Introduction: the genetic manipulation referred to in this article is *not* about crossing different breeds of sheep, developing various hybrids of corn, or other “within species” enhancement to improve naturally-occuring traits. Instead it’s about using a bacteria or virus to artificially insert an entirely foreign DNA into a plant’s genes, such as human genes inserted into rice, or Monsanto’s “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, which was genetically modified to produce a protein that ruptures the stomach when ingested by pests.
The first risk of genetic engineering is the very theory underlying its science and methods, which was brought to light by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute. All along, genetic modification has been based on a theory that one gene will express (or “code for”) one protein, and thus an organism’s genome — its total complement of DNA genes — should fully account for its unique pattern of inherited traits. However, when the Human Genome Research Project was completed in 2002, it proved this theory was not true.
The Human Genome Research Project discovered that genes operate in a complex network in ways that are still not fully understood.
The human genome has just under 25,000 genes, yet our bodies function with approximately 100,000 proteins. This is not a one-to-one ratio. There are far too few human genes to account for the complexity of our inherited traits, not to mention the vast inherited differences between plants — including the unrelated genes of the bacteria or viruses with which plants are being genetically manipulated.
Because we don’t entirely understand how genes work—as evidenced both by the Human Genome Project’s findings as well as the recent discovery of a second string of code inside DNA—the very process of genetic engineering—the random insertion of a gene into the genome—causes disruptions in many enzymes that perform basic metabolic work.
To put it simply, the Human Genome Research Project completely undermined the “science” behind genetic engineering. The whole paradigm of genetic engineering technology was based on a misunderstanding. The “Big Ag” corporations’ claims about their methods of genetically modifying food crops being “specific, precise, and predictable” are entirely untrue.
Modifying one segment of DNA does not have a single direct result; instead it can cause a spiraling effect of unintended consequences
Long before the Human Genome Research Project’s findings, a study published in 1999 in the International Journal of Biological Sciences found that inserting a gene into another organism’s DNA 1) causes thousands of activations, not just the one trait the researcher is looking for, 2) activates non-targeted (and sometimes toxic) genes; 3) affects idle genes, with entirely unknown effects; 4) lowers the plant’s nutrient content (since the plant’s energy is consumed with producing unnecessary proteins activated by the insertion).
During this same study, they also discovered some GMO crops had “superfluous” and “unsuspected” genes, including incomplete or rearranged sequences. The results of this study could not more clearly underscore what the Human Genome Research Project has been saying all along:
“Genetic engineering is an experiment in the proposition that human institutions can perform adequate risk assessments on lab-created living organisms”
So what are the inherent risks of consuming food that contains unexpected genetic behavior? What are the resulting outcomes to the crops and the environment?
The Risks of Genetic Engineering
The outward risks of genetically engineered foods fall into three categories:
1. Environmental Hazards
2. Human Health Risks
3. Economic Concerns
I. ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS
Unintended harm to other organisms
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 (article abstract here).
But monarchs are suffering on another level: crops that are genetically engineered to resist weedkillers and the resulting increased use of weedkillers have all but exterminated milkweed—the only plant used by Monarch butterflies to lay their eggs, and Monarch caterpillars to eat. As of January 2014, the Monarch population is at its lowest point in history. And it’s not just butterflies… experts believe the dramatically decreasing populations of bees both in the United States and abroad are directly related to genetically engineered plants, their pollen, and recent studies also indicate negative honeybee impacts from the herbicide Glyphosate—the key ingredient in RoundUp, which Monsanto’s GMO crops are engineered to withstand.
It is not possible to design a B.t. toxin to be genetically engineered into corn that would only kill crop-damaging pests while remaining harmless to all other insects.
“It’s like AIDS,” says Michael McNeill — an agronomist who received his Ph.D. in quantitative genetics and plant pathology from Iowa State University in 1969 and has been a crop consultant since 1983. He was among three experts invited by county officials to testify at the August 10, 2011 meeting of the Cropland Policy Advisory Group (CPAG). Read his summary here.
