What are GMOs?

What is GMO food?

“Genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), “genetically engineered” (GE)  and “genetically modified” (GM) food are plants or animals whose genes have been artificially tampered with in a laboratory. The science is collectively called “transgenics”.  Genes from bacteria, insects, unrelated plants or animals – even humans - are used to make new plants or animals.   Depending on the purpose, these new organisms may produce pesticides, drugs, or other substances, such as cows being genetically engineered to produce human breast milk.  Currently, the most common GM trait is to create a plant that can survive being sprayed with large amounts of herbicides, such as the “RoundUp Ready” line of soybeans, sugar beets, and cotton.  

Many of these GMOs are currently in our food supply, even though the American public has demonstrated reluctance to eat them when given the choice.

Is genetic engineering different from plant or animal breeding?

Genetic engineering is a completely different process than plant or animal breeding.  Any home gardener can develop new plant varieties through the age old practice of selection and pollination.  Plant and animal breeding has been performed in the same way by farmers all over the world throughout time.  Our several thousand-year history of plant breeding has created an amazing selection of fruits, nuts, vegetables and animals for every climate and human need – genetically diverse plants and livestock that feed and clothe the world.

Breeding is mating (aka, the “birds and the bees”).  In this completely natural process, only related varieties or species can cross-breed.  For example broccoli can be crossed with cabbage because they are closely related plants, but broccoli can’t be crossed with a tomato (an unrelated plant) or a pig (not a plant).

Genetically engineered organisms are created in high-tech laboratories by scientists performing a type of cell invasion - genetic surgery that artificially combines the DNA of unrelated organisms.  For example, genes from a toxic, pesticide-producing bacterium are inserted into corn to create the widely-grown BT Corn.  Human genes have been inserted into cows or pigs.  You can’t try this at home, folks.

Genetic engineers use a few different types of technology including expensive instruments called “gene guns” that shoot genes into cells, as well as E. coli bacteria and viruses that transmit the desired genes into cells.  As any health official knows, bacteria and viruses are almost impossible to control and can have serious public health consequences. They survive through rapid evolution, adding an additional risk and level of unpredictability to GE technology.

Could I be eating genetically modified foods (GMOs)?

Almost certainly.  If you eat corn, soy, canola, or sugar that isn’t specifically labeled as “cane sugar”, you are most likely eating GMOs.  Cottonseed oil is another genetically modified food and is commonly used in restaurants, fast food and processed pastries.

The Center for Food Safety states that “Currently, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton… According to industry, up to 95% of sugar beets are now GE. It has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.”

Are GMOs safe to eat?

Unfortunately, GMOs have a sordid history.  In 1989, a form of tryptophan made from GE bacterium killed 37 people, disabled 1,500 people and sickened approximately 5,000 people.  To date, only one GMO feeding study has been completed on humans, and though it showed problems it was never thoroughly investigated.  Numerous studies involving mice and rats have been completed, demonstrating serious effects including liver and kidney damage and dysfunction, increased allergic reactions, changes to the gut lining, and reduced fertility.

A report by the US Center for Disease Control shows that food-related illnesses increased dramatically between 1994 (just before GM food entered into public consumption) and 1999. Is there a link to GMOs?  No one knows, because thorough studies on humans have not been done and GMO food is not labeled.  Without labeling, it is impossible for public health organizations and consumers to trace health concerns to GM food.

GM food also encourages the increased use of pesticides.  In fact, the most common GM crops are specifically designed to be tolerant of the herbicide RoundUp.  This has created a new farming practice of directly spraying food crops with herbicides – something previously impossible, since a regular (non-genetically engineer) plant could not survive these sprays.  Because of this practice, these chemicals are now permeating our food system.

For a detailed scientific look at the problems created by GMOs, read GM CROPS – JUST THE SCIENCE: research documenting the limitations, risks, and alternatives.

Is labeling of GMOs required anywhere?

Yes.  Many developed and developing nations have labeling laws, including 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and even China!

