, giving farmers a chance to sweep the chemical giant with more lawsuits, citing the harm caused to both the environment and its consumers.

The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization states that polls consistently show that a significant majority of North Americans would like to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs (a 2012 Mellman Group poll found that 91% of American consumers wanted GMOs labeled). And, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 53% of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project’s seal for verified products will, for the first time, give the public an opportunity to make an informed choice when it comes to GMOs.

Although more and more are cracking down on the GMO problem, it seems that the problem is only growing bigger and bigger, as there is lack of evidence showing the change of lifestyles from GMO-induced products to organic products. This only goes to show that human lifestyle is contributory to the slowing down of this problem.

Sources:

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