Do You Know What You Are Eating? A Look at Genetically Modified Foods – Part 1

Frankenfoods for a brave, New World

Vegetables with scorpion genes; tomatoes with flounder genes; potatoes with jellyfish genes that glow when they need to be watered; pigs with human genes; and cows that produce human breast milk.1 Absurd? Yes! Science fiction? No.

These are just some of the genetically engineered foods scientists are currently working on, that we could be eating in the very near future. And if indeed “you are what you eat,” there might be some pretty weird looking people on the planet in the next century.

Is genetically engineered food good for you?

Although some scientists truly believe they are helping to create healthier, disease-resistant foods, others are apprehensive that GE food is risky business—both for the health of the planet and for those of us—animals and people, alike—who eat it!

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Take for instance a Japanese scientist’s creation of pigs that have been implanted with spinach genes. This “frankenfood” reportedly contains a gene called FAD2, which converts saturated fat into the unsaturated fat linoleic acid. Akira Iritani, who led the research at Kinki University in western Japan, says the genetically modified pigs contain 20 per cent less saturated fat than normal pigs—and so could be healthier to eat.

“I know genetically-modified food has met with poor public acceptance, but I hope safety tests will be conducted to make people feel like eating the pork for the sake of their health,” said Iritani. 2

The problem is the current administration has no safeguards in place for assessing GE crops and food. So there are absolutely no guarantees that GE foods are safe.

Exactly what is genetically engineered food?

GE food has had its basic genetic code permanently altered. Scientists identify and then select specific genes in plants, animals, bacteria or viruses that have desirable traits. The genes are then transferred into the DNA of a host organism.

Once genetically modified organisms (GMO) are released into the environment, they cannot be contained or restricted in a specific space. They are free to live and mutate on their own, and are self-propagating.

Genetic engineering had its roots (no pun intended) in agriculture, when farmers began selecting fruits and vegetables for size, juiciness, color, flavor, etc. and crossbreeding them by trial and error to produce better produce.

After the discovery of how DNA works in 1953, scientists learned how to select genes in one plant or animal, and transfer them to another. Now, “gene engineers all over the world are snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic material. Animal genes and even human genes are being randomly inserted into the chromosomes of plants, fish, and animals, creating heretofore unimaginable transgenic life forms.”3

As EPA toxicologist Suzanne Wuerthele commented, “This is probably one of the most technologically powerful developments the world has ever seen. It’s the biological equivalent of splitting the atom.”4

Why were GE foods created in the first place?

  • Genetic engineering companies—the biggest one being Monsanto—claim that GE foods have increased nutritional value. But according to Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and Ben Lilliston, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, co-authors of Genetically Engineered Food, no GE food currently on the market has been shown to be more nutritious or better-tasting than non-GE foods. In fact, a 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, found that phytoestrogen compounds, believed to protect against heart disease and cancer, were 12-14 percent lower in GE soybeans than in untreated soybean varieties. 5
  • GE companies claim that farmers will benefit from growing GE crops because 1) of increased yields and reduced input costs, and 2) they won’t need to use as many herbicides and pesticides. In reality, say Cummins and Lilliston, GE seeds are more expensive than traditional seed varieties. Additionally, because of strong opposition to GE foods in Europe, American farmers lost about $400 million in sales of corn exports in 1998-1999,6 and soybean exports to EU fell by over a billion dollars between 1996-99. 7

The manufacturers of GE seeds do make huge profits from selling toxic pesticides to farmers, however. By pushing herbicide-resistant GE crop seeds, these companies can sell more of their own broad-spectrum herbicides—which have been shown to kill everything green except the herbicide-resistant GE plants—to farmers, not less. 8

  • Proponents of GE food say that bigger crop yields with GE seeds will help feed the world’s hungry and prevent widespread famine. Cummins and Lilliston argue that according to the UN, the fundamental cause of world hunger is not a shortage of food in the world, but rather the 800 million hungry people on earth are too poor to produce or buy the food they need. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality, and lack of access to food. 9

Many world leaders don’t want any part of GE food technology, because they don’t want their people exposed to the possible health risks.

“For the genetically modified food industry, reeling under a growing rejection of its untested and possibly harmful food products, there is money in hunger and starvation,” says Devinder Sharma in his article “Famine as Commerce.” Spearheaded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the industry has made it clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer third-world nations, and was not willing to segregate the unmodified maize from the GM maize.

“What is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian act, seen as morally repugnant, is the decision of the USAID to offer US $50 million in food aid to famine-stricken Zimbabwe, provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize. Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine victims and starving millions.” 10

Should you worry?

That’s a loaded question. There is simply no way to know for sure how genetically engineered crops will affect the environment or humans. In ten, twenty or thirty years, there could be hundreds of genetically modified foods “all from entirely different gene adjustments,” says Tim Radford in his article, “A bluffer’s guide: why genetic modification matters.”

