Everything you ever wanted to know about GMOs*
*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is emotionally charged and has been especially hot recently, with the labeling bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio last Wednesday.
A GMO is an organism in which part of its genetic make up has been altered through genetic engineering. In agriculture, these organisms are made to have certain desirable traits, like resistance to cold weather or pests or a more pleasing appearance for increased sales. Common GMOs include corn, soy, sugar beets, and canola and cottonseed oils. These crops are also fed to cattle, sheep and other animals that we, as a society, eat regularly. We ingest GMOs almost every time we eat.
Trying to eliminate GMOs from a diet is extremely difficult, sometimes near impossible, because of their presence in most mass-produced foods. The Great Basin Community Food Co-op is a local community-owned grocery store that has committed to a one-year evaluation of all their products to determine what contains GMOs and what does not. After the evaluation, they will prohibit GMO-containing products from their shelves. A group called the Grassroots Action Network is heading up the Label GMO Nevada project will assist in this effort.You’ll eat what you’re told
Although GMO is a broad term that could mean almost anything from age-old directed pollination of plants to introducing a gene from another species into a plant’s genetic composition, the latter is the type of genetic modification typically referred to by the term.
“GMO is kind of a funny term, and I think it is a little bit misleading to a certain extent because everything is a genetically modified organism,” said David Shintani, associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and associate professor in the biochemistry department. “You’re a genetically modified organism—a cross between your mother and your father. But genetic engineered or transgenic organisms are what they’re talking about.”
A common crop made in this way is Roundup Ready corn or soybeans produced by the Monsanto Company. These crops’ DNA is modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), which allows farmers to spray it on their crops without harming the crops. There are some benefits to these crops, according to Shintani, but they are still the source of a lot of controversy.
“In the past, they had to do a lot more cultivation of the land, which causes soil erosion,” Shintani said. “That causes the farm land to be depleted. Now, they do what’s called “no till.” They can plant right on top of the stubble that’s left. They don’t have to spray as often because you used to have to use a different herbicide that didn’t affect corn, which you had to use more often. Roundup is a broad spectrum herbicide. Roundup kills both monocots, that are like grasses, and dicots, that are like leafy plants. Farmers love it because they get bigger yields with less labor going into it.”
Shintani said most of the benefits of GMO crops are seen by the producers, which is a big problem in their acceptance publicly, but he does see some benefits to consumers, as well. For example, while there haven’t been many natural famines in recent times, they will always be a problem, and GMOs can help with that.
“We’re having exponential population growth, and the amount of resources available for producing food is going down,” Shintani said. “The amount of arable land is decreasing because we’re developing a lot of it. We also have soil erosion. Over-farming is depleting the soil, and water has become an issue. Food security is important. It will take a combination of this genetic engineering and small farming to do this.”
There are numerous scientific studies on the safety of various GMO crops, but the results are contradictory. Many state that these foods are safe for human consumption, while many say that they can cause health issues across the spectrum. Researcher bias can color or change the results of either study result.
Monsanto Company is one of the main corporations behind the production and sale of GMO crop seeds, and they have multiple patents on seeds they have created. These patents make accessibility to seeds much more difficult, even for research.
“It’s really important to understand that they totally control their seeds,” said Kiki Corbin, a naturopath, pastoral counselor and the director of Label GMO Nevada. “They have a right to choose who does their research and uses their seeds.”
This makes many activists and others question the reliability of the studies conducted that point to GMOs as safe. Because of this, Corbin and many others want more research to be done on these crops.
That control doesn’t stop at the patents. A lot of distrust that many have for GMOs in food begins with Monsanto. There has been a documented flow of people between government regulatory agencies and Monsanto.Who’s buying?
Although patents had been held on plants before this time, in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court case, J.E.M. Supply v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, affirmed that plants could be patented. Monsanto was not directly involved with this case, but this decision helped the company protect its patents on seeds and plants. There has been controversy over this because Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion on that case. Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto back in the ’70s, raising the question of bias in the decision. It should be noted, however, that the vote in the case was six to two, so Thomas was not a deciding vote.
Another controversial figure is Michael Taylor, the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Taylor has worked for both Monsanto and the FDA at various times in his career. At the FDA, his positions have ranged from staff attorney to his current position, and at Monsanto, his positions included Vice President for Public Policy. Taylor has also been the Administer of Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Taylor was at the FDA when GMOs were given the designation of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), and although he is not listed on the policy document that stated this, he is rumored to have been a co-author.
In addition to this, current Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack is well-known as an ally of Monsanto and biotechnology, based on his policies and voting history. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a lobbying and advocacy group for the biotechnology industry, also named him Governor of the Year.
These incestuous relationships between Monsanto and government institutions have made people distrust the laws. These kinds of relationships between big business and government are not uncommon in the United States, but they create fear in the minds of citizens who worry about conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government. The distrust of the FDA created by these relationships makes many people, like Corbin, believe that the GRAS designation given to GMOs did not have sufficient research to back it up.
