Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are so commonplace in foods and other products that most Americans take them for granted, while the critics of GMOs worry. Genetically modified (GM) ingredients are in pharmaceutics, clothing, cosmetics, plastics and about 70 percent of the items we use daily.
This is the second in a series of articles about recent innovations in agriculture. Today’s column provides information about what is known thus far from scientific and other disciplines about GMOs.
Proponents of GMOs proclaim GM foods are similar to non-GM foods. They note that spontaneous genetic mutations have been occurring since life began on Earth and aren’t always improvements, like pesticide-resistant lice.
Genetic modification is the process of selective breeding that has been speeded up; the results can be observed in a single generation. Different from spontaneous mutations, GMOs are purposeful efforts to improve Mother Nature.
GMOs can have specific dietary benefits, such as the insertion of a genetic modification into rice that produces Vitamin A for eye health, reproductive success and disease resistance, thereby reducing the deficiency of this necessary vitamin in the diets of about 250 million children worldwide who consume too little else than rice. It’s called “golden rice.”
Other healthcare advances have resulted from GMOs, such as forms of insulin called humulin, first introduced in 1982, and several arthritis medications. Harvard University immunologist Dr. Kevin Bonham wrote in the May 30, 2013 issue of Scientific American that from an immunological viewpoint there is nothing inherently dangerous about GMOs.
Critics of GMOs abound. Jeffrey M. Smith wrote Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, in which he hypothesizes that GMOs contribute to many health problems, especially allergies. Smith says the incidence of people experiencing allergies has increased 50 percent since people began to consume GM foods.
Jennifer Lang authored the 2015 book, The Whistle-Blower’s Confession, in which she contends the active ingredient in several herbicides, glyphosate, is a carcinogen. GM plants, including about 90 percent of grains and oilseeds grown in the U.S., require glyphosate to grow relatively weed-free.
An indirect effect of GMO seeds for food and other consumable products is that they alter their local biomes and reduce their diversity. For example, weeds in crop fields are temporarily reduced, until exceptions like glyphosate-resistant water hemp and ragweed populate.
Weed-free fields may look good, but are the crops entirely healthful? Several investigators have reported that glyphosate residues in food and water can increase the production of estrogen in animals and humans.
High estrogen levels can enhance cancer proneness, especially in breasts, female reproductive systems and men’s prostates. False pregnancies in animals fed certain GM grains have been found.
At a minimum, additional scientific evaluations are needed of the long-term use of glyphosate, its potential to enhance cancer and claims that GMOs contribute to allergies.
A well-documented fact is that GM crops can pollinate similar species intended to be non-GM crops, particularly when they grow near to each other. GM plant pollens can alter organic crops to levels that disqualify them from receiving the higher organic market prices they would otherwise earn. Finding pure organic seed for planting is also a worsening problem for organic farmers as GMOs proliferate.
What conclusions can be drawn? Many GM products enhance survival, but with qualifications.
GM foods are generally nutritious, tasty and outcompete the plants and animals they replace, at least temporarily. The effects of GMOs on their biomes are not fully known over the long term.
Use of GMO seeds currently requires economic dependence on the companies that produce them and their agronomic treatments, such as required herbicides and insecticides. The manufacturers and distributors can control farmers’ options and costs.
They can affect the markets for crops if potential purchasers refuse to buy certain GM goods, which is the basis of a class-action lawsuit currently.
GMO producers and food companies are mostly opposed to labeling foods and other products when GM, so consumers usually don’t have this information when they purchase items, except at certified organic marketplaces.
The bottom line is that GMOs can contribute to rapid and beneficial changes in life, and also to economic monopolies. A business model that requires dependence on a limited number of patent-holders discourages diversity and fairness, while it encourages market control and greed.
Regulations are needed that allow for more business competition. Moreover, regulations should require full GM product liability, including liability for harmful effects of required pesticides and damage to non-GM farm production.
We know the earth and its inhabitants are better off having a diverse environment; competition has enabled survival thus far. The more choices, the better the ultimate outcome usually.
Consumers are requesting labels on all foods and products that indicate GM ingredients and origin. Consumers should be able to make informed choices about what they purchase and use.
The rights of people who choose to not use GM products should be respected.
Dr. Rosmann is a farmer, psychologist and adjunct professor. He can be reached at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.