What’s more, dozens of countries have banned or restricted the import, distribution, sale, utilization, field trials and commercial planting of GMOs including Brazil, Germany, Egypt, Algeria, China, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Peru and the European Union.

Why aren’t GMOs labeled in the U.S.?

Simply, because the American public has not demanded they be labeled.  Most people in the U.S. have not been told about the prevalence of GMOs, let alone the health concerns.  Shouldn’t it be our right to choose what we eat?  Right now, if you want to be absolutely sure you are not eating GM food, you would need to completely avoid soy, corn, canola, beets, wheat, flax, cotton, and many more foods!

How can I help get GMOs labeled?

Share this information with friends, family, and co-workers.  Sign our petition to support the Oregon GMO labeling measure, and vote for it this November!  Tell your elected officials to vote in support of the labeling initiatives. Use this link to find your state legislator. Check your county commissioner’s office to find your local commissioner.

And, very importantly, write your favorite food companies in support of GMO labeling.  When enough of us speak out, they will listen to their customers! 

How do I learn more?

Visit our "Learn More" page for a list of valuable links to research, educational sites, and videos. Download a copy of the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, or the iPhone App. Watch the DVD The Future of Food.   Check out the book Genetically Engineered Foods by Laura Ticciati and Robin Ticciati, Ph.D.  For an in depth read, take a look at Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M. Smith, or Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food by Andrew Kimbrell.

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  • commented 2014-10-25 11:14:44 -0700
    Bt toxin present in aquifers and streams

    There are no legal standards in place anywhere in the world on safe levels of Bt toxins in drinking water, although the US EPA acknowledges that humans may well be exposed to the toxin via food or drinking water 13. They conclude that as Bt toxins pose no health problems to humans, ingestion of the toxin is therefore of no concern. However, our review of the literature showed otherwise 14 Bt Crop Hazards and Failures (SiS 53). Bt toxins are implicated human health complications including allergenicity and other immune reactions, skin and eye problems, as well as internal organ toxicity in feeding trials on animals and in vitro studies of toxicity and lethality to human kidney cells at low doses (see 15 Bt Toxin Kills Human Kidney Cells, SiS 52). Environmental concerns include effects on soil microorganisms and off-target beneficial insects such as bees, caddis flies and Daphnia magna (see16 Bt Toxin Threatens Aquatic Ecosystems, SiS 36).

    Analysis of the streams and water columns in Midwestern US, where an estimated 91 % of streams are located within 500 meters of maize fields, found that 23 % of water column sites and 13 % of stream sites had detectable levels of the Bt Cry1Ab protein 6 months after harvest. Furthermore, 86 % of stream sites contained Bt maize detritus (organic matter from the plants) 17. A similar study conducted in Canada found cry1Ab DNA as far away as 82 kilometers from the nearest Bt maize field, suggesting that it travels long distances through the water column 18. Looking at the presence of the cry1Ab DNA, they found it persisted for 21 and 40 days in surface water and sediment, respectively. Sediment-associated cry1Ab gene from Bt maize tended to decrease with distance from the Bt maize field. The ability of DNA to bind to clay substances increases its half-life and thus, as the authors of the study state, increases the risk of horizontal gene transfer (see 19 Horizontal Gene Transfer from GMOs Does Happen, SiS 38). Horizontal gene transfer and recombination is the main route for generating new pathogens and spreading antibiotic and drug resistance, and genetic engineering is nothing if not greatly facilitated horizontal gene transfer and recombination. Persistence of Bt toxin DNA in our water
  • commented 2014-10-24 21:34:54 -0700
    The whole GMO crop system kills the building blocks that support a balanced ecosystem of natural life.
    Take out one life form and other life forms may become a big problem.
  • commented 2013-04-01 11:30:54 -0700
    Please share a list of GE and GMO foods and their manufacturers so we can avoid them. Thanks.
  • published this page in About 2012-04-02 13:23:10 -0700