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Published on June 10th, 2013 | by Chris Keenan

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What Is GMO? And Is It A Safe Technology?

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GMO, or genetically modified organisms, are plants and animals that have been altered at the level of their DNA. These organisms are commonly sold to farmers to grow for human consumption. The Food and Drug Association (FDA) has approved a number of GM plants, and is starting to approve genetically modified animals to use for livestock. The genetic modifications made to these organisms may shorten growth periods, and make plants and animals heartier and more resistant to drought, illness, and invasive pests. Many times these benefits are short-lived, as ecosystems evolve and resistance grows.

Is it safe?

Many people question whether or not GMO technology is safe to put into our food chain. Despite this the FDA has already approved several GM plants that are currently in our supermarkets and are being eaten by people a daily basis. Many people don’t even realize that they’re eating genetically modified produce. For instance, 88% of all corn planted in 2011 was genetically modified. There are four basic reasons why the safety of GMO technology is in question.

Cross-Pollination

Some GM plants can cross pollinate with other non-GM plants and pass on their genetically modified material in the seeds of these non-GM plants. This contaminates the previously non-modified plant with genetically modified material. The recent discovery of GMO wheat growing wild in Oregon is a good example of how damaging this cross-pollination can be not only to the ecosystem but economically.

If GM plants turn out to be unsafe for human consumption, since they are able to cross pollinate with other plants, we will have a difficult time protecting food supplies that are safe to eat and keeping them from pollinating with the genetically modified plant.

Food Safety

Researchers fed animals a steady diet of genetically modified soybeans and corn found in the food chain. These animals later developed liver and kidney problems that could lead to chronic disease. There have been other studies, 150 in total, showing similar problems for animals and a wide range of symptoms after eating GM foods. These symptoms included stomach ulcerations, enzyme disturbances, growth problems, excessive growth of the lining of the stomach, and kidney, pancreas, and testes problems.

Potential Toxins and Other Health Problems

Put aside the debate about GMO food, for a moment, and consider that there are far more health effects than simply whether the food is safe or not. Agrichemicals like pesticides and herbicides (upon which GMO agriculture is entirely dependent) when applied, hardly ever stay where they are supposed to. They drift in the air, they seep through into groundwater, they are carried by animals and insects, and they are of course residual on the food that is being grown. Residents of Haleiwa, Hawaii, a town neighboring some of Monsanto’s seed corn fields, often complain of respiratory and other health problems by drifting pesticides and herbicides.

But those chemicals are safe, right? Not a chance. They’re designed to kill, and absolutely have negative health consequences. The challenge is proving it. Here’s why.

  1. In the U.S., chemicals are tested by the manufacturer, and the FDA is supposed to use the data to assess the chemical’s toxicity. The FDA is full of former industry executives, and may not really out there to protect you.
  2. Second, you have to understand the way toxicology works. In order to test a chemical, scientists isolate that one chemical and see how many fish larvae or frogs or whatever other experimental animal it kills at varying doses. Toxicology NEVER combines chemicals, since that would confound the results. But in the real world, we are exposed to dozens of agricultural chemicals.
  3. And third, toxicology looks at a pretty short time horizon. It does not look at the effect of low level exposures to dozens of chemicals over decades, which is exactly the situation that we humans are in. 

There is also concern that we may be picking up toxins from GM plants. A recent study found that a toxin called, Cry1Ab, is being found in the blood samples of humans, including pregnant women and fetuses. Cry1Ab is a plant incorporated pesticide found in GM plants. This pesticide does seem to interact with human cells, but further research is needed to determine what exactly is the effect of having it in the bloodstream.

Super Weeds

Some genetically modified plants are created to use in conjunction with specific herbicides. These modified plants are more resistant to the herbicides, so farmers can use more of it to kill off weeds, and over time that’s what they have to do.

Researchers have found that usage of these herbicides in conjunction with the genetically modified plants is leading to the development of super weeds. These weeds are now naturally resistant to herbicides commonly used with GM plants. Much like the overuse of antibiotics creates super bacteria.

We have much to learn about using GMO technology to create stronger, more productive, and more resistant plants and animals in the food chain. The effects of current modifications on plants in the long term are yet to be seen. These are just four of the potential problems of current GMO technology.

Some great related reading: Jennifer’s things you absolutely need to know about GMOs and the Economic Arguments against GMOs over on the Inspired Economist.

Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by ianmackenz

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About the Author

is a green and general blog writer. He also maintains a personal cooking blog. Find Chris on Google



  • Ned Hamson

    All the reasons given above may be of importance but the most dangerous impact may ecological. Our agriculturalists love the factory/industrial model. If they find what they think is the perfect rice, potato, wheat, corn or soybean – they will try and sell everyone on that one and that produces a monoculture that the natural system abhors and perceives as a threat. Plant diseases, blights, ect. are means that nature manufactures to keep the natural system in balance. Vast monocultures of single crops invites massive crop failure and thus starvation and economic meltdown. That’s the greater danger.

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  • Eric

    I live in that town called Haleiwa. I have never heard a resident mention any sort of problems related to poisons in the air…..could you please provide a name or two and I’ll go ask them myself…

    Theres a lot of “take my word for it” nonsense going around about GMOs….I want evidence, scientific studies, reports…….I have heard too many lies in my lifetime, I’m not about to take anyones word for anything unless there is some kind of actual evidence to support it…..

    • http://www.progressivekitch.com Tanya Sitton

      Hi Eric,

      I think the whole ‘take my word for it’ approach is used mainly by sellers of biotech seeds and chemistry — and I certainly agree with you that it’s a problem! But the onus of proof is on the other lab table: if you’re gonna put something in my food that’s never been there before– in some cases (Bt toxin, for example) stuff that’s known to be devastating to other creatures who eat it — it’s YOUR job to prove it’s safe, not mine to prove it isn’t.

      The evidence production should be originating from the entities developing and selling GMO s**t. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

      Beyond the question of aggressively absent evidence that GMOs are safe for human consumption, ample evidence that monocropping, fossil fuel dependence, and privatization of food seeds cause problems, and there’s a growing body of evidence that genetic pollution of surrounding ecosystems and also increasing pesticide use related to pest resistant GMO crops cause (escalating) problems — if you’d like links to any of that, please let me know.

      Cheers,
      Tanya

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