GMOs 101: What’s really in our food?

GMO, GM (not General Mills!), and GE (and not General Electric!) are common buzz words that some people may be aware of, while others may not. For those who don’t know, GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and in this context the organism becomes food; GM stands for genetical modified; and GE stands for genetically engineered.  Common foods that are genetically modified include (but not limited to) soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil.   Even if you don’t eat any of these foods, food compounds derived from these crops are almost ubiquitous in our food system.  

Since genetically engineered crops were introduced in the U.S. in 1996, their use has grown significantly.  According to some global estimates, 25% of the 672 million acres used for cultivating crops was used to grow GM crops in 2003.  And of this 25%, two-thirds of these science experiments are grown in the United States. While masses of Europeans are placing pressure on their governments to label foods as GM, less than half of Americans even know that some of the foods that they eat are genetically engineered.  And depending on your diet, the mention of some above can easily turn into a majority!

So what exactly are GM/GE/GMO crops?  And what’s all the hooplah about anyway?  These crops are those which are derived from organisms (i.e., plants and food crops) that have been genetically altered at the DNA level by scientific laboratory techniques (DNA recombinant technology).  Specifically, DNA from one organism that is resistant to a specific pest or insect is inserted into the DNA of a food crop in order to increase the crop’s production.  For example, genetically modified corn (Bt corn) is altered by inserting a segment of the genetic material from the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, into the DNA of corn.  This genetic insertion allows the corn to produce a substance (Bt delta endotoxin) that is deadly to the European corn borer (caterpillar/moth).  This technology is great in theory by increasing crop production and feeding more people, but not so great environmentally (where have the bees and disappearing monarch butterflies gone? More on that later), socially, and biologically.  
Now, I want to visit this term inserted, which is used very lightly in the biotech world–a world where most have too much confidence/ arrogance in their present knowledge, I might add.  Some in the scientific community use the argument that genetically modified foods have been used for centuries since the days of Mendelian genetics of crossing species to acquire desirable traits (peas anyone?).  This argument holds absolutely no water and takes a huge leap in logical thinking! Let me explain.

These early genetic crossings were between the same species or at least species that are extremely close in the genetic tree (for example a mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse).  This cannot be deemed equivalent to the laboratory partial-crossing between a bacteria and corn or soybeans–species that are perhaps more than a million years apart evolutionarily speaking.

I would also like to briefly mention the use of this technology in GloFish as an alarming example.  As the name implies, GloFish are the neat fish that you see glowing with bright fluorescent colors.  Similar to the before-mentioned GM seeds/crops, GloFish are patented and trademarked and produced by inserting a segment of DNA from one life form to another.  Specifically, the segment of DNA responsible for illuminating jellyfish and sea coral is inserted into the genetic material of zebrafish.  Interestingly and alarmingly, there have been reports of shorter life spans of these fish and developmental abnormalities such as curvature of the spine and unusual growths.  But of course these concerns are not discussed on the company’s website, which boldly claims that these genetic experiments are the same as other zebrafish in terms of aquarium conditions, growth rates, and life expectancy.  Despite what’s indicated on the company website, the alarming reports of customers suggest biological abnormalities that may be due to these genetic crossings.  Paralleling this with the genetically modified foods that several us put into our system is certainly an alarming thought.

I would argue that biotech scientists place too much faith in what they know and what experimental tests can prove, grossly ignoring the limitation of science and human knowledge and understanding.  These circles leave very little regard for what is unknown and the beauty of how each organism and life form is compiled by a higher entity (or by chance, depending on how you consider).  

Although there is much debate about the GMO issue, these are just my thoughts that I wanted to share in hopes to make you go, hmmmm…

As mentioned in my very first blog entry, it’s time to Take Back Control!

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