The GMO Dilemma

Posted on March 5, 2011

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Welcome to part two in my series on Genetically Modified Organisms.

In the last article I discussed how transgenic GMO plants and seeds are created by combining DNA from different species to create a new organism. Now I would like to cover some of the concerns that have been raised about widespread use of this technology. There are many perspectives on these issues, varying from those who are completely in favor of GMOs to those who are completely opposed. I will do my best to simply present the most common concerns and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

One potential problem is that some genetically modified plants may be increasingly allergenic or that entirely new allergens may be created. This could happen in two ways, either the transferred genes could mutate to form a new type of protein, or allergy causing proteins from one species could be unintentionally transferred to the newly modified organism.  In the US all allergy testing is done by the producing companies themselves. The FDA does not allergy test GMOs as part of the approval process.

Another possible issue is the creation and spread of new types of viruses due to their widespread use as vehicles carrying new genes into host cells. While only pieces of virus genetics are used there is still the possibility that they could recombine with viruses attacking the modified cells in the future. Viruses often mutate via Gene Recombination, which basically means that they pick up little stray bits of DNA from other viruses and incorporate them into their own genetic structure. It is theoretically possible that the viral bits in GMOs could increase the likelihood of this
occurring.

Antibiotic resistance is another possible effect of genetically altering plants. One of the methods used to test if the desired genes have been transferred properly is to include antibiotic resistance in the characteristics added to the new cell.  The cell is then cultivated in an antibiotic culture and any cells which survive have been successfully modified. Some companies have begun to remove the antibiotic resistance genes before sending the plant to market, but the process is not yet universal.

While these are obviously important concerns you might still find yourself asking, how big of a deal is this really? Is there enough of this stuff out there to make a difference? How much of our food supply is really affected anyway?  Well, you might be surprised.  Even when the veggies you choose aren’t GMOs, they may be present in processed foods like chips, or, if you aren’t vegetarian or vegan, even fed to the animals you eat. A huge portion of the conventionally produced food available in the US today contains GMOs. According to the USDA  Economic Research Service about 81-86% of all corn planted in the US and 87-90% of soybeans are genetically engineered to resist herbicides, repel insects, or both. If you check your food labels you’ll find that corn and soy are in just about everything you eat.

“According to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 25% of the world’s land under cultivation has been planted with genetically engineered crops. In 2003, the United States was the largest producer of GE crops with 105.7 million acres. According to Consumer Reports 1999, nearly 2/3 of all the food products on the shelves of your local supermarket contain GE ingredients.” (From Ecopledge’s GMO Food Facts, found at saynotogmos.org)  Though I could not find a more recent study, that percentage is likely to be even higher today.

As with any new product it may take many years for the long term effects of GMO crops on our health and environment to become clear. In the meantime some people are choosing to avoid GMO foods, or reduce the amount they consume, until more information becomes available.  But with so much of our food supply affected by these products, how can we possibly keep them out of our diets?  That’s what we’ll be talking about next time.  Stay tuned!

Find out more at:
World Health Organization- http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/index.html
PEW Charitable Trusts- http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_detail.aspx?id=442

Article modified from version written for GreenTree Co-op Newsletter.

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