Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Are GMOs, Anyways?

photo by Ashim D'Silva

Although it makes me laugh, this video makes me sad.

It also makes me realize that, as someone who is against GMOs in food and frequently mentions that on her blog (and in class last week...) I should probably explain what GMOs are and why I'm against them. 

First of all, the obvious needs to be stated.

GMO = Genetically Modified Organism

So what does it mean when a food contains one of these genetically modified organisms? What is a genetically modified organism?

Well, to my understanding*, genetic modification (also referred to as genetic engineering) is when certain genes are extracted from a living thing and inserted into another organism. One of the creepy things about genetically modified food is that the genes inserted into a crop aren't always from other plants; they can come from animals, viruses, insects, bacteria, and (though this is unusual) humans. One of the major arguments against GMOs is that this is an unnatural process; nowhere in nature will you find an organism taking on the DNA of another in this way. Animals that are the result of cross breeding between species, like the mule, can't reproduce because the parent DNA of the two different species just refuses to mesh. I mean, how does it make sense to take genes from a virus and put them into a crop intended for human consumption??

But I'll get to my own opinion later... First of all, I want to explain why there's so much controversy surrounding the issue.

photo by Bill Williams

GMOs have only been around since the 1980s, and weren't put into food products that were fed to the public until the mid 1990s. Because genetic modification is such a recent technology, we cannot know the long term effects it may have on a society that consumes GM food. Smoking didn't used to be considered so lethal, right? Yet now that it's been around for long enough, we've started to see its connection to lung cancer and a higher mortality rate. My own grandfather died of lung cancer about a year ago, and I believe he only smoked for a year of his life. What do we not yet know about GMOs that could be equally (or even more) fatal?

There I go, totally going off subject again. Okay. Staying on track here.

Perhaps you've heard of a company called Monsanto. If you haven't, it's the agriculture company that has basically become known as the villain of the anti-GMO community. Monsanto is the main reason GMO crops are so prevalent today, because of a little thing called Roundup.

Roundup is a pesticide that was developed by Monsanto in 1974 with the aim of being an extremely efficient weed-killer. It worked pretty well- the only problem was that Roundup contains a chemical called glyphosate. As this is a non-selective pesticide, it killed the plants as well as the weeds.

Instead of deciding to use a less harsh chemical as pesticide (you can find some examples of natural pesticides here), the company decided to genetically modify the crops they were spraying with pesticide to be glyphosate-resistant. Thus, one of the first strains of genetically modified crops intended for human consumption was introduced. These new glyphosate-resistant crops were called 'Roundup-Ready' crops, as they could survive Roundup pesticide. This method of protecting crops from pests, weeds and pesticides via GMOs has become insanely popular within the last decade, to the point where over 100 million acres of land across the world are filled with genetically modified seeds (as stated by GMO Inside),  accounting for something close to the majority of the world's supply of corn, soy and cotton.

Now this is where I start getting really angry. This glyphosate-laden Roundup chemical spray was so strong it killed the plants it was being sprayed on. If the plants needed to be genetically modified (bear in mind that this is still a relatively new and risky science) in order to resist the pesticide they were being sprayed with, maybe we shouldn't be spraying them with such harmful herbicides!!! I'm not going to go into depth about all the studies that have been done about the negative effects of glyphosate on human health and the environment, but if you want to explore that more check out this link and this one.

I can't believe society has accepted this kind of issue. Some people, avoiding the whole glyphosate situation, make the argument that GMOs can help solve problems like famine by stabilizing crop growth. This could be done by inserting genes that resist viruses into crops which could then be sent to third world countries to provide a food source. Other varieties of genes could also be inserted that make crops able to last longer in storage, thereby enabling them to survive transportation to the poor countries in question. It has also been suggested that the nutritional value of some crops could be increased via genetic modification, but I honestly don't believe there is a way humans can take something natural and make it more nutritious or healthier. Look at enriched wheat flour- I mean, organic, whole grain wheat flour isn't a bad thing, but when producers strip it of nutrients, bleach it, and add "vitamins and minerals" back in it's not exactly healthy anymore, just over-processed. But all this is only a small part of the problem!

