“GMO”. We’ve all heard the acronym somewhere, but what exactly does it mean? It stands for “Genetically Modified Organism” and has been a major source of controversy over the past two decades.
This article discusses what a GMO is, the process of genetic engineering, its health and environmental impacts, as well as potential uses for the technology around the globe.
Introduction to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)
The term “GMO” stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” GMO’s are created when biotechnology corporations forcibly merge the DNA of two separate species which aren’t able to reproduce in nature to create a new inter-species organism.
The most common application of genetic engineering is of food. In 2012, “88 percent of corn (maize) and 94 percent of soy grown in the United States were genetically modified.” (1)
In fact, a majority of products sold at grocery stores contain some form of GMO while more GM crops are being approved every year. Corn, soy, alfalfa (2), papaya, sugar beets, apples (3), canola, yellow summer squash, and zucchini all have GMO variants.
Jeffery Smith from non-profit food safety group Institute for Responsible Technology lists some of the most common foods containing GMO’s, including tomato sauce, imitation meats, non-cane sugar, and even infant formulas with corn-based ingredients.
By their very nature, GMO’s defy the natural world. By inserting foreign genes into a completely separate species, biotech corporations like Bayer (which now owns Monsanto), Syngenta, and Cargill are all creating what has been dubbed “frankenfood” by the natural food community.
When GMO’s first hit U.S. markets in 1994 they went largely unnoticed, arguably because lax regulatory agencies and grocery chains did not want to scare people away from the new technology.
As a result, the world has had little opportunity for debate until recently, which may be one of the reasons that the conversation is often so heated.
When it comes to GM variants, the most common are Round-Up resistant crops. This type of GMO has a built-in resistance to the chemical known as ‘Glyphosate,’ which is the active ingredient in Monsanto (now Bayer)’s herbicide Round-Up.
Also known as ‘Bt’ (short for Bacillus thuringiensis), the variant is created by merging the DNA of crops such as corn with the Bt bacteria found in certain soils – which has a natural immunity to the herbicide.
These forms of GMO’s have sparked a particularly great controversy due to the fact that weeds are developing an immunity to the herbicide themselves, thus creating the advent of ‘super weeds’.
As these weeds become more immune to herbicides, farmers have to use them in larger amounts, posing a potential risk to human health and the environment.
As the public learns more about GMO’s, scientists have more time to study them, and the independent media which tends to cover this topic more critically becomes more influential, the debate surrounding genetic engineering is likely to become even more prominent in the global conversation.
Health Impact of Genetically Modified Foods
The impact that genetically-modified foods have on our health is heavily debated among scientists. While some claim that GMO’s are completely safe, others argue that the new technology has not gone through adequate testing and poses a significant risk to public health.
In a paper signed by over 300 scientists and researchers, Environmental Sciences Europe (1) argues that there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety” due to a lack of evidence and no long-term human studies.
As GMO’s have only been on the market since 1994 in the United States, only 12 years after the first GMO was approved by the FDA (a genetically-engineered E. coli bacteria) (2), there have not been any long-term studies on the effect of consuming genetically-engineered foods.
Scientists debate over which studies are most valid, with some arguing that the corporate-funded science is the most reliable because of professionalism and a larger budget, and others arguing that independent scientists are typically the most ethical because they do not have ties to the industry.
Regardless, there has been a mix of opinion among scientists from every place in the spectrum. Some research indicates no impact to human health while some shows the growth of tumors, an onset of leaky gut, and other abnormalities such as the degeneration of liver cells being associated with the consumption of GM foods (3).
In 2011, researchers in Eastern Quebec (Canada) found Bt toxins in the blood of pregnant women with indication that the toxin was also present in the fetus (4).
The most controversial study on GMO’s in known as the Seralini study. French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini first published a study on the long-term (90 day) effects that GMO’s and their complementary pesticide ingredient known as glyphosate have on lab rats.
This study was immediately attacked by the pro-GMO science community who argued that the researchers were using improper protocols such as the wrong type of rat. However, the study showed large tumor growth on the rats, whereas short-term studies (30 days) do not show such signs.
On the contrary, studies do exist which indicate that GMO’s are safe, however these studies are often conducted by professionals who are associated (usually financially) with the biotech industry.
Pro-GMO media sometimes claims in ironic fashion that “the GMO debate is officially over” whenever a study is released indicating their safety (5). However, the 52% of Americans who believe that GMO’s are not safe, and the 93% who want mandatory labeling (6), are not likely to be swayed by just one study, especially when its scientists are tied in some way to the business.