Reduced effectiveness and increased use of pesticides*
Note: the term “pesticides” encompasses both insecticides and herbicides.
Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned Monsanto insecticide DDT, insects are quickly becoming resistant to crops that have been genetically modified by Monsanto to produce their own insecticides.
Back in July 2011, the superweeds were becoming so powerful that farmers were being forced to use older, more toxic chemical sprays, more frequently and in heavier volumes, or spend extra money hiring day laborers to literally chop out the plants… some of which were reported to have stems as thick as 4 inches in diameter, growing three inches a day, and damaging conventional farm machinery. As of May 2012, farmers interviewed by the New York Times reported that weed control was “back to where we were 20 years ago.” Experts are calling the superweed epidemic “the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” warning that it could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs, and even greater pollution of land and water.
In summary, one of the greatest promises of the agri-bio industry — that GMO crops would reduce the use of chemicals — is sadly untrue: pesticide use has increased by 404 million pounds from the time genetically engineered crops were introduced back in 1996, to the year 2011.
Uncontrolled biological pollution
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.” GMO Canola is spreading via migratory birds, who eat the plants in one area, then fly and deliver “fertilized seeds” to the fields of another area. Monsanto’s telling farmers they must pull these weeds by hand, since none of Monsanto’s weed sprays are killing their own spray-resistant plants.
Studies have also shown that soil biology is negatively impacted when it’s used to grow GMO crops, once it’s in the soil, it gets into our water. The increased use of herbicides (including older, more toxic chemical “cocktails” to combat superweeds) is leaching through the soil beneath “America’s breadbasket,” where it’s drawn back up as drinking water and crop irrigation via wells. Need a complete list of glyphosate studies with sources? Click here.
Gene transfer to non-target species
Another concern is the natural cross-breeding of crops in adjacent fields, resulting in the transfer of transgenes into organic and conventional (non-genetically-engineered) crops. Monsanto came up with a solution for cross-breeding: terminator seeds. These seeds were genetically engineered to only survive for one season, thus preventing cross-contamination from one season to the next (unless the plants cross-pollinate neighboring non-GM plants prior to harvest), and forcing farmers to purchase seeds from Monsanto every year, rather than following the age-old practice of saving seeds from one harvest to plant the next. (Though their contract already stipulates that they must buy new seeds each year, this approach was thought to guarantee it.) Fortunately, Terminator Seeds have not yet been brought to market.
Monsanto postulates that buffer zones ranging from 6 to 30 meters or more would likewise inhibit gene transfer to weeds and other crops because the wind-blown pollen would not travel beyond the buffer zone (provided there are no strong winds or tornadoes). However buffer zones would still not address genetically engineered plants being transferred by migratory birds eating the seeds. And to date, few farmers have been willing to lose valuable production yields to let land go fallow in non-usable buffer zones.
2. HUMAN HEALTH RISKS
Emerging Health Risks in Human Studies
Nearly two decades after genetic engineered crops have been in your grocery store, human studies are only now starting to be performed — but not in the United States. Why is no research being done on the potential human health risks of GMOs in our country? The ag-bio companies won’t let it happen. Not surprisingly, no independent study permission has been granted in the last twenty years, except for studies that are crafted to put GMOs in a positive context. As recently as 2014, a comprehensive peer review of the Ag-Biotech industry’s so called ‘long term safety studies’ found them to be significantly inaccurate or flawed and no proof of safety.
Health Risks of Pesticides as it relates to GMOs
One study in early 2011, which was not directly aimed at GMOs and thus made it through research without hindrance, was UCSF’s sobering report about the percent of pesticides present in pregnant women in the United States… including chemicals that have been banned in our country since 1972. How does a toxic pesticide residue study relate to GMOs? Over 80% of GMO crops are engineered to either 1) resist herbicides — which enables farmers to saturate them with weedkillers during their growth period, in an effort to control the (super)weeds growing in the same fields, or 2) generate their own internal pesticides.
