What is a Genetically Modified Organism or GMO?

You may have heard people talk about GMOs and the fight to keep them out of our food system.  You may have heard mentions of a company, called Monsanto, that is behind most of the biotechnology/GMO movement. On our site we often talk about making sure food is non-GMO or GMO-free, or organic- which currently means it can not be genetically modified (GMO) however companies are pushing hard to take away this right. What does this all mean? Well let’s start at the beginning:

What is a GMO?

A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. Because this involves the transfer of genes, GMOs are also known as “transgenic” organisms.  This process may be called either Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM); they are one and the same.

First introduced into the food supply in the mid-1990s, GMOs are now present in the vast majority of processed foods in the US. While they are banned as food ingredients in Europe and elsewhere, the FDA does not even require the labeling of GMOs in food ingredient lists.

Although there have been attempts to increase nutritional benefits or productivity, the two main traits that have been added to date are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. These results have no health benefit, only economic benefit.

GM Foods

Here is a summary of crops, foods and food ingredients have been genetically modified as of May, 2010:

Currently Commercialized GM Crops in the U.S.:
(Number in parentheses represents the estimated percentage that is genetically modified.)

Soy (91%) Cotton (71%) Canola (88%) Corn (85%) Sugar Beets (90%) Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%) Alfalfa (at Supreme Court), Zucchini and Yellow Squash (small amount) Tobacco (Quest® brand)

Other Sources of GMOs:
• Dairy products from cows injected with the GM hormone rbGH
• Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the
sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet®) and rennet used to make hard cheeses
• Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed
• Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen
• Contamination or pollination caused by GM seeds or pollen

Some of the Ingredients That May Be Genetically Modified: Vegetable oil, vegetable fat and margarines (made with soy, corn, cottonseed, and/or canola)

Ingredients derived from soybeans: Soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tamari, tempeh, and soy protein supplements.

Ingredients derived from corn: Corn flour, corn gluten, corn masa, corn starch, corn syrup, cornmeal, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

There are eight GM food crops. The five major varieties—soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets—have bacterial genes inserted, which allow the plants to survive an otherwise deadly dose of weed killer. Farmers use considerably more herbicides on these GM crops and so the food has higher herbicide residues. About 68% of GM crops are herbicide tolerant.

The second GM trait is a built-in pesticide, found in GM corn and cotton. A gene from the soil bacterium called Bt (for Bacillus thuringiensis) is inserted into the plant’s DNA, where it secretes the insect-killing Bt-toxin in every cell. About 19% of GM crops produce their own pesticide. Another 13% produce a pesticide and are herbicide tolerant.

There is also Hawaiian papaya and a small amount of zucchini and yellow crookneck squash, which are engineered to resist a plant virus.

Health Risks

Several animal studies have shown GMOs can cause a variety of health problems including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.  In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed they had no information showing that GM foods were substantially different from conventionally grown foods. Therefore they are safe to eat, and absolutely no safety studies were required.

But internal memos made public by a lawsuit reveal that their position was staged by political appointees who were under orders from the White House to promote GMOs.  FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored.

The biotech industry claims that Bt-toxin is harmless to humans and mammals because the natural bacteria version has been used as a spray by farmers for years. In reality, hundreds of people exposed to Bt spray had allergic-type symptoms, and mice fed Bt had powerful immune responses and damaged intestines.  Moreover, the Bt in GM crops is designed to be more toxic than the natural spray and is thousands of times more concentrated.  Thousands of sheep, buffalo, goats, chickens, horses, and more have died after eating Bt cotton or corn.  That just goes to show just how harmful these crops can be.

Farm workers throughout India are getting the same allergic reactions from handling Bt cotton as those who reacted to Bt spray.  Mice and rats fed Bt corn also showed immune responses.

In addition to this, there is evidence that functioning Genetically Modified genes remain inside you after you consume them.  The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function.  This means that long after we stop eating GM foods, we may still have their GM proteins produced continuously inside us.

Dangers to the Environment

Pollen from GM crops and trees can contaminate nearby crops and wild plants of the same type, except for soy, which does not cross-pollinate. In fact, virtually all heritage varieties of corn in Mexico (the origin of all corn) have been found to have some contamination. Canola and cotton also cross-pollinate.

GM sugar beets are a member of the chard family and therefore have even more potential targets for contamination through crosspollination. No one knows what might happen if DNA containing pharmaceutical properties are spread to wild plants.

Studies have shown that pesticide-producing crops contaminate nearby streams, possibly affecting aquatic life. The Bt toxin produced by these GM crops are far stronger than any found in nature, and are produced throughout the plant.

It has been found that previously insignificant insects which are not targeted by the GM varieties develop into pests. Then pesticide spraying resumes, on top of the potential build-up of the extra strong Bt toxin in the soil.

Another problem with GMOs is the appearance of “super weeds.”  As weeds adapt to herbicides, they develop resistance and become nearly impossible to kill.  This in turn leads to the spraying of even more and different varieties of herbicides.

What Can I Do?

Help spread the word about the dangers of GMOs and Start buying non-GMO today. Help stop the genetic engineering of our food supply.

Download your free Non-GMO Shopping Guide or ShopNoGMO iPhone App

Much of the health information featured on this page is excerpted from Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risk of Genetically Engineered Foods, by Jeffrey M. Smith. © Copyright 2010. Institute for Responsible Technology.

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