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GMOs are commonly used in commercial crops.

If you are at all interested in food, then you might have heard or seen the acronym “GMO” and that it is bad for you. But what exactly are GMOs and how are they bad for you?

This article is a pre-cursor to a series of articles which will go in-depth into the ways that GMOs have affected our lives. I firmly believe that in order to understand something, we need a common background. This article will serve as that background.

What is GMO?

GMO is shorthand for “Genetically Modified Organism”. It refers to a fairly recent science that alters genetic material. To do this, scientists use the DNA molecules from different sources and combine them into a molecule to create a new set of genes. These genes are then transferred into another organism. Genetic modification has been used to transform animals such as fruit flies, mosquitos and fish as well as plants. Since this is a food blog, we are going to concentrate on genetic modifications that affect our food supply, but some of the other instances are just as horrifying.

Lets take an example.  Scientists have genetically modified potatoes and tomatoes by inserting the genes from fish which allow them to stay in colder waters. In this way, these potatoes and tomatoes can survive better in cold temperatures.  That’s a GMO tomato.  The biggest issue is that there are no labeling laws in the United States which means that you will never know if you are eating a tomato with fish genes.  If you are a vegetarian, would you want to eat a vegetable that is injected with non-vegetarian material, even if it’s just a molecule?  At this point, there is no way to know and therefore, no way to make a conscious decision.

GMOs are nothing like traditional methods of plant breeding, which have been used for thousands of years, or even hybridization. Plant breeding is both an art and a science. Before World War II, it consisted of finding plants with desirable characteristics and pollinating them to create even more plants with those characteristics. Plants which were derived from plant breeding, were real plants, which created seeds to further propagate these traits. An example of a plant breeding would be Gregor Mendel‘s experiments with pea plants.

Hybridization, occurred after World War II , and consists of techniques that cross-breed distantly related species. For instance, a cereal grain called triticale, is a hybrid of wheat and rye.  While wheat and rye are both cereal grains, they are not the same species.  Hybrid plants tend to not give viable seeds and thus need to be purchased every year. For this reason seed companies love them. (There are more modern methods of hybridization now, which use chemicals which are beyond the scope of this article.)

For our purposes, cross-breeding, is the most viable, healthy way to achieve changes in plant life. Both hybridized and GM plants have not been studied enough to verify that the plants derived are safe for our food system. And that is where the problem comes in. Because they aren’t safe.

For hybridized foods, there is no better place to look at the problems inherent than wheat. I’ve covered this in my review of “Wheat Belly“, but basically, the wheat we now eat has many more chromosomes than the ancient wheat, Emmer, that our ancestors ate. The hybridization process has had no oversight and no testing required. There has simply been an assumption that the process is safe.

GMO’s began being commercially cultivated in the late 1980’s under USDA approval. Some of the first plants which were approved for use are patent-protected  food crops that are either resistant to commercial herbicides or able to produce those pesticides themselves.  The USDA has approved a number of crops for commercial use and the numbers are staggering:

Percentages of United States Crops that were GMO in 2010

  • Soy Beans (approx 94%)
  • Sugar Beets (approx 95%)
  • Cotton (approx 90%)
  • Canola (approx 90%)
  • Corn (approx 88%)
  • Papaya (almost all Papaya out of Hawaii)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx 13%)

Additionally, there are other food items which, while not directly GMO, are considered to be at high risk, since they can be contaminated from the crops which are GMO.  These include animals which eat GMO feed, and a number of vegetables which also might be contaminated because of cross-pollination from GMO planted acres near them:

  • Chard and Beets
  • Rutabaga and Kale
  • Bok Choy, Turnips, Chinese Cabbage
  • Flax
  • Rice

I understand about what GMOs are, but why should I worry?

GMOs haven’t been studied very well and most of the studies have come from the very company which is providing the crops. In August, 2010, a federal judge reproved the USDA for approving GMO seeds without doing an environmental impact study.  The USDA now wants to allow the biotech firms, to conduct the studies.  Part of the reason for these studies is to have them be objective.  Just how objective do you think the studies will be coming from the very companies who want the approval?

Many of the GMO crops approved are commodity crops which are resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup, a herbicide which contains glyphosage. Glyphosage causes higher estrogen in plants (among other things). We then receive the higher estrogen levels when we eat these plants. High estrogen levels are associated with reproductive issues, including infertility as well as  gastrointestinal issues, chronic fatigue, and damaged sperm cells. Birth defects have also been attributed to this herbicide.

A whole host of allergic reactions to foods might be related to GM foods as well. Unfortunately, there is no long-term research that has been done on GM foods.  Most of the research that has been done, was a 90 day research experiment done by Monsanto. Monsanto conducted the research in 2002, but refused to release it until a European court made the research public in 2005. Using Monsanto’s own data, independent researchers determined there were levels of damage to many organs, even though Monsanto claimed (from the same research) that there was no danger.

Since the United States doesn’t require labeling of GM foods, we can’t for the most part determine definitively whether we are eating GMOs. It’s a pretty safe bet that most processed foods (which contain a preponderance of wheat, corn and soy) and foods that are fried with canola oil, are contaminated with GMOs. In many ways, the US resists the labeling of these foods, because they are afraid that consumers will reject them. (And rightly so).

In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine issued a warning to the public, urging them to avoid GMO Foods, and called for a moratorium on GMOs until long-term, independent studies (ie, not those done by Monsanto, or Dow Chemical or other bio-tech firms) can prove their safety.

But besides health issues, there are other issues as well. As with any situation, nature adapts. So farmers are now seeing super resistant weeds, that resist the Roundup they are spraying on their fields and they are spraying even more herbicides.

Farmers are being sued for saving their seeds instead of buying them from Monsanto, or having their non GMO crops contaminated with GMO material from neighboring farms. Yes, Monsanto sues them. As well, organic farms which are contaminated by wind-blown pollen are no longer organic and cannot be sold as such, causing these farmers to lose money for not just that year, but for a number of years to come since their fields would no longer be considered organic and would have to undergo a multi-year clean up process.

With the USDA approving GMO alfalfa this past year, the entire organic dairy and meat industry is threatened. It’s evident that GM crops of any kind cannot be contained. Nature will blow the pollen from GM crops on to any crops within a distance (in the case of alfalfa the distance is 5 miles). This means that any GM alfalfa will contaminate any conventional or organic alfalfa plants and ultimately the entire crop will be contaminated with GMO’s.

GMO’s are a huge threat to both our farmers and our health. In the next article, I’ll be specifying what the health risks are.



This is the first in a series of articles that I will be releasing over the next few months on the subject of Genetically Modified Foods.  As I started the research, the subject became too large to be written in one post. The series consists of:

  1. Whats’s all the Fuss about GMOs
  2. GMO Health Risks
  3. GMOs and Monsanto
  4. Identifying Sources of GMOs in your Food.

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