Environmental Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops
As with health, the environmental impact of genetic engineering is also under heavy debate. Generally speaking, the debate is centered around four key issues: yields, genetic diversity, pesticides, and soil degradation.
Proponents of GMO’s tout their ability to produce higher yields than organic or conventionally-grown crops. A recent study by the Institute of Life Sciences in Pisa, Italy reaffirms this industry claim (1).
The study, which is a review of 76 separate studies from 1996 to 2006, claims that GM corn grants 5.6 to 24.5% higher yields than non-GM variants.
They also claim that the concentrations of certain toxins produced by fungi were lower in GE corn, which the study authors believe is a result of insect resistance.
However, clean food advocates would argue that these types of studies are often misleading because the studies which research teams choose to review are selectively chosen beforehand to provide a particular result.
The study authors also suggest that the research indicates a non-affect toward insect populations, a highly controversial claim considering there has been a great deal of research tying pesticides to lowered honeybee populations (2).
Genetic diversity is also a major issue when it comes to genetically-engineered crops. As the process of creating GMO’s is done in a lab, biotech companies do not bother creating several gene varieties of one plant. As a result, every GMO crop of any particular variety has the exact same DNA – they’re all clones of one single plant.
This means that if any one stalk of corn, for example, is vulnerable to a particular disease which happens to strike an area with large amounts of corn, every plant will die unless treated immediately, whereas in nature the crops would likely have a diverse enough gene pool to overcome the illness.
This has become a problem with bananas, as although they are not genetically modified, the selective breeding techniques used to produce the type of banana we’re used to seeing – the Cavendish variety – has created the same situation, where bananas are now extremely vulnerable to panama disease (3).
Finally, the pesticides used alongside GMO crops are under debate as well. Some argue that they are degrading the soils used to produce crops – effectively making it impossible to grow anything other than GMO’s in a particular field which has been heavily sprayed with glyphosate herbicide.
As the most common pesticide is only considered “slightly toxic” to animal life, the full environmental impact of GMO’s is uncertain. However, the longer these chemicals are in the environment, the greater our understanding of their effect.
Use of Herbicides with Genetically Engineered Crops
Several pesticides and herbicides are used in conjunction with GMO’s, but the most common is known commercially as Round-Up.
Most genetically modified corn is engineered in such a way which allows heavy amounts of Monsanto’s herbicide round-up to be sprayed on them. This is achieved by inserting genes from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis into the corn genome, thus creating what is called ‘Round-Up Ready crops.’
Round-Up’s active ingredient glyphosate, was declared a ‘probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 (1). A recent court ruling also declared that Monsanto acted with “malice” by not disclosing the known dangers of their products and that their products “substantially” contribute to cancer. (2)
Other herbicides are used with GMO’s as well, including Dow’s ‘Enlist Duo’, which Environmental Working Group calls “an extraordinarily potent weed-killer designed to kill the new generation of so-called ‘super weeds’ which have adapted to withstand blasts of Monsanto’s popular weed-killer RoundUp.” (3)
Enlist Duo contains two herbicides, Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), and glyphosate. It is considerably more toxic than glyphosate on its own and is typically used to fight the ‘super weeds‘ which have gained immunity from glyphosate due to frequent use.
2,4-D is a component of Vietnam-era Agent Orange which still exists in the environment and continues to cause birth defects to this day. It was developed in 1946 by Monsanto and its dangers have long been known.
According to the USDA, use of Enlist Due will have nearly tripled by 2020 nationwide.
The Introduction of Super Weeds
As the chemical industry develops new and more efficient ways to kill unwanted insects and weeds, nature is working to keep those pests alive.
According to some scientists, weeds are becoming resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate, resulting in a need to spray our crops with higher amounts of the herbicide.
As noted in the herbicides section of this site, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared glyphosate a ‘probable carcinogen’. If this is true, it means that as time goes on, these herbicides will contribute to an increase in cases and severity of cancer.
“It is a crisis situation…We’re losing the effectiveness of herbicide tools against weeds going forward.” – Neil Harker, Weed Ecologist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (1)
Dow Chemical claims that the prevalence of ‘super weeds’ has more than doubled in the five years from 2009-2014. These weeds, they say, span across 70 million acres of farmland and have cost around $1 billion in crop damage thus far.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) states that super weeds have occurred as a result of an over reliance on particular pesticides, mono culture, and neglecting other weed control methods.
“Almost 50 percent of surveyed farms are infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds, and the rate of these weeds’ spread is increasing.” – Union of Concerned Scientists (2)
However, they also believe that using multiple herbicides will cause significant immunity to develop, which would be a “nightmare scenario for farmers who rely primarily on herbicides.”
