THE BLOG
09/27/2011 08:21 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

EXPLAINED: What Are GMOs?

I spent the past month speaking to random people everywhere that I went. I asked all of them the same question, "Do you know what GMO stands for and what it is?" While some people either knew what it was or at least had heard of it, I was surprised by the number of people who had never heard of GMO. This article is dedicated to those of you who looked at me with wonder, and then shook your head "no."

A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. Since this involves the transfer of genes, GMOs are also known as "transgenic" organisms.

The genetic engineering technology was developed in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, the tomato was one of the first to be victim of this technology. The anti-freeze genes from an Arctic fish were forced into tomato DNA, allowing the plants to survive frost. Fortunately, this type of tomato was not introduced into the marketplace. Actually, it never left the lab.(1)

In 1976, a major biotechnology company manufactured an herbicide called Roundup. When the farmers sprayed this herbicide on their crops, not only would it kill the weeds, but it would also kill the crops. This biotech company developed genetically modified crops after finding bacteria in a chemical waste dump near its factory that were not dying in the presence of the herbicide. The bacterial gene that produced the protein that allowed it to survive in the presence of herbicide was inserted into soy, corn, cotton and canola.(2)

In 1996, this company introduced genetically modified soybeans, and slowly introduced genetically engineered corn, cotton and canola. When these crops are sprayed with this Roundup, all plants except the resistant crop are killed. As a result, some 258 million pounds more herbicide have been used in the last 11 years.(3)

In 1992, the FDA declared that GM crops are GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) as long as their producers say they are. Therefore, the FDA doesn't require any safety evaluations or labeling of GMOs. A company can even introduce a genetically modified (GM) food to the market without telling the agency. The official FDA policy stated, "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."(4) In contrast, an internal FDA report stated, "The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks."(5)

Internal memos made public from a lawsuit showed that GM crops can have unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects including allergies, toxins, nutritional effects and new diseases as potential dangers. The FDA doesn't require a single study, and the complex biology of GM crops may produce far more side-effects than drugs. GM foods are fed to the entire population, and they are not labeled or monitored, so symptoms are difficult or impossible to track.

Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include: soy (91 percent), cotton (71 percent), canola (88 percent), corn (85 percent), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50 percent), zucchini and yellow squash (small amount) and sugar beets (90 percent).

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reported that, "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods.(6)

A recent study published in the journal, Reproductive Toxicology, examined the blood of 30 pregnant women and 39 non-pregnant women. The authors looked for Glyphosate (brand name Roundup), Gluphosinate (a broad spectrum herbicide), AMPA (aminomethyl phosphoric acid, a metabolite of glyphosate), 3-MPPA (3-methylphosphinico propionic acid, a metabolite of gluphosinate) and Cry1Ab (the BT toxin of gluphosinate) in the blood of these women. Both glyphosate and gluphosinate were detected in non-pregnant women, but neither were found in the pregnant women and their fetuses.

However, the BT GMO toxins, 3-MPPA and Cry1Ab, were found in significant amounts (100 percent 3-MPPA in women and fetuses, 93 percent Cry1Ab in women and 80 percent in fetuses). 3-MPPA and Cry1Ab are used in pesticides for toxic effects. 3-MPPA can effect inhalation, skin, eyes and ingestion to cause burning sensation, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, burns, blisters, pain, redness in eyes, blurred vision, abdominal cramps, nausea, shock and vomiting to name a few.

Cry1Ab is a potent immunogen and creates an immune response. It contains a gene for resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin, and therefore, is likely to increase the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This study shows proof that the highly toxic 3-MPPA and Cry1Ab are showing up in nearly all non-pregnant women, pregnant women and their fetuses.(7)

In Europe, many countries such as France, Germany, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg have banned genetically modified foods. The EU recognizes the consumer's right to information and since 1997 community legislation uses labeling as a tool for allowing consumers to make an informed choice by making labeling of GM food mandatory. Why is it that recently in the U.S. the USDA has approved Roundup Ready sugar beets, genetically modified alfalfa and genetically modified corn to be planted without more testing and research?

