Most of Europe has banned them and Americans are trying, without success, to at least label the foods that contain them. Prior to about 15 years ago they were practically unknown but now most of the corn, soy and cotton grown in America are affected by it.I'm referring to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which involve the transfer of genetic information from one plant or animal into the genome of another plant or animal.Manipulating genes in plants and animals has been done for centuries through the process of selective breeding between similar organisms. However, the recent wave of genetic manipulation is much more complex and raises many questions about the long-term wisdom and safety of tinkering with Mother Nature.
One of the first global alterations in food supply started in the 1940s when Norman Bourlaug revolutionized wheat production by cross-breeding different strains of wheat. The result was a short, stubby wheat plant that increased yield about six times over the conventional varieties. However, the new plant also relies more than ever on mechanization, irrigation, synthetic fertilization and increased use of pesticides and herbicides.The newly formed hybrid seeds are only used for one season so farmers also became dependent on patented seeds, leading to the creation of corporate giants in the seed industry. The trend also encouraged the creation of massive single-crop farming while discouraging the survival of small multi-crop farming practices. Many questioned the prudence of this type of farming as it clearly has more negative impact on the environment and is not sustainable without the use of more and more petrochemicals.By the 1980s, the science of plant genetics took a huge fundamental leap when researchers figured out a method of transferring genetic material from one organism into another, even from an animal into a plant! By selecting specific traits, such as resistance to cold or drought, and identifying the specific portion of genetic code responsible for those traits, the segment of DNA can then be injected into another organism's genetic code, thus transferring the selected traits into the host organism.Certain bacteria are used to perform this DNA switch as they are able to infect a plant and transfer some of their carried genetic information into the genetics of the plant. Select packages of DNA can be put into little "suitcases" in the bacteria called plasmids from whence the new DNA is then transferred by the bacteria into the host's DNA.The science of GMO or "transgenetics" first started with the analysis of well-known bacteria called bacillus thuringensis or Bt, which is used by organic gardeners since it makes a protein that kills corn borer worms. Researchers selected the portion of DNA that codes for the killer protein and transferred that into tobacco plants, thus creating a plant that could make the killer protein itself.Since that time, the field of transgenetics has exploded and GM plant acreage has grown nearly 10,000 percent. The use of transgenetics permeates industrial and pharmaceutical fields with bacteria and algae helping in the production of plastics, biofuels, vaccines and medications such as insulin. However, despite the growth of this field, numerous questions remain and a growing segment of society is not OK with the current GM status quo.Nowadays, corporations such as Monsanto control most of the world's seed stock for corn, soy and cotton, and hold patents on those seeds. Plant genetics are modified especially to make the plants resistant to the pesticides and herbicides used in farming. Of course, the same companies that produce the seeds produce those chemicals and farmers are obliged to keep purchasing the GM seeds and use more and more chemicals.
I have three main concerns with GM foods. One is safety for direct human consumption; two is the indirect effects in the environment; and three is the effect it has on the social, political and economic aspects of farming.There are numerous studies, mostly funded by the GM-producing companies that conclude GM foods are safe for human consumption. Most of these studies are short term, usually less than 90 days, and show a lack of direct harm on the animal consuming GM foods.However, several recent studies draw into question the safety of GM foods. Published in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, November 2012, is a two-year study that showed "rats fed GM Roundup-tolerant corn had higher rates of tumors, hormonal abnormalities, and other issues, including kidney and liver problems." Another, from BioScience, January 2012, found that "reliance on herbicide-resistant crops has contributed to a global proliferation of resistant weeds, which researchers predict will lead to increased herbicide use and an environmentally costly arms race against the leafy pests."Because of weed resistance to Monsanto's "Round-Up" weed killer, another company, Dow Agriscience, is pushing for acceptance of a new corn that is resistant to its herbicide, 2-4-D. By hybridizing the Roundup-ready corn with the new 2-4-D resistant corn, the genetic traits will be "stacked" for multiple chemical resistance. Now farmers can continue to soak the fields with more and more agrichemicals. Author Mortensen, et al, from "Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management," in the journal of BioScience, January 2012, predict the result will simply be new strains of super-resistant weeds that defy the Roundup/2-4-D combination.The indirect effect of this massive chemical dump into the environment is arguably not being well studied. The EPA appears to have pretty much "green-lighted" the expanding use of herbicides and many in the USDA and farm industry depend on the current mega-farm and mono-crop culture for their livelihood.As the authors of the Bioscience paper show, a simple program called Integrated Weed Management (IWM) could rescue U.S. farm fields from Roundup-resistant super weeds without needing more herbicides. The approach relies on simple methods like crop rotation, cover crops, tillage and targeted herbicide applications. IWM would lead to a more thoughtful farm practices and it would push farmers into planting more than just corn and soy.
The direct impact on human health from GM foods is woefully understudied in my opinion. Each unique genetic hybridization has the potential to generate new and unintended-consequences. The level of research needs to increase and apply to each specific genetic concoction. At this point I worry the corporations are running the show while the USDA, EPA and the FDA are complicit in the scheme.Even the current president appears to be involved in promoting GM foods. Despite the First Lady's PR campaign of organic gardening and improving school lunch quality, the president has quietly and behind the scenes appointed numerous high level Monsanto-connected folks into key positions in the USDA and FDA. The parade of new GM foods brought to market recently makes our president the most GM-friendly guy around. And in my home state of Missouri there is pending legislation (HJR-11) that is poised to give more protection to corporate farming monopolies such as Monsanto.I think we need more long-term, unbiased research on the direct and indirect effects of GM foods; we need to question the true environmental impact of drenching our soils with toxic chemicals; and we should consider the social and economic impact of corporate mega-farming.Buy organic, buy local, and support GM research and labeling of GM foods.Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.