Updated: May 9, 2018
I was just having a discussion about GMOs with my family, and realized how many very educated people don't feel they have a dog in this fight, per se, rather think this is just another political argument that has little to do with them. However, I believe all of us should be aware of what we are putting into and on our bodies every single day, because ultimately it affects our health. So please read on if you are interested in a little GMO 101.
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It refers to plants or animals that have had their DNA modified for a specific purpose. Though there isn't anything intrinsically unsafe about genetic technology, often the purpose for modifying an organism, or the end product itself can ultimately lead to harm. Like many things, GMO projects largely started with good intentions - the ability to increase the productivity of crops, and make food more plentiful. However, the downstream effects of the end product, both intended and unintended, were not very well thought out. Or perhaps the financial gain just trumped the potential harm. The main traits that have been added to date have largely been related to herbicide tolerance and intrinsic pesticide production. Herbicide tolerance allows farmers to spray weed-killer directly on the crop without killing it. Whereas crops such as "Bt corn" produce their own pesticide right inside the plant, killing or deterring insects, and saving the farmer from having to spray pesticides. In the U.S., three major commodity crops are raised predominantly from GMO seed: field corn (92%*), soybeans (94%*), and cotton (94%*) (*percentages based on U.S. acreage as of 2015 - USDA). Other sources of GMO include products derived from the crops noted above, including oils, soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, as well as meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed. Note that the most GM corn and GM soy is used for feed.
A majority of GM crops, such as corn and soybeans, are engineered to be more resistant or tolerant to weed killers. For example, "Roundup Ready" crops, are designed to tolerate higher levels of Roundup herbicide. Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Not only does this create environmental harm, but GM foods contain higher residues of these potentially toxic herbicides. Roundup has been linked to sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.
Other plants are genetically modified to be more resistant to insects. The biggest example, which was noted above, is the Bt-toxin. This toxin is naturally produced by certain bacteria, making them resistant to insects by causing holes in the insects' stomachs, ultimately killing the insect. Genetic engineers have taken the gene that produces this toxin in bacteria and inserted it into the DNA of crops so that the plant in essence produces its own insecticide. Though this might seem like a good thing, as farmers then do not have to spray as much insecticide, the idea of consuming that toxic pesticide in every bite of Bt corn is hardly appetizing. Biotech companies claim that Bt-toxin is quickly destroyed in our stomach, and wouldn’t react with humans or mammals, however studies verify that natural Bt-toxin is not fully destroyed during digestion and does react with mammals. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology showed that when Bt-toxin derived from Monsanto’s corn was exposed to human cells, the toxin disrupts the membrane within 24 hours, causing fluid to leak through the cell walls. The idea that this toxin may be creating small holes in human cells in the same way that it kills insects is a disturbing one. A 2011 Canadian study conducted at Sherbrooke Hospital discovered that 93% of the pregnant women they tested had Bt-toxin from Monsanto’s corn in their blood, as did 80% of their unborn fetuses. There is also concern about the Bt genes relocating to human gut bacteria, which would convert our intestinal flora into living pesticide factories, possibly producing Bt-toxin inside of us year after year. This means that long after we stop eating a GM crop, its foreign GM proteins may be produced inside our intestines. Many scientists hypothesize that the increase in GM foods is responsible for the significant increase in food allergies and autoimmune diseases over the last several decades. There are no human clinical trials of GM food, however, there is some convincing animal evidence. To read more, click the links below.
My point in writing about this is not to scare you, but just to make you aware of this important debate and the potential health concerns associated with it. After all, knowledge is power, and all of us have to take our health into our own hands, because no one is going to do it for us! I do recommend choosing non-GMO products where available, especially if it is a food you enjoy frequently ... for me this means only non-GMO corn tortilla chips! 365, Food Should Taste Good, and Garden of Eatin' are a few of my favorites non-GMO brands! For an extensive list of non-GMO certified products see the link below.
And if all of this seems a bit too overwhelming to you, I have an easy cheat ... ALL Earth Fare brand food products are made with non-GMO ingredients. The more demand there is from educated consumers like you for clean food, the more available and less expensive these foods will become. My hope is that one day all of the food available in this country will be GMO, herbicide, and pesticide free. The more we demand this, the quicker it will happen.
Eat clean and be healthy!
Stacey Searson MD
The Art of Health