Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are created when individual genes are transferred into an organism’s genetic structure in order to change one or more of its characteristics. The most common genetically modified organisms in the US include corn, soy, and wheat. Approximately 50% of the world’s genetically modified (GM) crops are in the US, compared to 6% in Canada. We often see foods labeled as being free of GMOs. So what’s the deal?
After researching this topic and taking the Environmental Medicine course at the Arizona Center for Integrative Nutrition, it appears that the problem with GMO use in the US is its prevalence and the lack of proven safety. Unlike Europe and Canada, the US operates under the “substantial equivalence” policy which considers GMOs to be the same as and as safe as their conventional non-GMO version if it demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food. By contrast, in the EU, which has far less GMOs, the overriding approach is the “precautionary principle” which states that action should be taken to prevent serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment, despite lack of definitive scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm (Raffensberger, 1999). Many countries have banned and/or restricted the import of GMOs, meanwhile the US does not even require labeling.
The “substantial equivalence” policy was created in the US in the early 1990’s to facilitate rapid approval for genetically modified foods. It has been criticized as being beneficial for domestic biotechnology companies by creating the lowest regulatory hurdles possible, with no clear defining of “substantially equivalent.” To date there are no formal tests or universal guidelines to determine how similar the items in question need to be. This vagueness leaves the consumer unaware if they are consuming harmful ingredients and largely unable to limit their exposure to GMOs because of their prevalence in the US today.
Vague testing and definitions of safety are a result of the legal loopholes created by the complex web of FDA officials, lawyers, and agricultural executives working in concert to ensure high yields of domestic crops and corporate profits (as opposed to ensuring consumer safety). Fraught with its usual conflicts of interest, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Policy in the 1990’s was Michael R. Taylor, who had previously worked as a lawyer for Monsanto where he helped legalize the genetically modified bovine growth hormone (BGH). During Taylor’s tenure GM seeds were declared to be “substantially equivalent” to non-GM seeds, making proving the safety of GMOs to be unnecessary. Taylor has since returned to government as the “senior advisor” to the Commissioner of the US FDA.
One thing we do know about GMOs is that many of them were created to withstand high levels of herbicides, in particular Round Up, the herbicide and pesticide made by Monsanto. Round Up contains glyphosate and the surfactant POEA (polyethoxylated tallow amine), which has been found to be highly toxic to animals and to humans. Herbicides concentrate in rivers and surface waters, and have been shown to contaminate food, animal feed, and complex ecosystems. They affect many types of human cells and have been shown to be endocrine disruptors (including interfering with the production of testosterone and estrogen), cause genetic damage, are associated with cancer, and are toxic to liver cells in vitro (de Vendomois, 2010; Gasnier, 2009; Richard, 2005).
Monsanto makes many GMO seeds that are engineered to tolerate Round Up, known as “Round Up Ready” crops. Soy was the first Round Up Ready crop and according to the FDA, 94% of the soy produced in 2011 was genetically modified. We all consume GMOs every day, largely because of the pervasiveness of soy in our processed foods (notably baby formula!). And by nature of consuming these GM ingredients, we are consuming food that has been exposed to high levels of herbicides and pesticides when we don’t even realize it.
How To Avoid GMOs
This lack of GMO safety and labeling is yet another reason to choose organic foods whenever possible. Luckily, very few fresh fruits and vegetables in the US are genetically modified. Currently, the only GM “fresh foods” in the US are papayas in Hawaii and some sweet corn. A simple rule to follow is assume any food derived from corn, soy, cotton, canola, or sugar beets probably includes genetically modified varieties, as farmers of those crops overwhelmingly choose that option. Resources such as a non-GMO Shopping Guide may be helpful. We also found this ShopNoGMO app available on iTunes.