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Who Let the GMOs Out?

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By guest blogger Annie Spiegelman, a.k.a. the Dirt Diva.

Having been raised and hardened in New York City, I am inherently skeptical. We New Yorkers consider that a social grace. When I heard about scientists inserting genes from humans, plants, bacteria, or viruses into crop plants like soybeans and corn, my "what the #@*%?" barometer spiked way off the screen. Inserting a fish gene into a tomato or a spider gene into a goat sounds awfully suspicious to me. This recent technology (1992) differs from traditional plant breeding because it combines genes from different species, a process that, last time I checked, does not occur in nature.

According to agricultural experts, genetic engineering of seeds--which began as an admirable attempt to reduce pesticides and at the same time, feed the world's growing population--has failed to solve the problems advocates had hoped to. A 2003 study by the USDA found that pesticide use has actually increased since the introduction of genetically modified seeds. And, according to a 2008 USDA study conducted on food scarcity, 14.6 percent of U.S. households--nearly 50 million Americans--found themselves facing hunger, an increase of 13 million people from the year before. (The new figure is the highest since data collection began in 1995.) At the same time, the U.S. now rates number one worldwide in childhood obesity. So, all we have managed to do is contaminate our environment and ourselves with more toxic chemicals, and raise the rates of food insecurity for millions of unfortunate children while making other kids sick and FAT.

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Goooooo team!

The same companies that are producing and selling GMOs (genetically modified organisms) also own 60 percent of the global pesticide market. Monsanto, one of the leading corporations in the biotech industry, has managed to place many of its former employees in upper-level positions at both the EPA and FDA. While 30 countries, including Australia, Japan, and all of the European Union, have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production of genetically modified seeds, these U.S. agencies have not yet required genetically modified food to even be labeled in U.S. stores. Many food-safety concerns remain unresolved, and the health effects of long-term ingestion are largely untested.

Publicly financed research has been directed toward the production of new GMOs, rather than studying the impact GMOs can have on our long-term health and environment. Can we blame it all on George Bush's vice president, Dan Quayle, pretty please? Well, at least partly. After President (George H.W.) Bush hosted Monsanto executives at the White House to discuss "deregulation" of biotechnology in the early 1990s, Vice President Dan Quayle dismissed the concerns voiced by independent scientists, farmers, and consumer groups, and said that "biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products" and will not be "hampered by unnecessary regulation." Ta-da!

According to U.S. law, a substance that is deemed "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) can be commercialized without any additional testing. To be considered GRAS, the substance must be the subject of a substantial amount of peer-reviewed published studies, and there must overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that the substance is safe. Neither occurred in the case of GMOs. Yet, in 1992 the FDA declared that genetically modified crops are GRAS as long as their producers say they are. In 1996, genetically modified crops were introduced into the U.S. in large measure, mostly in soy, corn, and cotton. Today, the person in charge of U.S. food safety is Michael Taylor, who back in 1992 was Monsanto's former attorney and later, Monsanto's vice president. He waived GMOs onto the market without any labeling or health-testing requirements?

What could possibly go wrong?!....

Currently, up to 45 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, as are 85 percent of our soybeans. It's estimated that 70 to 75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients. (Oy-vey!) A 2008 CBS News Poll found that 87 percent of U.S. consumers want GMOs labeled, and according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 53 percent of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified. "The American Academy of Environmental Medicine advises that all physicians should prescribe a non-GMO diet to all patients," says Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette and one of the leading experts on genetically modified foods. "These physicians cite animal feeding studies linking GMOs to infertility, immune-system problems, gastrointestinal problems, organ damage, accelerated aging, etc., and yet the biotech industry has somehow hijacked the regulatory agencies so they're turning a blind eye to these dangers," he says. Smith cites various studies conducted on hamsters showing death and various infertility disorders, but also finding that the most significant side effects are not occurring in the groups who are actually consuming the genetically modified foods. It's the subsequent generations: their offspring and the offspring of their offspring. By the third generation, most GM-soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. Other studies in Australia and Moscow found that the longer they fed the mice GM corn, the fewer babies the mice had, and the smaller the babies. (Visit nongmoproject.org to read the summary, entitled: "GM Crops--Just the Science.")

Smith and the 30 scientists he has been working with closely believe the government will not save us, so change has to come from consumers. "A tipping point of consumer rejection, which we think can be achieved with as little as 5 percent of U.S. shoppers avoiding GM ingredients, can drive GMOs out of the market, as happened in Europe," says Smith. "When the European Union received their tipping point in April of 1999 because of high-profile coverage in the media, within a single week, virtually every major food company committed to stop using GM ingredients, and that's what's kept them out of that continent."

To genetically modify Annie into a quiet wallflower, visit www.dirtdiva.com.

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