The History and Controversy Behind Genetically Modified Organisms
By Lesley Rozycki (Journalism Capstone Project)
For thousands of years, we have played with our food. Whether to create a hardier, disease-resistant crop, or a juicier apple, modifying the genes in our fruits and vegetables is nothing new, but how it is done has changed.
The History of Genetically Modified Organisms
In 1982, scientists at Monsanto, one of the nation’s largest agriculture/biotech companies, successfully genetically modified (GM) a plant cell, the first to do so. The now-defunct Calgene brought the first genetically engineered crop in the form of the Flavr Savr tomato, to market in 1996.
|But how are GMOs created?Scientists in a laboratory take DNA from different organisms and splice it together to create a new, ‘better’ product. (i.e. soybeans resistant to pests, herbicide; tomatoes resistant to frost)
Like a human who has just undergone an organ transplant, the newly merged organisms will try to reject each other, so DNA from other organisms like E coli and other bacteria are introduced in the transfer.This tricks the host organism into accepting it.
Unlike traditional methods of cross breeding, specific traits from the plants or animals are isolated, ensuring that no unwanted genes that could comprise the organism are introduced.
Here are two videos that paint two very different pictures on the creation and use of GMOs:
Shortly after, Monsanto introduced a soybean resistant to RoundUp and other commercial herbicides, as well as pest-resistant corn that protects against Ostrinia Nubilalis, or more commonly known as the European Corn Borer.
|How does the corn borer damage a corn crop?
Fully developed female corn borer moths lay clusters of eggs on the undersides of corn leaves. Once the eggs hatch via the caterpillars chewing their way out, the destruction begins. The caterpillars chew tunnels into the ears of corn, as well as the stalks, which then causes the plant to flop over and effectively killing it.
Worried about potential health consequences from the consumption of GMOs, the European Union passed legislation in 1997 requiring the labeling of all GM food products, including animal feed. Currently, United States and many countries in North and South America have no genetically engineered (GE) food labeling laws while a handful of countries across the globe have an outright ban.
With technological improvements in the rapidly changing and evolving landscape of genetic engineering, genetic modification has expanded to other staple crops such as sugar beets (the primary source of sugar in manufactured food, e.g. Oreos), canola plants (its oil widely used in cooking) and papaya.
Even a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the normal rate will soon be found at the local supermarket.
But with innovation, comes controversy.
Organizations such as the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), The Non-GMO Project and local grassroots groups have expressed opposition to the continued production of GM food and the lack of labeling.
Jeremy Gruber, president of Massachussetts–based CRG, says,“It’s really shocking how the idea that science is fully resolved in the area of GMOs has become part of sort of the zeitgeist of this discussion when that’s just not true.”
He adds, “It’s quite a dramatic experiment to have integrated GMOs so fully into our food system without the proper safety studies to ensure the public that they’re entirely safe.”
Kathryn J. Boor, Dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences disputes this, acknowleding thatalthough genetic engineering is a “set of tools” that can be used for bad, the current GE foods on the market right now are completely safe.
She continues, “Certainly the tools can lead to safe food. But they’re just tools, they’re just like any other set of tools. When you can use a hammer to build something or to hit somebody on the head, does that mean we should ban hammers? Probably not.”
The largest producer and developer of genetically modified crops, Monsanto, says GMOs are perfectly safe, and points to research conducted by federal agencies that support this claim.
In an email, Thomas Helscher, a spokesman for Monsanto, said, “Before they can be planted in the U.S. GM crops undergo detailed scientific review by at least two, and often three separate federal agencies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These reviews require years of scientific scrutiny, field testing and environmental analysis. Hundreds of studies in the peer-reviewed scientific literature support the safety of GM crops. ”
Jeremy Gruber of CRG says these reviews are particularly biased, explaining that “Many of the studies—certainly, the majority of the studies that have been done on GMO safety have—some element of that study can be traced back to the industry.”
Gruber mentioned that it’s also important to note that these industry-backed studies only focus on the short term effects of GMOs and don’t look at the long term consequences.
Pro-GMO supporters also point out humanitarian projects like golden rice and other GM crops have aided in ending food insecurity, famine and disease linked to other nutritional deficiencies in developing nations in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Boor asserted, “I know that small-scale farmers in Africa, in India, other places around the world where the margin is very thin between starvation and having enough food to give your kids are using genetically modified seeds because it yields better.”
Boor added that due of the use of genetically modified seeds in these impoverished parts of the world, families are now able to send their kids to school and to improve their overall standard of living.
Even the World Health Organization states that all current GM foods on the market are safe for consumption:
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
| GMOs Golden Child (?)