As stated previously, the use of pesticides has increased dramatically since the advent of genetically engineered crops. GMOs represent a double chemical dose delivered directly to your dinner table—both inside and outside of the plant. (Or triple, if you count sprayed chemicals leaching into soil and groundwater…).
But it’s not just about the toxins we’re ingesting…
Documented Proof of Modified Genes Surviving the Digestion Process
New studies are disproving one of the biggest assurances that pro-GMO manufacturers and scientists continue to make: that “new genes introduced in GM food are harmless, since all genes are broken up and rendered inert during digestion.”
The first study done in the U.K. indicates a potential release of genetically altered DNA in human digestive tracts: “the possibility of functional DNA release from plant GMOs cannot be excluded. The extent of the ability to natural transformation among intestinal bacterial species and strains is not known, although as a phenomenon natural bacterial transformation seems to be more frequent than hitherto recognised, and also intestinal pathogens might be transformable.”
A second study done in China in early 2012 was much more sobering. It showed that ingested plant microRNA — such as the genetically modified bits containing Bt — not only survive digestion, but most definitely influence human cell function. This means that DNA can code for microRNA, which can, in fact, be hazardous… having been linked for ten years to human diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
A third study in Norway, published in July 2012, proved that GMO genes are indeed transferred through the intestinal wall into the blood. During their study they found “pieces of genetically modified DNA in large enough segments to be identified in blood, muscle tissue and liver.” Not only did that Norwegian study once again disprove the long-held “pro-GMO” claim that “new genes introduced in GM food are harmless since all genes are broken up in the intestines,” the test animals also showed increased weight gain, increased appetite, decreased immune function, an inability to properly digest proteins, as well as a different intestinal microstructure. (If this sounds like most of the U.S. population, it’s no wonder Monsanto doesn’t want labeling approved in this country.)
The most recent study done at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand reinforces the “altered genes survive digestion” theory. In this study, they found that the double stranded RNA (dsRNAs) present in genetically engineered wheat were able to withstand digestion (even after cooking) and circulate through the body, where it amplified into more and different dsRNAs and “alters gene expression in the animal.” The scientist went on to state: “The molecules created in this wheat, intended to silence wheat genes, can match human genes, and through ingestion, these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes. The findings are absolutely assured. There is no doubt that these matches exist.” Read a synopsis article here; view the full study report here.
So what if these altered genes aren’t digesting, what’s the inherent risk? These studies indicate that the food we eat transfers more than just vitamins and protein to our cells. Our bodies are absorbing information, aka microRNA. What’s the purpose of microRNA? They usually function by turning down or shutting down certain genes. What genes would you like to have “turned down or turned off” in your body, without your knowledge or permission?
Long before any studies were done in humans, countless animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GMO food consumption. The association of GM foods and specific disease processes is also supported. A 2005 study by Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology at the Russian Academy of Sciences showed a significantly higher mortality rate in baby rats born to mothers who had consumed GM soy (chart shown above), while the surviving babies presented significantly stunted growth (photo below right).
A 2008 study linked GM corn with infertility, showing a significant decrease in offspring over time and significantly lower litter weight in mice fed GM corn. This same study found that over 400 genes were found to be expressed differently in the mice fed GM corn. These are genes known to control protein synthesis and modification, cell signaling, cholesterol synthesis, and insulin regulation. Studies also show intestinal damage in animals fed GM foods, including proliferative cell growth9 and disruption of the intestinal immune system.
In April 2012, the results of a comprehensive two year study—the first long term feeding study ever performed—were in: feeding Monsanto’s RoundUp-ready corn, as well as “acceptable levels” of RoundUp in drinking water to laboratory rats, was proven to be highly toxic to health.
The results were sobering: treated rats died 2–3 times more often than control rats, and more rapidly. Female rats developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before control rats; their pituitary was the second most disabled organ, and their sex hormonal balance was modified.
