Genetically modified foods were first introduced in the market in the mid-1990s after decades of research. The World Health Organization notes that herbicide-resistant soybeans were the first GM food product available for purchase by consumers. Since the introduction of this very first GM crop, the existence of GM foods have been met with criticism and concern from a variety of consumers, politicians, governments and activists. While Europeans have been the most vocal in their concerns about GM foods, this is something that everyone should be carefully evaluating.
Arguments For GM Foods
Proponents of GM foods often cite the challenges of feeding a growing population as the primary reason for why the world needs GM foods. Other reasons used to advance GM foods include the availability of crops that adapt and grow in any type of weather, the ability to add vital nutrients in foods that are not naturally occurring (such as omega-3 in rice), and crops that are able to fend off pests without the application of any additional pesticides.
As mentioned by the WHO, biotech companies initially targeted farmers with the advantages of GM seeds. For this reason, GM foods have been designed with built-in crop protection characteristics. They can resist plant diseases, they can lower the need for insecticides by incorporating insect resistance into the genes of the plant, they can be virus resistance due to the insertion of specific anti-virus genes, and they can lower the need for some herbicides with the insertion of a specific bacterium gene.
Arguments Against GM Foods
According to a recent article in The Guardian, three main public concerns tend to exist when people are asked about their feelings on GM foods. Those concerns are the fear of eating something that is not natural, the fear of unexpected consequences from the planting of GM crops, and the fear that the biotech industry will control the food supply and dictate how farmers can use the GM seeds.
Since the only studies on the safety and potential health side effects of GM foods have been done by the biotech companies, such as Monsanto, and not independent groups, there is some concern about how eating GM foods affects the human body. No long term research has been conducted on humans to address concerns of allergenicity and gene transfer.
Experts Weigh In
Dr. Don Huber, a Purdue University professor specializing in soil microbiology and plant pathology for 35 years, has spoken out against the catastrophic effects that GM foods are responsible for in terms of agricultural components. Huber notes that herbicide resistance, which is found in Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seeds, is resulting in super weeds and insects that are resistant to glyphosate, which is Roundup’s active ingredient. The glyphosate moves from the roots of the plants into the soil, which ends up contaminating ground water and killing vital organisms in the soil that plants need to remain healthy. This results in plants that are actually more susceptible to disease because they are less healthy. For consumers, it also results in less nutritious plants since the glyphosate prevents minerals and nutrients from being absorbed by the plants. In a recent Care2 article, Dr. Huber notes that as much as 90 percent of micronutrients like zinc and iron are reduced in GM plants. This dispels the myth that GM foods are more nutritious than organic or non-GM foods.
The same Care2 article points to the fact that you cannot simply wash off the glyphosate residue of GM foods as a primary concern of toxicity. Since the seeds are engineered to have the herbicide in the plant, there is no way to remove it. This leaves consumers ingesting something that could normally be washed off if it was simply sprayed on a crop.
The beneficial bacterium that resides in the gut area of animals and humans is also very sensitive to glyphosate. Dairy cows eating a diet primarily composed of GM foods are experiencing instances of toxic botulism, which results in death. This used to be a rare care of death in dairy cows that is now becoming quite common.
Dr. Huber has also found a relationship of soy consumption and Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS) in cattle. SDS has resulted in both infertility and spontaneous abortions in cattle eating feed that contains GM soy. However, no studies have been done on humans to determine if the same risk exists.
Dr. Mercola, who runs his own health website, suggests that GM foods may be linked to cancer, allergies, birth defects, organ disruption, lung damage and other health problems. Each of these problems have been observed in studies with rats and other animals, but no human trials have been conducted.
The USDA and FDA insist that GM foods are safe for human consumption in the United States, however a city in Maine, four counties in California and, most recently, Boulder, Colorado have all banned GM crops. Many European countries, such as Germany and Hungary, have banned GM seeds until human health studies have been done. And in 2011, Peru issued a 10-year moratorium on GM foods.
Avoiding GM Foods
Keeping your diet free of GM foods takes a lot of work because almost all processed food has at least one GM item in it, unless it is labeled as 100% organic. The United States is one of the largest growers of GM foods, with the following crops being GM:
- 86 percent of corn
- 93 percent of cottonseed oil
- 93 percent of soybeans
- 93 percent of canola
- 95 percent of sugar beets
Genetically engineered alfalfa has also been approved for planting, but no crop numbers are available yet. When trying to avoid GM foods, it is also important to remember than many animals, such as cows and chickens, are fed a corn or soy-based diet that is usually GM unless otherwise specified on the label. This means that you can indirectly ingest GM corn via milk, butter, sour cream, eggs, meats and cheese.