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The deleterious effects, and the risks of GM food Essay

It’s been said that humans are what they eat. The relationship humans have with food is unappreciated. Food is the fuel that keeps humans going, gives them the energy needed to be creative and productive; it is the building block of society, after all, it wasn’t until the Neolithic Era, when humans figured out a way to domesticate plants and animals, that any form of organized society formed. Even during the previous hunter-gatherer foraging era, humans were very connected to the food they ate; understanding where it came and having an idea of how it came to be was crucial to knowing what was vital to survive. In this time, food sources like grains, fruits, and vegetables were naturally abundant, whole. Humans could choose between many different types of nutritious food because there were thousands of varieties of species. Unfortunately, as populations grew and more civilized societies formed, various farming techniques were created, and a vast majority of these species became extinct to make way for the harvesting of a select few (Pringle). In the industrial era, societies around the world, especially western ones, emphasized the importance of technological advancements. With this pursuit of technology, nature became something to control rather than live with; an attempt at making life simpler, better. Breaching the gap between nature and technology is optimization. It is this obsession with optimization that most accurately characterizes contemporary America. Undoubtedly, it comes with great costs. As it turns out, optimization is a business, and a profitable one. Thus, the costs and effects of optimization are often hidden from the public by industrial leaders in an effort to maintain profits. They control the businesses they run and protect themselves by dumping millions of dollars into politics. Today, it seems that the gap between nature and technology has been breached with the propagation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The aliens that now fill supermarkets nationwide represent the ultimate disconnect from natural, whole foods necessary for a healthy lifestyle. People are relatively uninformed about GM foods, issues include: their benefits, the testing and safety, the harmful effects they can have on the body and environment, the government’s role as overseer, the labeling controversy, and the “substantially equivalent” principle; all of these issues are conveniently hidden vitalities in understanding the danger, the deleterious effects, and the risks of GM foods. In tackling these issues, an additional understanding
of the historic background of how GMOs came to be is equally important.

Advocates for the rapid advance of technology will cite the numerous positive breakthroughs, the internet, healthcare, the numerous inventions; it’s hard to argue with, which is why when addressing GM foods, the emphasis should be placed on the relationship between technology and nature, specifically within the food industry, and how this relationship has become too intimate, to the point where it’s difficult to differentiate between technology and nature. The courtship leading to the marriage between technology and nature is exemplified in Peter Pringle’s book, Food, Inc., in which he discusses the 1960’s Green Revolution, a turning point in agriculture during which producers moved from traditional to monoculture methods of farming. This vastly increased crop yields. But how? Farmers had high yields because they started to use fertilizers and pesticides containing chemicals like nitrogen, left over from World War II explosives. New irrigation systems were introduced and animals replaced some human labor in order to handle the large crop fields and monoculture agriculture provided food relief to starving nations post-war (Pringle). Farmers experienced a rude awakening when yields started to decline due to a number of unforeseen or unaddressed consequences. Although the Green Revolution saved or improved millions of lives during the 1960’s, little consideration was given to the future effects it could have on environmental sustainability.

The lack of food plant diversity eventually led to multiple problems, like the mass destruction of crops that had contracted disease or succumbed to pesticide-resistant insects, chemically saturated and overly watered soils, and an inevitable decline in production yields (Pringle). Obviously, the United States needed to find a solution to this problem. By the late 1900s, many scientists and biotechnologists approved and advocated genetic engineering as the most viable solution. This process is best described by Lauren and Robin Ticciati in their book, Genetically Modified Foods: Are They Safe? You Decide. According to the Ticciati’s, scientists planned to take a gene from one completely different organism and insert it into the plant in order to make it yield a desired outcome (Ticciati). The goal was to create food plants that could grow and withstand harsh conditions like pesticides, infertile soil, unfavorable climates, and
geographical locations. Despite wariness from skeptical environmentalists about the unknown future effects of genetic food engineering, the companies who profit from this new food technology proclaimed it to be the wave of the future. As the Ticciati’s evidenced, in 1996, when the FDA approved the use of genetically engineered foods with no special label requirements, the GM foods were introduced on grocery market shelves with relatively no consumer awareness. This is just another example of how society is not clueless by choice. If this seems a harsh diagnosis, take into context what Kathleen Hart exemplified in her book, Eating in the Dark; a survey which took place just a couple years after GM foods were released revealed about two-thirds of the American adult population had no idea that supermarkets were carrying such items (Hart). Since then, GMOs have become part of the staple food products in the diets of the everyday consumer.

Part of the problem is that nobody is exactly sure how harmful GM foods are, but there is substantial evidence to show that they can have a devastating effect on the economy, the human body, and the environment. In Food, Inc., Pringle discusses the farming method of artificial hybrid breeding which became a huge success in the mid-1900s and attracted a lot of commercial attention, spawning the term “agribusiness.” Scientists found that by crossing-breeding “two varieties [of a species of plant] that had been inbred, [and] fertilized by their own pollen for three or four generations showed a tremendous leap in hybrid vigor, with grain yields up to 50 percent higher [than the natural bred variety]” (Pringle).

