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GMOs: Good or Bad?

GMOs: You Decide.

GMO Corn

(From ‘Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered Sweet Corn a Flop?’ on Ecowatch.com)

Lately, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have had a lot of press and media attention. On April 27th, 2015, the popular food-chain, Chipotle, announced that their products will no longer contain any GMOs. Whole Foods Market, another popular sustenance destination, proudly pronounces on their website that they are fighting to have “GMO transparency” – they want all US and Canadian food stores to have GMO products clearly labeled in the forthcoming years.

On the other hand, a 2013 study by a team of Italian scientists stated that although the GMO debate is still quite intense, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.” And in January 2015, for the first time ever, the European Union voted to allow countries the choice of planting genetically-modified crops.  It is estimated that the United Kingdom will see its first GMOs by 2017.

Considering the ever-changing policies and concerns of consumers and their food-providers, including the aforementioned companies, is it certain whether these studies have had any clear influence one way or the other? Are GMOs truly bad for our health and/or the health of our environment? Have GMOs been produced long enough to have a tangible idea of their effects on humans and the environment? All of the literature on GMOs can be quite cumbersome and confusing. With an intense and seemingly never-ending divide among the people, there is definitely no shortage of data and opinions.

First and foremost – what are GMOs? According to a review from St. George’s University of London, GMOs or genetically engineered (GE) crops “are those that have been genetically modified using recombinant DNA technology. This may be to express a gene that is not native to the plant or to modify endogenous genes.” Basically, a desired trait from one organism can be altered and/or transferred over to another organism.

There are many reasons that GMOs are desired – they could allow for resistance to common pests or insects, and environmental extremes such as drought, flooding, or dangerous heat. GMOs could allow for a larger, more flavorful, and/or more nutritional organism, or they could even allow for new developments in the fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals.

For example, a vaccine for hepatitis B was made possible by genetically modified yeast cultures. This GM vaccine completely eliminates the possibility of transmitting blood diseases, which was a prime concern of prior vaccines that consisted of potentially harmful human plasma.

The Genetic Science Learning Center produced an article called, “The Evolution of Corn,” where a dramatic picture of corn shows the changes that corn has undergone throughout many, many years:

Evolution Of Corn

Through cross-breeding and genetic engineering, today’s corn now has many advantages over more primitive corn: it has the ability to grow in many different types of climates, it is much larger with many more kernels, and it has a much higher resistance to pests.

But do not be fooled into thinking that plants, tiny unseen beings, and food products are the only organisms that are being genetically modified. Animals, humans, and even some plastic products have gone through genetic mutation as well. Mosquitoes, for example, have been genetically modified to have a protein called SM1, “which blocks entry of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, into the mosquito’s gut.” Malaria-resistant mosquitos have the enormous potential to prevent the needless deaths of over 1 million people each year – most of whom are children in Africa. Creating a model of GM plant technology production over the current model of “profit-motivated pharmaceutical production” would allow for the developing world to cultivate locally-grown solutions to preventable deaths.

Fertilized eggs have had successful transplants of genetic material that prevents mitochondria from being carried over to other fertilized eggs. This is quite significant because many medical conditions are connected to “disease-causing mitochondrial mutation(s),” such as diabetes, neuropathy, vision loss, ataxia, and Leigh Syndrome. The possibility of eliminating or reducing these ailments is literally life-altering.

The Independent wisely states that “money doesn’t grow on trees. But credit cards, or at least their raw material, might grow in fields, thanks to genetically modified (GM) plants that can produce biodegradable plastic.” It is very true that plants have been modified to naturally produce plastic that is biodegradable. This would reduce or possibly eliminate the need to produce plastics using crude oil, which generates considerable damage. Any measurable decrease in the use of oil has a positive effect on the health of humans and the environment. A 2010 study states that, “People living on oil-rich sites around the world are subjected to contamination of drinking water, top soil, and livestock due to toxic pollution that can result from the oil extraction process. In some contaminated sites, serious illnesses resulting from exposure have been documented. Before the introduction of petrochemical industries, environments around the world that sat upon large oil reserves supported healthy human life and vibrant ecosystems. Oil contamination from drilling processes, however, has adversely affected the people living in these areas by polluting the environment around them. The water, soil, and air have been severely tainted by petroleum pollutants. As a result, wildlife, livestock, and humans have been sickened.”

So why is there so much hatred toward GMOs – especially in popular media?