“The FDA arbitrarily decided, without enough research, that GMOs are safe and similar enough to normal crops that there is not a need for more research,” Corbin said. “Common sense says that this can’t be true. These organisms don’t naturally cross-pollinate outside of their species. They’re taking these foreign genes and inserting them into our food. They modify corn so that the corn itself produces a pesticide that kills bugs when they eat it. It’s not the same. It can’t be safe.”
Shintani explained that bt-corn uses a naturally occurring gene to make the corn produce a pesticide that creates holes in the insects’ stomachs when they eat the corn. He explained that the gene is targeted at specific species, not humans. He said that this is not known to be toxic to humans.
“It’s one of these proteins that won’t affect humans,” Shintani said. “It’s not toxic to humans, at least not to my knowledge. It’s like certain antibiotics you take. They kill the bacteria, but they don’t hurt you.”
Many people, including Corbin and GBCFC manager Amber Sallaberry, believe that GMOs cause many different medical issues, ranging from allergies to tumors and cancer. Shintani said that the studies have to be looked at individually to discern whether they are valid and unbiased, but he does not believe GMOs to cause any medical issues.
“I don’t think long-term medical issues are going to turn up, but I think it’s always good to be aware of these things,” Shintani said. “Personally, I’m fairly confident that that’s not going to happen, but I can’t be 100 percent certain.”Unjust desserts
Although Shintani expressed near certainty in his beliefs that GMOs are safe for human consumption, others are just as certain that they are not. Because of this, Corbin started the Label GMO Nevada project back in December. Her main goal at the time was to get a bill into law that would require labels on packaged foods with 0.9 percent of genetically modified materials them. She calls this the “right to know.”
The bill, AB330, was sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Aizley, District 41. He said that the Americans with Disabilities Act already requires labels on products that contain allergens. He said it should be the same for GMOs.
The bill died in committee on April 12. Although that bill is dead, the Grassroots Action Network is still striving to get something passed into law in this legislative session while preparing an initiative for next session.
“We would need to gather 101,000 signatures of people who voted in the last election,” Corbin said. “We would get help from the big non-profits to pay for the signature gatherers. It takes a well-oiled machine to be ready to do an initiative.”
They recently became a 501(c)(4) non-profit and will soon be applying to become a 501(c)(3). Corbin stated that they are excited that the group is now official because they will be able to raise money and organize more easily. She believes that bringing other non-profits into their cause will help make the process of getting the bill into law easier.
“Nobody has any money, so we will never get anywhere if we don’t come together, raise money as an organization together to educate the public and to give money during the campaign contribution time,” Corbin said. “This way, we, as an organization, have some clout. With our bill dying, I learned about the politics behind the scenes.”
Now, Grassroots Action Network will focus on education, growing their numbers and bringing the other non-profits working for similar causes so that they can work together. The education portion of this is one that Corbin plans to work on personally, too.
“One of my campaigns is going to be to go personally visit farmers who are doing GMOs,” Corbin said. “I’ll take a video and sit down and talk to them. Beg them to quit doing it. Even if they don’t do it this year, because this is planting season right now, at least we will have made some input. I can show them how it’s going to save them money, but it’s going to take education.”
But as previously stated, the idea of a bill requiring GMO labeling is also hot at the national level. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio recently introduced a bill into the House of Representatives and the Senate titled the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. This bill would require the FDA to “clearly label genetically engineered (GE) foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat,” according to the press release on Boxer’s U.S. Senate website. Although both Boxer and DeFazio are Democrats, the bill has Republican support in both the House and the Senate and independent support in the Senate, as well.
“Americans have the right to know what is in the food they eat so they can make the best choices for their families,” Boxer said in her press release. “This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of consumer groups, businesses, farmers, fishermen and parents who all agree that consumers deserve more—not less—information about the food they buy.”
The driving force behind this bill seems to be the same in all these arenas—people should have the right to know what they’re eating. Shintani agrees with this assessment.
“I know some people say if you label it, people will get an impression that it’s bad, but I think people should have choices,” Shintani said. “Consumers should know what they’re putting into their bodies. If they choose not to buy something made with a GMO food, then I think it’s their right to do that. I think transparency is a good thing. I think some of my colleagues would disagree with me, but I think people should be informed about what they’re having.”
Shintani also said that many of the misconceptions he believes people have about the science behind GMOs would be alleviated if scientists and other citizens were better at communicating these concerns and topics to each other.
“I wouldn’t say I’m pro-GMO; I wouldn’t say I’m anti-GMO,” Shintani said. “We’re researchers. We understand the science and technology behind it. There should be an open dialogue about these things. If not, nothing can change either way. I’m not going to try to change anyone’s opinion, but I’d like to hear theirs. And I think they want to hear ours.”
He said that he understands there is a mistrust of scientists and that open discussion would help to change that. Doing your own research and not always believing what you hear is something that Shintani also believes in, especially for this topic.
“I believe it’s safe,” Shintani said. “I think there are a lot of safeguards that go into determining the safety of these foods. There’s review from the FDA, USDA and EPA. That’s not to say that there’s not any need for concern. You should never take things for face value. It’s not bad to question scientists, government or authority.”