I don't believe we should be placing genetically modified food in public markets at ALL, at the very least not without sufficient labeling. Why not?

First of all, there has not been enough testing to see what the effects of GMOs are on our health and environment, and most of the studies about the safety of GM food has been done either by the companies that stand to gain financially, like Monsanto, or by scientists who are paid huge amounts of money by these same companies (or work in labs whose financial support comes mostly from these companies). There have been some smaller studies done on mice forced to consume GMO foods which showed horrible damage to their internal organs, but these have been largely discredited because they didn't have huge credibility or funding from those big companies.

Basically, the only well-publicized GMO studies are completely biased, which makes them absolutely useless.

Why are these big business in favor of GMOs?  Well, not all big businesses. The problem is mostly in the US. In 1997 mandatory labeling on GMO food was required in the EU. Many other countries also require GMO labeling, and some countries like India do not allow GM crops at all.

In the US, however, there is a big focus on money. For Monsanto, the more GMO crops that are created, the more Roundup pesticide is used, and the more money the company makes. On one hand, this is good for the economy... but what an AWFUL thing it is to encourage the spraying of pesticides that harm people and the environment,  just to make money. Plus, though some scientists try to make the case that genetically modified crops require less pesticide overall, it actually takes more once weeds become resistant to the chemicals and have to be sprayed multiple times. I mean, this company has enough money to spend billions of dollars against GMO labeling and STILL make a profit. Why can't they take some of that money and spend it on more ethical agricultural practices??

Wait, wait... why are they spending so much money to prevent GMO labeling?

Apparently, Monsanto and its fellow GM food companies are against GMO labeling because people will start to fear GM foods and buy less of them. Um, I definitely don't think the population of people that understands the harm GM foods could cause is large enough to make an impact on this huge company's profits. The people that are serious about avoiding GMOs already do so- labeling won't change that.

So what do these companies want to hide?

I am aware that this is a pretty inflammatory issue, but I don't see it as black and white. Something I should explain is that there are different purposes of genetic modification- though I disagree with the idea as a whole, there are some motivations I can sympathize with. For example, there was an issue with orange crops in Florida dying from a disease called citrus greening earlier in the 2000s. Under a time crunch, GMOs were the only way they could think to save the crop, by inserting a virus-resistant gene.  Are there other, better ways to save a crop? Maybe, but in this case the company didn't have the time to figure them out. This was to save the crop; which in the long run probably also relates back to making money, but Monsanto creating a GMO for its crop so it won't die from pesticide bothers me because again, they shouldn't be using that pesticide. 

Remember, though there fewer GMOs-are-bad experiments than GMOs-are-fine experiments, but the ONLY GMOs-are-fine experiments are funded by companies like Monsanto that benefit from the results, and those same companies put lots of money into downplaying the GMOs-are-bad experiments, as I discussed earlier.

photo by Israel Egio
Further Resources

My goal in writing this post is for you, as a member of a global society and probably a consumer of GM foods, to be aware of the issues going on in the agricultural industry. My research here is by no means an exhaustive account of the problems food production is going through today, but I hope it inspires you to really learn about the things these processes are doing to your health and your body. If you can vote, I encourage you to support measures for GMO labeling so you know what's in the food you're eating.

In the meantime, I've compiled some resources to give you even more information. And although I personally am totally against GMOs, I encourage you to examine both sides of the issue. Don't just read this blog post and assume you understand the problems I've described. Read about it. Learn about it. As you should regarding any political subject, form your own opinion!

Anyways. Resources. Mostly favoring my argument against GMOs, but with some alternative links as well...

(this history of GMOs timeline is super helpful for understanding how GMOs came to be in our food)

(here's another, more extensive timeline)

As for the opposite of the issue... here is Monsanto's website, which explains their view on the safety of their GMO products.

*I am not a scientist. All the information in this post is based on my understanding of the research I've done, which I believe is fairly accurate but has the potential to be inaccurate. If you notice anything amiss, please contact me, as my goal is to share my own opinion based on concrete facts, NOT false information.

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