Meanwhile male rats suffered from liver congestions, with necrosis occurring 2.5–5.5 times more frequently. They likewise presented 4 times more large palpable tumors than control rats, and these tumors occurred up to 600 days earlier. Biochemistry data confirmed very significant kidney chronic deficiencies for all treatments and both sexes, 76% of the altered parameters were kidney related.
The overwhelming results of these studies are consistent: infertility, immune dysregulation (including upregulation of cytokines associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation); accelerated aging; dysregulation of genes; altered structure and function of organs including the liver (altered lipid and carbohydrate metabolism as well as cellular changes), dysfunction in the kidney, pancreas, spleen and gastrointestinal system; stillbirths and birth defects; sterility; and cancer. Taken in total, these animal studies represent more than just a coincidental association between GM foods and adverse health effects, with causation in multiple areas including strength of association, consistency, specificity, biological gradient, and biological plausibility. When you add the data from animal studies to the data from human studies, the result clearly demonstrates a strong biological parallel between genetically engineered food and adverse health effects in humans.
When you compare this data against the health statistics in the U.S., and contrast it to the health statistics from other nations where GMOs are outlawed, there’s an even more disturbing parallel: Americans have the highest rate of cancer of any other country on the planet — 1 out of 2 men, and 1 out of 3 women are expected to get cancer in their lifetime. 1 out of 8 women has breast cancer, and only 1 in 10 of those breast cancers are inherited, which means 9 out of 10 incidences of breast cancers are environmentally triggered. The United States’ national healthcare costs are likewise far higher than any other developed nation: 16% of our GDP goes towards managing disease.
What sort of diseases have been emerging during the same timeframe that GMOs have gradually become prevalent in over 70% of the food in our grocery stores?
While there have been no direct studies of the relationship between GMO crops and allergies , it is significant to note the sudden rise in food allergies during the same time period that GMO crops’ ingredients have become widely used in the majority of our food. (According to a 2005 estimate by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, 75% of all processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.)
The statistics began mounting in the late 1990s—again, right at the time when GMOs became mainstream in processed and fast food: the majority of children in the US now have life-threatening allergies to corn, milk, peanuts or other related GM foods; peanut allergies alone doubled from 1997 to 2002: 1 out of every 50 children is allergic to peanuts in the United States. Over the last 10 years (during which GMOs have become widespread in the U.S.), 1 out of every 17 children in the U.S. developed a food allergy, and hospital emergency rooms across the nation experienced a 265% increase in food allergy emergencies.
In April 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 out of every 20 children has developed food allergies since the late 1990s; meanwhile a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics has seen incidences as high as 1 out of every 12 children. Scientists are speculating that by introducing a foreign gene into a plant, it may be creating a new allergen or allergic response in susceptible individuals. Especially now that we know these foreign genes do not “break apart” during the digestion process. Unfortunately, testing of GM foods to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies has not been done. Labeling of GM foods and food that contains GM products has likewise not been done. When individual states try to pass labeling initiatives, Monsanto sues them back into silence. Just ask Vermont and Connecticut…
Parallel Increase in Type 2 Diabetes
Over the past seven years, increasing studies are documenting the direct connection between pesticides and a huge spike (as much as 250%) in diabetes. The first study was reported back in 2005 by Japanese scientists, and again in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health; another study by the University of Cambridge corroborated the findings; as did yet another study performed by Stanford University.
By contrast, another study (last paragraph in the article) bolsters the argument: the association between obesity and diabetes was absent in people with low concentrations of pesticides in their blood. Essentially, individuals were more at risk of diabetes if they were thin, with high blood-levels of pesticides, than if they were overweight with low levels of pesticides.
In addition to allergies, another insidious problem is on the rise in our nation’s children: autism.
During the same time period corresponding to the prevalence of GMOs in our processed food — from 1997 to 2008 — the Pediatrics Journal reports a 250% increase in the prevalence of autism in American children — one out of 91 children are now diagnosed with autism.
