GMOs: Good, Bad, Ugly?
By Tonda McGillis
GMO – Genetically Modified Organism.What is it?Wikipedia describes GMO as “Foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering techniques allow for the introduction of new traits as well as greater control over traits than previous methods such as selective breeding and mutation breeding.”Selective breeding is when we breed certain plants or animals that exhibit a specific trait to bring that trait more to the forefront.It can be good and bad, for example, more peas in a pod is a good thing; dogs that can’t breathe properly because they’ve been bred to accentuate the ‘pug’ characteristics, is not.Unfortunately, we don’t fully know the long-term effects of GMOs, as they’ve only been in our food system for a couple of decades since their introduction in 1994.Wikipedia goes on to state that “…there are ongoing public concerns related to food safety, regulation, labelling, environmental impact, research methods, and the fact that some GM seeds, along with all new plant varieties, are subject to plant breeders’ rights owned by corporations.”
Right now, in Canada and the US, genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled as such.However, if a food producer wants to make a claim that it is not GMO, it must pass very strict standards to ensure that it is not.This would lead us to believe that the distribution of GMO in these countries is not particularly regulated.Some of the most common GM foods are corn, wheat, soy, canola, milk, some squash, papaya, and sugar.Non-food crops such as cotton are highly genetically modified as well.
Health Canada has an eight step process for regulation, and it takes “7 – 10 years to research, develop, test and assess the safety of a new GM food.” However, it doesn’t state on this particular page whether or not testing is done in vitro (test tubes) or in actual human subjects (controlled trials).Obviously, the latter would take quite a lot of time, so are probably less likely to occur.
However, safety is relative, and while some scientists consider two years to be a safe study period because it may span several generations of a small animal such as mice, it simply cannot translate to certainty of the same safety in humans.Also, human studies of this nature are not generally considered ethical, which may cause some concern in itself.Detractors suggest that long term effects cannot be known until use has spanned several generations in humans and that such testing now is inadequate to this end.They also feel that testing should be carried out by independent groups, separate from GM vested interests such as Monsanto and Bayer.
Arguments in favour of GMO are that it can increase yield, resistance to disease, chemical defoliants, and pesticides as stated on the website of The Genetic Literacy Project.Unfortunately, this is a group funded by Monsanto, one of the largest producers of GMOs on the planet, so may not be entirely unbiased.A paper published in Nature America Inc. 2013, seems to disprove that theory by showing that organic crops functioned better in extreme growing conditions (drought and excessive rainfall) than GMO crops.They found that these altered plants (e.g. Smart Stax by Monsanto – both herbicide and pesticide resistant crops), while they should have had a result ‘greater than the sum of the parts’, were highly inconsistent and usually resulted in a lower yield than organic crops overall.
Most studies done on the efficacy and safety of GMO foods are naturally subsidized by biotech engineering companies, as they want to see their product brought to market, therefore not blocked by the FDA or Health Canada.There have been some 200 or so studies done by private funding, but may be a little harder to find.A concern for farmers who do not want GMO crops is the protective attitude of bioengineering companies like Monsanto for their patented product.If a farmer’s crop has been inadvertently pollinated by a GMO crop, his crop can be seized and he may even be fined, or charged.
Ultimately, the biggest concern is, “what is it going to do to our health in the long run?” and that question is not really being answered.In essence, we are the unsuspecting rats in a maze because GMO products, in Canada especially, are not required to be labeled as such.Long term studies regarding impact on human health in a controlled environment are essentially impossible as you cannot ethically confine human beings in controlled environments for long periods of time for the purpose of experimentation.So we consume them unaware, but how will we know if a health challenge we experience later in life is attributable to GMOs or not?
As a nutritional practitioner, I have seen over the last couple of decades a sharp spike in food intolerances, allergies, digestive difficulties, and a myriad of complex symptoms I’d never really seen to this degree before.I don’t know that it all has to do with GMOs, but the timing is a bit suspect.Certainly there are other factors that may play a role as well, but the link may not be confirmed for several years, decades, generations or ever.We see more and more countries banning GMOs in favour of more organic methods of farming because long-term effects, either good or bad, are not yet undeniably evident.
For my money, I will tend to support the smaller local growers and those who utilize organic methods to control pests, weeds, and soil viability as much as possible until more definitive information regarding GMO safety is established.