The solution may be to use less herbicides as to not give these weeds the chance to develop further immunity, or it might be to stop using herbicides all together. Opinions will likely always differ on this subject.
Potential Positives of Genetic Engineering Technology
Although I am highly skeptical about the safety of genetic-engineering, there are some potential uses that could make a positive impact around the globe.
One such project is the “super banana”. In Uganda, Vitamin A deficiency is common. To solve that problem, researchers are looking for ways of engineering bananas to contain higher amounts of Vitamin A. (1)
“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000-700,000 children worldwide dying…each year and at least another 300,000 going blind…Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food.” – Professor James Dale
Another potential use of genetic engineering is drought-resistant crops. Biotech companies have been working to develop food crops which can withstand long droughts, opening up agriculture to areas of the globe which would normally be too dry to grow in.
According to the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Seed Scaling Project (DTMASS), African countries saw their yields increase by 20%-30% after beginning to farm these drought-resistant hybrids. (2)
However, debate rages regarding the ethics of giving corporations control over the very genetic structure of the seeds we all need to survive.
Corruption and Malpractice in the Biotechnology Industry
The biotechnology industry has come under intense criticism over the past decade regarding the ethics of its business practices and involvement in the federal regulation process.
Chemical and biotechnology company Monsanto has been at the forefront of such criticism, resulting in worldwide protest movements against them, most notably “March Against Monsanto“.
One of the most frequent arguments made by GMO safety advocates is that the biotech industry is typically involved in studies which conclude that GM foods are “safe”, which is why there is so much skepticism regarding the legitimacy of many “pro-GMO” studies.
Just recently, Monsanto has been ordered to pay $289 Million to a California man named Dewayne Johnson for causing him non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer) as a result of using RangerPro, a pesticide containing the ingredient glyphosate. (1)
“In 2017, a federal court released a series of documents which included internal emails between the company and federal regulators, suggesting that Monsanto had ghostwritten research papers which were later attributed to academics. The documents were released based on litigations brought forth by individuals who also claimed to have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from the use of glyphosate.” (2)
Monsanto was also caught in 2015 paying off a University of Florida professor named Kevin Folta (3). After paying the horticulture science professor $25 Million in an “unrestricted grant,” Folta sent them an email touting that they will receive “a solid return on the investment.”
Instances like this occur fairly frequently in the world of biotechnology, which is why many are skeptical of scientists who tout their benefits without weighing the consequences.
Worldwide Regulation of GMO Crops
As we know, there is a rigorous debate regarding the health and environmental impacts of GMO’s. Consequently, several countries have taken the liberty to ban, label, or otherwise regulate genetically-engineered foods.
On October 3rd of 2015, 19 EU countries “opted out” of growing GMO’s in their territories (1). These countries include Denmark, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. All EU nations require labeling of GMO’s in grocery products.
Other countries have placed bans on GMO’s as well, including Russia, which banned the production of genetically-modified crops in 2015 (2).
Some nations have decided to enact partial bans or other forms of regulations on GMO crops. Switzerland, Australia, China, and Mexico are among these countries, with Mexico enacting a complete ban of genetically-engineered (GE) corn production in 2013 (3).
The United States on the other hand has not even gone so far as to enact mandatory labeling of GMO’s. In fact, In 2016 the federal government enacted a nation-wide bill which now forbids even state labeling. Often referred to as the “DARK Act 2.0”, this bill has effectively killed easy-to-read labeling across the country (4).
Overall, 26 countries now have full or partial bans on GMO’s.
Mass Media Coverage
Media coverage of GMO’s is highly varied. Most advocates of clean food are not happy with the lack of critical reporting from most mainstream media outlets. To fill this vacuum, alternative news sites have taken the liberty to report in a more critical fashion, such as Natural News, Natural Society, and a plethora of other small-scale companies and blogs.
Probably the most telling story of legacy media corruption is the Fox News Bovine Growth Hormone incident. This clip is from the documentary “The Corporation” (1)
In my experience, the legacy media has run some great stories which are critical of Monsanto and GMO’s, but they are few and far between. It is usually the alternative media which reports on all known aspects of GMO’s and current events surrounding the issue.
Corruption and Malpractice:
Mass Media Coverage:
This article was compiled from a website I created as part of a college project in 2018 titled Modified Genes.
About the Author
Phillip Schneider is a staff writer and assistant editor for Waking Times. If you would like to see more of his work, you can like his Facebook Page, or follow him on the free speech social network Minds.
This article (Modified Genes: A Comprehensive Guide to Genetically Modified Foods) originally appeared at PhillipSchneider.com and may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author credit, and this copyright statement.