As the famed chemist, Leslie Orgel, once stated, “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” Although fictitious, this school of thought brings up recollections of the Jurassic Park films. Miniscule amounts of dinosaur DNA were extracted from blood in a fossilized mosquito. This DNA was used to create dinosaurs in the modern world. The results? Disastrous. As we all know, dinosaurs outmaneuvered and outsmarted the humans, as they eventually took over Jurassic Park. In the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park film series, Jurassic World, set to release in June 2015, humans will most likely be outplayed (once again) by their own ingenuity – who would have thought that this was possible? In order to boost park-attendance, geneticists create the GMO, Indominus rex, which is created from the DNA of Carnotaurus, Giganotosaurus, Majungasaurus, and Rugops. Lead actor, Chris Pratt, soon learns that the meaning behind the creature’s name, the fierce or untamable king, is most likely a precursor for the park’s eventual demise. See the official trailer here.

In a less fictitious, yet just as engrossing, example of the effects of genetic engineering, we look to a study done on pigs. In this study, pigs were fed either a GM soy and GM corn diet or an equivalent non-GM diet over 22.7 weeks. The results found that “Pigs fed a GMO diet exhibited heavier uteri and a higher rate of severe stomach inflammation than pigs fed a comparable non-GMO diet.” Because humans have a very similar gastrointestinal tract to pigs, this is highly concerning. Stomach inflammation can often cause nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, vomiting, indigestion, etc. The study also points out that proponents of GMOs often conduct similar studies; however, there is one main difference: those studies were not conducted on mammals, but most often conducted on non-mammals (such as birds and fish). As mammals clearly have a much closer DNA-sequence to humans than non-mammals, this presents an understandable argument for opponents.

The following figure shows “different levels of stomach inflammation found (clockwise from top left): nil (from a non-GM-fed pig, number B41), mild (from a non-GM-fed pig, number B15), moderate (from a GM-fed pig, number C34), and severe (from a GM-fed pig, number D22).”

GMO Pig Stomachs

(From ‘A Long-Term Toxicology Study on Pigs fed a Combined Genetically Modified (GM) Soy and GM Maize Diet’)

Have you noticed an increase in gluten-free products and gluten-sensitivity claims lately? There might be a reason for such change. Tom O’Bryan, an expert on gluten and the related ailment, Celiac Disease, says that, “The introduction of GMOs is highly suspect as a candidate to explain the rapid rise in gluten-related disorders over the last 17 years.” The Institute for Responsible Technology released a study that focuses on the Bt-toxin, which is produced by GM corn. The toxin “kills insects by punching holes in their digestive tracts, and a 2012 study confirmed that it punctures holes in human cells as well.” Having a porous intestinal tract is extremely common in those with gluten sensitivities and disorders. Coincidence?

In a 2012 study published by The Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, scientists looked at two groups of rats – those that were fed NK603 corn, developed by a biotech company, and those that were fed non-GM corn. NK603 was developed to resist certain herbicides. However, when consumed by the rats, it was reported that they “developed higher levels of cancer, had larger cancerous tumors, and died earlier than controls.” It is important to note that the study has since been retracted from the publisher’s journal – but not without outcry from proponents. Hundreds of scientists have reportedly condemned the retraction, basically calling it a government conspiracy to hide evidence of GMO volatility.

Weed resistance and environmental factors are also lead concerns for GMO opponents. A 2013 study found that “weed resistance to glyphosate has become an issue, affecting some farmers using GM glyphosate-tolerant crops.” Glyphosate is commonly marketed under the trade names Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster. Farmers are now being told to include a variety of herbicides when attempting to manage crop weeds. Could this increase in the use of herbicides, only to combat the possibility of some resistance, lead to other environmental and human risks? This seems quite counter-intuitive to the original idea that GMOs should reduce the amount of crops that are vulnerable to weeds and other pests, thus allowing for a lowered use of herbicides. A 2012 study found that, “The annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to GE cultivars has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011.” That’s a gargantuan increase of about 5,900%.

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In a related case, farmers across America are filing lawsuits against Syngenta, the creator of Agrisure Viptera MIR162 corn. This GM corn was touted as having a resistance to certain insects. Although the corn was approved by the United States in 2010, in June of 2013, China absolutely refused to accept American corn due to Viptera contamination. Corn prices then fell from almost “$7/bushel to a little under $3.30/bushel in October of 2014.” Basically, farmers across America had a large surplus of corn, which lead to a fierce decrease in corn prices. “The USDA had predicted that China would import 7 million metric tons of corn in 2013, but as a result of the rejection of shipments due to Viptera contamination, the US only exported 1.23 million metric tons to China.” As a result, anyone who planted any type of corn in 2013 and/or 2014 has the potential to recover compensation for damage to overall corn prices.

All in all, the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that GMOs are found in about 70-80% of the foods that Americans eat. Whether proponents or opponents of these modifications have the superior argument, it is safe to say that GMOs affect us all in some way or another. Whether it is a positive or negative effect, we will likely find constant arguments, opinions, studies, and literature for both sides.