Actually, the USDA has deregulated the use of many genetically modified crops. This means that without regulation, cross contamination of these crops into organic farms is likely, thus taking away the organic status of many of these farmers. Also, alfalfa is used as the major animal feed for dairy cows. Thus, much of the milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream that is consumed is connected to alfalfa. It is also used to enrich soils in organic farming. This can potentially reduce or eliminate the number of organic farms.

I believe that it is important to know and understand what you eat. If you look in your cabinets, you will probably be surprised to see how much genetically modified food you actually eat. Products derived from soy, corn, canola and cotton, including oils from all four, (soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup among others) are sources of GMO. Also, meat, eggs and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed (and the majority of the GM corn and soy is used for feed); dairy products from cows injected with rbGH (a GM hormone); food additives, enzymes, flavorings and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet®) and rennet used to make hard cheeses; and honey and bee pollen may have GM sources of pollen. For an extensive list, see the non gmo shopping guide. Food products that are USDA organic cannot be genetically modified.

When you go to the grocery store, look at labels to see what is in the food you are purchasing. Recently, I went to a "natural grocery market" and I noticed that most of their hot, prepared foods were cooked with canola oil. I spoke with the chef and inquired why canola oil was being used and further discussed the genetically modified aspect of it. He was very kind and said that he would speak to his corporate office, however, apparently it was corporate that instructed the store to use canola oil.

When you are at a restaurant, don't be afraid to ask what is in the food that you are ordering. Many business owners are actually interested in understanding how to better serve their customers by offering healthier options. Recently, I spoke with Jon, one of the owners at Emporium Thai Cuisine in Los Angeles regarding GMOs and I was pleased to know that his restaurant uses a non GMO brand of tofu. He was very interested in becoming educated about genetically modified foods and how to avoid using them in their recipes.

I also found an organic cafe in Brentwood called Rivva. It's an all organic cafe and most importantly does not serve genetically modified foods. There are options out there if you simply take the time to research and ask the necessary questions. The more that customers demand non GMO options, the more likely the grocery markets and restaurants will respond.

Once upon a time, there wasn't enough research to show the hazards of cigarette smoking. It wasn't until decades later that we discovered its dangerous health effects. More research still needs to be done on the effects of genetically modified foods.

The next time that you pour cereal into your child's bowl, will you be inclined to check the ingredients? The next time that you feed your loved ones, will you consider what ingredients are in the meal that you have prepared? Will you be willing to potentially sacrifice your health and their health for modern processed convenience that comes in boxes and bags that could possibly be filled with genetically modified ingredients? Or will you take the time to educate yourself and choose healthier options?

On a Ted video, 11 year-old Birke Baehr expresses it so eloquently. He said, "We can all make different choices by buying our foods from organic farmers ... Some people say that organic or local food is more expensive. With all of the things that I have been learning about the food system, we could either pay the organic farmer or the hospital."(8)

As we move forward with this genetic manipulation, we'll start seeing pieces of DNA reacting with each other in ways that are totally unpredictable. This is probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into.
--Dr. Ignacio Chapela, Microbial Ecologist, University of California Berkeley.


1 Mendel in the kitchen: a scientist's view of genetically modified foods By Nina Vsevolod Fedoroff, Nancy Marie Brown, p 91

2 http://www.foodconsumer.org/newsite/mobile/Safety/gmo/dangerous_toxins_from_genetically_modified_plants_0527110452.html

3 http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Winter20082009/JeffreySmithKeynote/tabid/1016/Default.aspx

4 "Statement of Policy: Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties," Federal Register 57, no 104 (May 29. 1992): 22991

5 Linda Kahl, Memo to James Maryanski about Federal Register Document "Statement of Policy: Foods from Genetically Modified Plants," Alliance for Bio-Integrity(January 8, 1992) http://www.bioinegrity.org

6 http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html

7 ArisA,LeblancS.MaternalandfetalexposuretopesticidesassociatedtogeneticallymodifiedfoodsinEastern TownshipsofQuebec, Canada. ReprodToxicol(2011), doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004

8 http://www.ted.com/talks/birke_baehr_what_s_wrong_with_our_food_system.html