Genetically engineered foods are pervasive in American agriculture, but many safety questions remain.
The U.S. government has approved genetically engineered foods (commonly known as GMOs) based on studies conducted by the same corporations that profit from their sale.
GMOs are produced through the process of genetic engineering — forcing DNA from one species into a different species. The resulting GMOs are combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature.
In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine stated, "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs, like the gastrointestinal system.
A two-year French study at the University of Caen showed massive tumor growth in rats after eating GMO corn. Proponents of corporate-dominated GMO plant science quickly attacked the study. Ironically, a similar study of much shorter duration, 90 days, is what got Monsanto's Roundup tolerant GMO corn and Roundup herbicide approved by the FDA.
Perhaps a more pertinent response would be: why weren't long-term studies done before GMOs were released into the global food supply?
Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require safety studies and does not mandate labeling of GMOs. They claim GMOs are exactly the same as conventional food. This is untrue. Agency memos made public by a lawsuit show the overwhelming consensus even among FDA scientists that GMOs can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects.
But the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have instructed the FDA to promote biotechnology, and the FDA agency official in charge of policy was Michael Taylor, Monsanto's former attorney, later its vice president. In 2010 Taylor was appointed deputy commissioner for foods. Congress recently passed the so-called Monsanto Protection Act which protects biotech companies even if sued and found liable in court.
There are 11 GMO food crops. The five major varieties — soy, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets — have bacterial genes inserted, which allow the plants to survive toxic herbicides like Roundup. Farmers use 15 times more herbicides on GM crops resulting in foods having higher herbicide residues. Overuse of Roundup results in "superweeds," which can only be killed by more toxic poisons like Agent Orange.
I suppose you've heard "only GMOs can feed a hungry world." Yet it is another untruth. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists' 2009 report Failure to Yield. Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.
The report recommends the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies and universities increase research for proven approaches to boost crop yields. These approaches include modern, conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming that does not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs.
Astoundingly, Russians have proved small scale organic farming can feed the world. On 22 million acres, Russians are growing their own organic crops. They grow 92 percent of the entire country's potatoes, 77 percent of its vegetables, 87 percent of its fruit and feed 71 percent of the entire population. These aren't huge agro-farms; these are small family farms and less-than-an-acre gardens.
GMOs also cross pollinate with natural plants. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of climate change and nuclear waste. GMO contamination has caused economic losses for non-GMO farmers. Monsanto actually sues and has won when their patented seeds cross pollinate with non-GMO crops.
GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of our food supply. What can you do? To avoid GMOs, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified Label on grocery shelves.
Also, the public is welcome to attend a free showing of Good Foods Board Film Series showing of Genetic Roulette on Tuesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Central Library. After the film, Richard Shore, Duke University biologist and biochemist, will lead a discussion.
Terri Fann is vice president of Lexington's Good Foods Market & Café board of directors.