Currently, 64 countries around the world require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.  Unlike most other developed countries – such as 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and even China – the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods, even though a recent New York Times poll found that 93% of Americans favor labeling of GE food.

A bill to label foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) was introduced in the New Jersey Senate (S 91) in January 2014 with the support of 14 co-sponsors. According to the bill text, “Every genetically modified food product that is offered for sale in the State shall contain a label indicating that the product contains genetically modified material. The information shall be displayed in a manner that is conspicuous and easily understandable to consumers.” A companion bill in the New Jersey Assembly (A1359) has 15 sponsors. It has the support of a large coalition of nonprofit and community groups, including NOFA-NJ, Food and Water Watch NJ, the New Jersey Sierra Club, GMO Free NJ, and the Foodshed Alliance.

So what exactly is a GMO? Why are they in our food system? What are the problems  caused by GMOs? And, what can we do about them?

A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. You may also hear them called transgenic organisms that have undergone Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM).

Genetic engineering is completely different from traditional breeding and hybridization and carries unique risks. In traditional breeding, you can mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. Even when closely related species do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile: when a horse, for example, mates with a donkey, its offspring (a mule) is sterile.

With genetic engineering, scientists breach species barriers set up by nature. For example, they have spliced fish genes into tomatoes. The results are plants (or animals) with traits that would be impossible to obtain with natural processes, such as crossbreeding or grafting.

So how do they do it? Every plant and animal is made of cells, each of which has a center called a nucleus. Inside every nucleus, there are strings of DNA, half of which is normally inherited from the mother and half from the father. Short sequences of DNA are called genes. These genes operate in complex networks that are finely regulated to enable the processes of living organisms to happen in the right place and at the right time.

Because living organisms have natural barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers have to find ways to force the DNA from one organism into another. These methods include:

  • Using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
  • Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells.
  • Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.
  • Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes.

Now, for all of our scientific advances, our current understanding of the way DNA works is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point can have side effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value. When foreign genes are inserted, dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown.

The two main traits added through genetic engineering to plants are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide.

When they make plants tolerant to herbicides, it allows plants to survive an otherwise deadly dose of weed killer such as Roundup. Farmers use considerably more herbicide on these crops, causing higher herbicide residues in our food.

When they make plants with a built-in pesticide, such GM corn and cotton, they insert a gene from soil bacteria called Bt which secretes the insect-killing Bt-toxin in every cell of the plant.

So what crops are affected: in the US, 94% of soy, 90% of cotton, 90% of canola, 95% of sugar beets, 88% of corn, 50% of Hawaiian papaya, and about 24,000 acres of zucchini and yellow squash.

Think of all the products derived from these GMO plants:

  • products that contain “sugar” are most likely from sugar beets, not cane sugar.
  • oils made from soy, cotton, canola and corn
  • soy protein, soy lecithin
  • cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup
  • meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed (and the majority of the GM corn and soy is used for feed);
  • dairy products from cows injected with rbGH (a GM growth hormone);
  • food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet); and
  • honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen.

The only way to be sure you are not eating GMOs is to buy products that are Certified Organic or , Non-GMOVerified, purchase products listed in the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, or avoid foods with these ingredients all together.

Why are GMOs in our food system?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) policy on GMOs, released in 1992, falsely claims that the agency had no information showing that GM foods are substantially different. Thousands of secret memos later made public by a lawsuit reveal just the opposite. FDA scientists repeatedly warned of possible allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems; they urged long-term safety studies. But the FDA official in charge of policy was Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, later their vice president, and now the US Food Safety Czar.

The FDA ignored their scientists, and doesn’t require a single safety test. Instead, companies such as Monsanto, which have been found guilty of hiding toxic effects of their other products, get to decide if their GMOs are safe for us to eat. And the superficial studies they do conduct are widely criticized as too short term or designed to avoid revealing problems.

So what are the problems with GMOs?

#1.       GMOs are unhealthy.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. Human studies show how genetically modified food can leave material behind inside us, possibly causing long-term problems. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and that the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.

Numerous health problems increased after GMOs were introduced in 1996. The percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses jumped from 7% to 13% in just 9 years; food allergies skyrocketed, and disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others are on the rise. Although there is not sufficient research to confirm that GMOs are a contributing factor, doctors’ groups such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine tell us not to wait before we start protecting ourselves–especially our children, who are most at risk.

#2.       GMOs contaminate―forever.

GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel. It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated agricultural gene pool. The potential impact is huge, threatening the health of future generations. GMO contamination has also caused economic losses for organic and non-GMO farmers who often struggle to keep their crops pure.

#3.       GMOs increase herbicide use.

Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant” of deadly weed killers. Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide.

Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “superweeds,” resistant to the herbicide. This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year. Not only does this create environmental harm, GM foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.

#4.       Genetic engineering creates dangerous side effects.

By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.

#5.       Government oversight is dangerously lax.

Most of the health and environmental risks of GMOs are ignored by governments’ superficial regulations and safety assessments. The reason for this tragedy is largely political. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, doesn’t require a single safety study, does not mandate labeling of GMOs, and allows companies to put their GM foods onto the market without even notifying the agency. Their justification was the claim that they had no information showing that GM foods were “substantially different”.

#6.       The biotech industry uses “tobacco science” to claim product safety.

Biotech companies like Monsanto told us that Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT were safe. They are now using the same type of superficial, biased research to try and convince us that GMOs are safe. Independent scientists, however, have caught the spin-masters red-handed, demonstrating without doubt how industry-funded research is designed to avoid finding problems, and how adverse findings are distorted or denied.

#7.       GMOs harm the environment.

GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the U.S. Roundup herbicide has been shown to cause birth defects in amphibians, embryonic deaths and endocrine disruptions, and organ damage in animals even at very low doses. GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California, threatening to pass on its herbicide-tolerant genes on to weeds.

#8.       GMOs do not increase yields, and work against feeding a hungry world.

Whereas sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods used in developing countries have conclusively resulted in yield increases of 79% and higher, GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report “Failure to Yield”―the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, authored by more than 400 scientists and backed by 58 governments, stated that GM crop yields were “highly variable” and in some cases, “yields declined.” They determined that the current GMOs have nothing to offer the goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods, and facilitating social and environmental sustainability.

So what can you do about it?

By avoiding GMOs, you contribute to the coming tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply.

Because GMOs give no consumer benefits, if even a small percentage of us start rejecting brands that contain them, GM ingredients will become a marketing liability. In Europe, for example, the tipping point was achieved in 1999, just after a high-profile GMO safety scandal hit the papers and alerted citizens to the potential dangers. In the U.S., a consumer rebellion against GM bovine growth hormone has also reached a tipping point, kicking the cow drug out of dairy products by Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Dannon, Yoplait, and most of America’s dairies.

Here in NJ, we are working hard to pass a law requiring food to be labeled whether or not a product contains GM ingredients. The campaign, called “Let Me Decide,” wants to give the consumer the information he or she needs to make an informed decision. If enough people stop buying GM foods, these foods will eventually disappear from our shelves.

For more information on Genetically Modified Food:

GMO Free NJ http://gmofreenj.com/

Institute for Responsible Technology http://www.responsibletechnology.org/

Food and Water Watch http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/

Organic Consumers Association http://organicconsumers.org/

Union of Concerned Scientists  http://www.ucsusa.org/

Center for Food Safety http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/

The Cornucopia Institute http://www.cornucopia.org/

Content excerpted from Institute for Responsible Technology.