Golden rice is being touted as a food that could improve the lives of millions. Proponents believe it can wipe out blindness caused by a lack of beta-carotene in diets across rural, low-income parts of Asia and Africa.
Claimed to be the answer to normally nutritionally deficent grain and the staple of many diets throughout Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, golden rice contains modifed genes that have “turned on” the production of beta-carotene, the source of Vitamin-A. The newly present supplement gives the rice it’s titled “golden” color and provides about 60% of a child’s daily required intake of the vitamin.
But an ongoing debate and bureaucratic red tape has made made some question whether the rice is truly the industry’s ‘golden’ child.
Although there is no clear consensus on the safety of GMOs, many individuals on both sides agree that consumers should have the right to know what’s in their food.
The fight for labeling
Thanks to the Internet and the current obesity epidemic, the average American consumer is more aware of what they are putting onto their plates and into their bodies. A major shift in the American diet is underway: the farm-to-table movement is more popular than ever, more are buying organic produce and animal products, and a growing number of people are avoiding processed foods all together. Many of those that avoid processed foods worry about the genetically modified ingredients and have called for required labeling of GMO containing products.
According to the USDA, 93 percent of soybeans and almost 90 percent of corn in the United States is genetically modified. Nearly 80 percent of food products sold in grocery stores have at least one GM ingredient.
Why are there so many GM foods on the market?
It’s faster and cheaper.
Boor says, “ (via traditional breeding strategies) It takes about twenty years to get to one new strain. It’s expensive and it’s time consuming.”
With genetic engineering, it will take five to seven years, a timeframe that Boor says is less than half of what it would take through a traditional breeding strategy and insists will help us avoid people from going hungry.
Current food labeling laws from the FDA state that if the GE food is “significantly different from its traditional counterpart” that the name “no longer adequately describes the new food, the name must be changed to describe the difference.”
According to the FDA, other exceptions include:
If an issue exists for the food or a constituent of the food regarding how the food is used or consequences of its use, a statement must be made on the label to describe the issue.
If a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label. (via FDA.gov)
Sarah Lively, from the Biotechnology Regulatory Services at Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA agency) stated that “as a regulatory agency, we do not hold a position on on the risks or benefits of GE crops.” She went on to say that it is the agency’s role to protect the health of plants through a “strong regulatory framework” that includes inspections and permits to make sure rules are being followed.
Gruber believes that the way Americans’ think about their food and their interest in it have now joined with the concerns over GMOs to start the push for labeling.
“In the last couple of years, there has been a focused effort among activist groups to get the public’s attention on labeling as compared to any other type of (GMO) activism.”
One of the loudest GMO opponents, Washington–based The Non-GMO Project, offers a program that verifies and labels products that are completely GMO-free. They believe that consumers deserve to be able to make an informed choice about whether to consume genetically modified organisms or not. The nonprofit organization has made it its mission to “preserve and build” the supply of non-GMO food.
And it’s not just groups like this and other activists who want required labeling. In a July 2013 NYTimes’ poll, 93 percent of those surveyed said genetically modified foods should be identified.
The growing concern of GMOs has caused food manufacturers and grocery stores to examine their current practices, although not all are changing their tune.
In March 2013, Whole Foods promised to label all products containing GMOs by 2018. The Texas–based chain has also stated that they are working to expand upon the non-GMO products carried in their stores, but did not say any efforts to remove GM foods would be made in the near future.
Trader Joe’s, another grocery chain that prides itself on health-conscious eating, didn’t hold as strong of a position on the issue.
“Given our position on GMO ingredients in Trader Joe’s label products, and the work done in support of that position, it is our expectation that our products test as non-GMO. We’re unable to make the same claims for branded products (products not in the Trader Joe’s label).”
The California–based chain also stated that they cannot certify that animal products sold under the Trader Joe’s label are “raised on only non-GMO feed, due to the prevalence of GMOs in the commodity grain market, and the limited availability of verified non-GMO feed.”
As for whether the chain plans to start labeling products as non-GMO, Trader Joe’s responded, “We have yet to take the approach of labeling products as non-GMO because there are no clear guidelines from the U.S. governmental agencies covering food and beverage labeling.”
Trader Joe’s says that they “took a more holistic approach” and made no-GMO ingredients part of “what the Trader Joe’s label encompasses.”
Agriculture companies that create genetically modified foods have expressed their support of the FDA and USDA’s position on the matter. Companies like Monsanto, Cargill and Pioneer (owned by DuPont) worry that labeling will lead to a misunderstanding by the consumer and avoidance of what they vehemently believe are safe food products.