Once again, there have been no studies linking GMOs to developmental diseases (since studies of GMOs are not happening in the U.S.; see “Emerging Health Risks in Human Studies” below).
Coincidentally (or not), the main dietary culprits reported for autism include soy (the #1 GMO crop), milk (much of which still contains rBGH hormone), food starches (most of which are made from GMO corn), and gluten in all of its forms. Despite the mounting reports, one recent study claims there is no such diet corollary. More studies are now underway.
3. ECONOMIC CONCERNS
Agriculture Subsidies for Food That Makes us Sick
More than 60 percent of all deaths in the U.S. are from diseases linked to unhealthful saturated fat and a cholesterol laden diet: heart disease, cancer, stroke, liver disease, and high blood pressure. The annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion in 2008. The Medicare and Medicaid spending for obesity-related conditions now totals $61 billion per year. Heart disease costs $189.4 billion per year and that cost is expected to triple by 2030. Cancer costs $102.8 billion per year. Diabetes costs $128.1 billion annually.
So why is Congress delegating billions of taxpayer dollars to boost the production of the most unhealthy food — GMO meat, hormone-laced dairy, and sweeteners for processed food — while fruits and vegetables receive almost none?
Especially when the beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies (creatively named ‘The Farm Bill’) are the very same corporations that promote GMO crops and convert these crops into high fructose corn syrup, and GMO feed for the cows and pigs who end up in a McDonald’s wrapper, rather than the organic farmers who are raising more healthy food, healthy soil, and a healthier environment.
Corporate Profits Outweigh Public Health
Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process. Agri-biotech companies (and their shareholders) have a vested interest in maximizing profits on their investment by conserving expenses. Without any requirements from the FDA, they have no reason to invest money on pre-market human health safety studies.
Corporate Patents Control Farming
All of the new genetically engineered plant technologies and resulting GM plants and seeds have been patented. Patented seeds cost more, and these costs are controlled by corporations focused on maximizing profits. As a result, farmers in the US who agreed to a “better future through GMO crops” and signed contracts with Monsanto must pay royalty fees, licensing fees, and trade fees in addition to the higher cost of GMO seeds they are then required to plant on their farm. And it’s not a one-time cost. The generations-old practice of cleaning and saving a portion of seeds from this year’s crop to be replanted next year? No longer possible… that’s considered illegal patent infringement in Monsanto’s contract.
Farmers are required to buy fresh seed every single year, and new laws against “seed cleaning” businesses are causing these service providers to go out of business — but not before Monsanto obtains their account records in order to track down farmers who are still cleaning and saving seeds.
Corporate Patents Control Nations
The higher cost of genetically modified “super seeds” is typically out of the range of what small farmers and third world countries are able to afford, thus widening the gap between wealthy and poor, well-fed and hungry.
Unless of course Monsanto, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bill and Melinda Gates step in to “gift” GMO seeds to poor nations (via non-profit organization called AGRA) in order to establish that country’s dependence on Monsanto’s “drug” and thus effectively take control of a poorer region’s economic future (not to mention the future of the population’s health).
Lawsuits Force Non-GMO Farmers Out of Business
Farmers who don’t currently use Monsanto’s patented GMO seeds may face unexpected costs when their crops are cross-pollinated from neighboring GMO fields and Monsanto takes them to court for patent infringement (since Monsanto can’t sue the bees and butterflies actually doing the job).
Monsanto is rallying nearly $50 million in anti-label advertising dollars, and that, combined with an ardent citizens’ rebuttal, has created a surge of public awareness. If passed, Proposition 37 will be a monumental step forward in allowing consumers to make informed choices about food, while setting the stage for other states to follow California’s lead.
Ask yourself: why do the world’s top chemical manufacturers want to prevent you from knowing what’s in your food?
This Article was condensed from an article in GMO-AWARENESS.com for Dee Jensen
Tags: GMO Risks