Editorial: What you need to know about GMOs

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor
Lisa Yates, editor

Whether you know it or not, you're eating genetically engineered food. Surprised? That's because nobody told you.

In the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, products containing genetically modified (GM) foods must state that on the label. In the U.S., there is no such requirement.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which is in existence to protect consumers, has decided we don't need to know.

I disagree. The more I learn about GMOs, the more I believe we should require labeling.

Here are a few things you need to know about GMOs:

What are GMOs?

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant, animal or microorganism (like bacteria) that is created by overcoming natural boundaries.

GMOs have had their genes altered using recently discovered techniques. In some cases, a gene is inserted from an entirely different species which could never occur in nature. For example, genes from a fish have been inserted into strawberries and tomatoes.

Because of these bizarre genetic combinations, some refer to GMOs as "frankenfoods," after Mary Shelly's novel in which Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster that gets out of control.

There's a growing fear that genetically engineered foods will get out of control. After all, GMOs are living organisms that can reproduce and proliferate. They can mutate and migrate, overtaking the food supply.

Plant GMOs

Scientists first discovered that DNA can transfer between organisms in 1946.

The first genetically modified plant was produced in 1983, using an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the FDA for marketing in the U.S. – the modification allowed the tomato to delay ripening after picking.

Since then a number of GM crops have received regulatory approval to be grown commercially, including corn, soy, canola, squash, sugar beets and more.

According to Stephanie Childs, of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, there are GM ingredients in roughly 75 percent of U.S. processed foods like breakfast cereals, other products made from grains, frozen dinners and cooking oils.

Animal GMOs

To date, no genetically modified animal has been approved for commercial food production.

Nevertheless, experiments are being performed on pigs, cattle, sheep and goats. A report from 2002 stated that most of these genetically-modified animals die well before maturity and those that live have anatomical or behavioral abnormalities.

Research is continuing and it won't be long before some form of genetically modified animal will go into commercial production.

A recent PBS program on GMOs showed how scientists have created bigger, faster growing salmon. Currently, they are being farmed inland to keep them from escaping and interbreeding with native fish, which scientists say would have unpredictable consequences for marine ecology. Even so, producers are petitioning to use fenced off sections of the ocean because land-based aquaculture is expensive.

One GM animal that could soon come to market is the "Enviropig," developed to overcome two big problems associated with factory farming. First, pigs on factory farms are fed a diet of corn which contains a form of phosphorus they are unable to digest. So it has to be added to their diet at a high cost to the company. Second, this makes their manure very high in phosphorus. When applied to farmland, it pollutes streams and groundwater. The "Enviropig" has been genetically altered with a gene to make it absorb more phosphorus from its diet, eliminating the need for a supplement. So far, the meat of these pigs has not been approved for human consumption.

Are there risks with GMOs?

The short answer is yes. Here are a few of the concerns I have:

1. Pesticides are now going into the food we eat. For example, "Bt corn" has its own inbuilt pesticide.

"Bt corn" is a form of corn that has been given a gene from a bacterium. This modification makes the corn produce a protein that's toxic to moths.

2. Some varieties of "Bt corn" are approved only for animal consumption because some people are highly allergic. Yet, incidents have been reported where this corn was harvested, processed and distributed as corn flour.

3. Another "Bt corn" variety, Bt 10, was thought to be safe but found later to contain a gene resistant to ampicillin, a widely-used anti-biotic.

4. Companies can now own copyrights on genes, which means they can now monopolize and restructure our food supply.

For example, in 1996 when it first introduced Round-Up Ready soybeans, Monsanto controlled only 2 percent of the U.S. soybean market. Now, more than 90 percent of soybeans in the U.S. contain Monsanto's patented gene.

5. A number of people involved in regulating the industry have financial ties to the companies that are submitting GMOs to be approved.

For example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was an attorney at Monsanto from 1976 to 1979. After his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion in a case that helped Monsanto enforce its seed patents.

6. Pollen from GM plants can spread and fertilize weeds in neighboring fields. This can lead to a rampant new weed that chokes out other plants and becomes impossible to control.

7. The lifespan of ladybugs was reduced to half when they ate aphids that had fed on genetically altered potatoes in Scotland. The ladybugs also laid fewer eggs. Even though the ladybugs didn't eat the GM food directly, as we are doing now, the danger was passed down the food chain.

California's labeling legislation: Prop 37

California's Propostion 37 is the most recent attempt to require labeling of GM foods.

On Nov. 6, voters in that state will have the final say-so. Monsanto has already spent more than $4 million to fight the proposed legislation. Of course, I'll be watching to see what happens.

Lisa Yates is the editor of Gonzales Weekly Citizen. Follow her on Twitter @Lisa_editor.