“Even if one of them is proved safe – after a lifetime of human consumption – what does that say about the others? And if a consumer does die after many years of consumption, how will anyone be sure it was the GM food, and not the crisps, the hot dogs, the beer or the cigarettes? Can resistance [sic] genes escape into wild plants? Probably. Will it happen on a massive scale? So far, the answer is probably not. Will the world eventually be over-run by superweeds? Who knows: the alternative scenario painted by environmentalists is that the effect of herbicide resistant crops will be to kill off all the weeds, and with them the birds and insects that depend on them, turning farmland into sterile monocultures.” 11

Health Concerns

Although it’s too early to know for sure, a proliferation of GM foods certainly has the potential for harmful health effects. According to the Consumers Union, 25 percent of American families report that they or members of their family have food allergies.12 And scientists are particularly concerned that the loss of biodiversity in our food supply has grown in parallel with the increase in food allergies. (i.e A large portion of our diet depends on wheat and corn.) What happens, then, when specific genes are inserted over and over again into a variety of foods?

A couple of serious allergic reactions to GM foods have already been documented:

  1. In 1988, 37 Americans died and several thousand others were afflicted and impaired by a genetically altered version of the food supplement – L-tryptophan. A settlement of $2 billion dollars was paid by Showa Denko, Japan’s third largest chemical company.13
  2. In 1996, Brazil nut genes were spliced into soybeans by a company called Pioneer Hi-Bred. Some individuals, however, are so allergic to this nut, they go into apoplectic shock, which can cause death. Animal tests confirmed the danger, and consequently, the product was removed from the market before any fatalities occurred. “The next case could be less than ideal and the public less fortunate,” wrote Marion Nestle, head of the Nutrition Department of NYU, in an editorial to the New England Journal of Medicine.14

The British newspaper “The Guardian” reported (July 17, 2002) that British scientific researchers have shown that genetically modified DNA material from crops is finding its way into human gut bacteria, raising potentially serious health questions.

Writer John Vidal explained that “Many of the controversial crops have antibiotic-resistant marker genes inserted into them at an early stage in development. If genetic material from these marker genes can also find its way into the human stomach, as experiments at Newcastle University suggest is likely, then people’s resistance to widely used antibiotics could be compromised.” And that could lead to a plethora of health problems.

Did you know that over 60% of processed foods consumed in the U.S. now contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops?

Mothers for Natural Law, a grass-roots, watch-dog group based in Fairfield, Iowa regularly updates the list of GE food products and offers these guidelines:

If you really want to avoid the influence of genetic engineering, buy fresh organic produce. If you want to buy processed foods and avoid genetically engineered ingredients, you will have to read product labels. If the label mentions any of the ingredients listed below without explicitly qualifying it as organic, then the product probably contains genetically engineered ingredients.

Primary Suspects: Ingredients and Products to Check

  • Soybeans: Soy flour, soy oil, lecithin, soy protein isolates and concentrates. Products that may contain genetically engineered soy derivatives: vitamin E, tofu dogs, cereals, veggie burgers and sausages, tamari, soy sauce, chips, ice cream, frozen yogurt, infant formula, sauces, protein powder, margarine, soy cheeses, crackers, breads, cookies, chocolates, candies, fried foods, shampoo, bubble bath, cosmetics, enriched flours and pastas.
  • Corn: Corn flour, corn starch, corn oil, corn sweeteners, syrups. Products that may contain genetically engineered corn derivatives: vitamin C, tofu dogs, chips, candies, ice cream, infant formula, salad dressings, tomato sauces, breads, cookies, cereals, baking powder, alcohol, vanilla, margarine, soy sauce, tamari, soda, fried foods, powdered sugar, enriched flours and pastas.
  • Canola: Oil. Products that may contain genetically engineered canola derivatives: chips, salad dressings, cookies, margarine, soaps, detergents, soy cheeses, fried foods.
  • Cotton: Oil, fabric. Products that may contain genetically engineered cotton or its derivatives: clothes, linens, chips, peanut butter, crackers, cookies.
  • Potatoes: Right now the only potato that has been genetically engineered is the Burbank Russet, but you still have to look out for potato starch and flour. Products that may contain genetically engineered potatoes or derivatives: unspecified processed or restaurant potato products (fries, mashed, baked, mixes, etc.), chips, Passover products, vegetable pies, soups. Fast-food chains appear to have responded to consumer concerns and requested genetically natural potatoes.
  • Dairy Products: Milk, cheese, butter, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, whey. You have to ask several questions when you are looking at dairy products. Have the cows been treated with rBGH? What kind of feed have they been given? If they are not being fed organic grains, chances are quite likely that they will be eating genetically engineered animal feed. What does this do to their milk products? No one knows.
  • Animal Products: Because animal feed often contains genetically engineered organisms, all animal products, or by-products may be affected.
  • Papaya.
  • GE canola, corn, cotton, and soy are the crops whose derivatives are commonly found in packaged foods.

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