St. Louis–based Monsanto, the largest GM seed company in the world,says,“We oppose current initiatives to mandate labeling of ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks. Such mandatory labeling could imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
Echoing Monsanto’s sentiments, Minnesota–based Cargill believes that “government-mandated food labels should be reserved for important food safety and health information, such as allergen warnings and product nutrition.” “Mandatory labeling can actually be misleading to consumers who interpret foods produced, in whole or in part, from or with biotechnology, as unsafe.”
They go on to suggest that in lieu of labeling GM foods, that a “voluntary labeling
of conventionally-grown products” for consumers who are looking for non-GM foods.
Another U.S. ag giant, Iowa–based DuPont Pioneer states that, “all cases the label should be verifiable, non-discriminatory and not misleading.”
And they are serious about stopping any efforts to require GMO labeling.
Both Monsanto and DuPont poured millions of dollars into recent state legislative efforts that would have required some kind of identification or labeling of genetically modified foods.
In 2012, all three companies poured almost $14 million into the campaign against California Prop 37,which ending up being rejected by the state’s voters. The proposed law would have required labeling of GE food, with some exceptions. It would have also banned the labeling of genetically engineered food with the word “natural.”
If the measure passed, it would have required that foods state “clearly and conspicuously” on the front of the package if they were genetically modified, contain or might have contained GM ingredients.
A strong supporter of genetic modification with views otherwise in line with these agricultural companies, Kathryn Boor (Dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) disagrees. Boor feels that we have the right to know, but that we have to be smart about it.
“If we’re going to do it, let’s do it at the federal level. If we have state by state rule, just think about the expense it will be to the consumer. Our food costs will go through the roof because anybody who is making your food is going to have to have a different box or a different label for every state.”
She continues, “From a sheerly practical perspective, if we don’t get labeling right, food costs will go up. And of course that affects the people who are at the lower end of the economic scale more than others.”
But with U.S. based agricultural giants like Monsanto and Cargill that have a powerful lobby, it is unlikely federal legislation concerning GMO labeling will be passed any time soon.
|The GMO debate in pop cultureFrom protests across the country to punch lines on hit TV shows, the conversation on genetically modified food is anything but quieting down.
Raising Hope- “Baby Phat” (March 2014)
In a recent episode of the now cancelled “Raising Hope,” two of the main character are tricked into going to a weekend fat camp to pose as people who were formally overweight. After going through major junk food withdrawals, they decide that they want to eat healthier.
Bones- “The Mystery in the Meat” (Nov. 2013)
The team investigates the murder of a food scientist whose body was tossed into a meat grinder and mixed into cans of stew served in a school cafeteria. They look into what the man was working on and find out that the competition was jealous of his latest food invention, expected to make a lot of money for him. Throughout the episode the characters discuss the merits and potential health risks of processed food and GMOs. One character represents the average consumer, one the conscious vegetarian and another lands right in the middle of the debate.
The Simpsons- “The Man Who Grew Too Much” (March 2014)
Known for their social commentary and satire, recent episode of The Simpsons show Lisa, the vegetarian and social activist expressing her worries about the use of GMOs in the school’s cafeteria. She pays a visit to Monsarno (sound familiar?) the company behind the GM food.
Monsanto’s response? They said, “This show addressed some important aspects of the GMO debate. We are glad Lisa did her homework and came to her own conclusions about the facts and benefits of GMOs.”
Looking into the future…
Boor believes that a lack of communication between scientists and consumers is the driving force behind the mistrust and concerns surrounding genetically modified food.
“I think that we as scientists have really failed to help generate this respectful dialogue and help people understand in a realistic way, both the benefits, and the consideration that one should have when making decisions about how to advance in terms of food needed for the future of our society.”
But a bill in Vermont could inspire other states to follow and ultimately delay plans to increase the presence of GMOs in this country.
The Vermont legislature is currently consideringH. 112, a bill that would require mandatory labeling of all food products that contain GMOs.
What makes this measure different from others is that it has no trigger clause like Maine and Connecticut, which have passed GMO-labeling laws but don’t go into effect until neighboring states taking pass similar legislation.
The bill passed the state Senate and will be sent back to the House for final approval before it is signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
If the bill is passed, which looks like almost a done deal, will take effect July 1.*
Whether the U.S. goes the way of a federally required GM labeling law or an outright ban is still unclear, but with a growing global population that shows no signs of slowing, decisions must be made on how 7 billion-plus mouths are fed and whether we continue to “play” with our food.
*Update: The bill has passed both houses and Gov. Peter Shumlin tweeted that he will sign the bill.
If you made it all the way to the end, thank you! This was the result of three and a half months of hard work, and I’m very proud of what I’ve produced.
What side do you take in the debate? After reading this, did you learn anything you didn’t know before?
P.S.- If you are interested, here’s my full interview with Kathryn Boor, Dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences: