Genetically modified organisms and foods were first developed forty years ago when a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens was used to transfer foreign genes to host plants. As a result of this discovery, three years later the Supreme Court approved the patenting of genetically engineered organisms. Shortly afterwards, the first field trials of GE crops began in the USA. By 1992 the FDA paved the way for genetically modified foods to enter US markets. Subsequently the flavor savor tomato was approved followed by the planting of the first GE crops – soy, corn, potatoes and cotton.
Later Starlink corn (a GE crop) made headlines as being unsafe and major fast food chains refused to use GE potatoes in their french fries. The European Union then stepped forward to implement strict labeling and traceability requirements as a rigorous approval process for future GE crops. Food stores in the EU followed this example as both store owners and consumers began pulling GE foods and foods with high risk GE ingredients from store shelves.
In the US, mothers and others became appalled that infant formulas were being made with GE soy and other questionable ingredients such that the public response was that “our children are now participating in a non-voluntary scientific experiment of unknown consequences.” Scientists responded by minimizing the risks with the rationale that for thousands of years science has been changing the nature of food through the selection of desirable traits in food source plants and animals. For this reason, domestication and breeding were considered processes that naturally alter an organism’s genetic makeup with the intention of enhancing the value to humans.
Genetic engineering, in contrast is unlike traditional methods of plant modification because it enables the transfer of genetic material to unrelated organisms. For example, transferring human growth genes into fish and livestock to make them larger and grow more quickly, transferring fish genes into tomatoes to make them grow faster while enhancing the ability to store the produce at lower temperatures and adding pesticide genes into corn and other vegetables. This new method of “crossing natures barriers” introduced foreign genes into many commonly consumed foods and raised extreme concerns regarding their unlabeled presence in packaged foods and supplements. As a result without proper labeling or testing a whole new line of what were called ‘Frankenfoods” began to appear in the US retail market.
With food safety issues in mind, scientists who opposed the GE trend repeatedly clarified that the process of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are not the same and that the new GE plants could cause serious allergies and food toxicity issues while simultaneously increasing human resistance to antibiotics, depressing the immune system and depleting the normal levels of nutrition in food.
Genetic Engineering Explained
Scientists have found a way to “invade” plant cells to deposit new genetic material inside by using gene guns to shoot the genes into plant cells as well as a later technology of attaching the genes to a vector (most often from bacteria and viruses) which are capable of cell invasion. Today plant biotechnology most often uses bacterium to carry the foreign genetic material into the host plant cells. Through these technologies, scientists have developed what is known as genetic engineering.
Researchers have suggested that one in four Americans report allergic reactions which can be considered some type of food allergy. Hidden, invisible, unlabeled GE foods and ingredients compound and complicate the issue of food allergies. For example, a GE soybean using genes from Brazil nuts triggered allergic reactions in individuals allergic to the nuts.
Researchers commented that for people allergic to Brazil nuts, eating this unlabeled GE soybean could prove fatal. Researchers also expressed concerns that GE foods could provoke a multitude of new food allergies with consumers having no idea of the source of the allergens when unlabeled as ingredients, in produce, in packaged foods, in nutritional supplements or when consumed in restaurants and food service settings.
With regard to food allergies, it is important to understand that the genetic material introduced into the host plant introduces novel proteins into the plant. Subsequently the combination of the foreign gene and the genetic material of the plant could set off allergic reactions. In Australia, peas which were genetically engineered with a bean gene triggered allergic reactions in animals. These examples of what seemed to be a major invasion of the food supply resulted in a global outcry from royalty (including Prince Charles of Wales), religious leaders, food producers and manufacturers, film stars, mothers, researchers, educators, health practitioners, consumer activists, lawyers and more.
After a long battle and massive petitioning, it was a surprise and extreme disappointment to the millions of Americans supporting mandatory labeling of GMO foods to receive the resulting government decision to “label” GE foods with codes detectable only by smart phones.
I personally do not know of any consumers who use their smart phone to identify GE foods in the grocery store. A more straightforward visible labeling plan would be helpful to consumers and at the very least, fresh produce should be labeled by code as either conventional — four digit code, certified organic five digit code beginning with 9 xxxx or genetically engineered — five digit code beginning with 8 xxxx. With every purchase, consumers should be universally provided with printed literature delineating the benefits of certified organic and the hazards of GMOs and chemical agriculture such that no consumer is in the dark or uninformed about the health and environmental risks associated with the food and supplements that they are buying.
GE produce to avoid includes GE tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, potatoes, sugar beets, some sources of papaya, gene silenced arctic apples (currently granny smith and golden delicious) other gene silenced fruits, as well as soy, corn, canola, bt cotton and the oils from these sources. Dairy products produced with rbGH growth hormones should also be avoided as well as dairy and animal products from animals consuming GE feeds. Always, the safest choice is to exclusively purchase, grow and consume certified organic food.
Knowledge is power. It is important to recognize that food safety is more than the absence of pathogens, bad bacteria or mold and fungus in the food supply. Staying informed is essential to protect your health and the well being of your family. The internet is a valuable resource for relevant video and film presentations as well as the newest books, magazines and literature.
For more information about genetic engineering and food safety issues visit www.centerforfoodsafety.org and www.uscusa.org. Both are non-profits run exclusively on a donation, grant and volunteer basis. They have worked tirelessly for decades to protect the safety and purity of our food supply!
Simi Summer, PhD is an independent researcher and freelance writer. She is a strong advocate of organicconsumer education and informed consumer choices.