Unfortunately, when naturally crossed in the farmers’ fields, the hybrids’ strength did not withstand, so farmers had to rely on industry-produced super seeds. An economic boom occurred within the seed and fertilizer industries, with businesses rapidly sprouting up like the crops they helped produce. A few decades later “the early warnings of genetic uniformity suddenly became a reality,” (Pringle). One alarming discovery was the fact that since only one type of species was being harvested in a given area, if a crop contracted a disease, the entire field was wiped out, which meant no income that season for many farmers (Pringle). The companies who were invested in this new agricultural era and had seen the enormous profit potential in having a hand in controlling the food chain were not going to just quit. They pushed
further into science, seeking ways to alter a species’ genetic make-up in order for it to conform to optimization, instead of considering natural solutions to these problems (Pringle). Today, there are GM super foods that are so genetically modified that they differ starkly from their ancestors. It is a teeter-totter industry; either profits are extremely high (like they have been for so long) or the industry fails and profits cease to exist. The latter doesn’t look like it’s going to occur any time soon because the government is firmly grasped by the biotech food companies that control the GM food industry. The most prominent of these companies, Monsanto, falsely advocates the necessity for GM foods, with the real motive the preservation of profits. Monsanto executive Hugh Grant claims “they [GM foods] can help feed the world and preserve the environment by reducing the need for pesticides,” (Harvest of Fear). Others advocate the hope that GM technology can save lives, like scientist Charles Arntzen, who is working on GM techniques to make edible vaccines to combat viruses in developing countries, (Harvest of Fear). More recently, companies like AquaBounty Technologies are working to develop genetically engineered animals. AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon has been touted as “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon,” by the FDA, but is still being met with numerous opposition (Pollack). The salmon “contain a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout that turns on an antifreeze gene,” which allows the salmon to make growth hormone in cold weather, whereas they usually produce it only in warm weather,” (Pollack).

Genetic manipulation is causing drastic changes in the natural behavior of the organisms it’s implemented on, and it is believed that this could have multiple adverse effects on the environment and society. Those who have similar concerns, these cautious enemies to GM foods, can find strength in recent studies that are beginning to expose the numerous harmful effects of GM foods. In a study done by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen in France, 200 rats were fed either genetically engineered corn or the herbicide Roundup and observed for two years, their entire life cycle and not just the normal ninety day period. It was found that they had an increased risk of developing tumors, suffering organ damage, and dying prematurely (Pollack, GMO Global Alert). Additional animal studies have shown other serious health risks associated with GM food
consumption: infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen, and gastrointestinal system (Genetic Roulette). To exemplify how this is portrayed in humans, statistical evidence shows that after 1996, when GMOs increased in the American diet, disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, chronic constipation, gastrointestinal infections, Crohn’s disease, and gastroephageal reflux have all risen dramatically and consistently (Genetic Roulette). Further evidence indicates that GMOs cause food allergies, have increased toxicity, decreased nutritional value, and promote antibiotic resistance (UMN). Not only do GM foods have a great potential for negatively effecting humans, they are harmful to the environment. Companies like Monsanto claim that genetically modifying foods is environmentally friendly, but this has been proven wrong on a multitude of levels. There is lack of nutrients found in soil in which GM crops are planted (Ticciati). These crops hurt the soil and the food chain. The chemicals found in pesticides were not only killing pests but also small animals, especially birds, were also facing extinction (Robbins). Tampering with natural selection creates a domino effect and damages the entire ecosystem. Imposing an unnatural element in the form of GM foods changes the equation and disrupts natural balance, even if things balance out, they will be forever different, even this is dangerous. Although GM foods are responsible for massive crop yields and the increased food supply, the industry is precariously perched given the increasing amount of deleterious effects that are being exposed more and more each day. For this reason, the government needs to take action. This is another dilemma; it is easy to wonder how the government can do anything when it has such close relationships with the companies that all the fingers are being pointed at.

The primary antagonist in this story is the company Monsanto, the inventor of saccharin, an artificial sweetener, and many additional products. Monsanto accounts for over two-thirds of genetically engineered soy, corn, and canola crops worldwide (Robbins). Hendrik Verfaillie, Monsanto’s Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, described the company’s aggressive strategy with, “The biggest mistake that anyone can make is moving slowly, because the game is going to be over before you start,”
(Robbins). It is understandable that a company this big has a profoundly large impact on government rulings regarding its industry. With Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide bringing in billions of dollars, the industry convinced the Supreme Court to allow the patenting of genetically engineered seeds so that the offspring would become the property of the seed manufacturer. In Genetic Engineering, Food and Our Environment, Luke Anderson exemplifies the impact of this ruling by stressing the profound repercussions it will have on the future of living organisms; “This extraordinary decision by the U.S. Supreme Court heralded a new era. Once a shared heritage, the gene pool of plants, animals, and humans was now a commodity waiting to be bought and sold” (Anderson). What appears to be mainly a business venture is an extremely important political issue, with companies pouring millions into politics to stay afloat. This is exemplified by the following quote, from the documentary The Future of Food. Here, director D.K. Garcia focuses on the 2000 Presidential Election and the biotechnology issue: “Agricultural biotechnology will find a support occupying the White House next year, regardless of which candidate wins the election in November” (Garcia). The Future of Food reveals top ranking officials from the Supreme Court, such as Justice Clarence Thomas who previously represented Monsanto as their Lawyer for Regulatory Affairs, to Donald Rumsfeld, The Secretary of Defense, who was previously the President of Searle, a Monsanto subsidiary. Given their backgrounds, it is difficult to ignore the likelihood that their political stances would not be swayed.

Even worse is Linda Fisher, who has switched roles between the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and Monsanto a number of times; she was Monsanto’s Executive Vice President for nearly a decade and Deputy Administrator for the EPA as well as Commissioner for George Bush’s administration (Garcia). It’s frightening that the EPA, which acknowledges and regulates pesticides emitted into the environment, is likely to be biased in regards to the approval of genetically modified organisms into the environment. Needless to say, it’s shocking to see the connections that pose how much of an apparent influence Monsanto and the other leading biotech companies have on government regulations of GMOs. Evidence of this influence is presented in Seeds of Deception, in which Micah Sifry states, “the four leaders of the biotech industry Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Novartis gave more than $3.5 million in PAC, soft-money, and
large individual contributions between 1995 and 2000, three-quarters of it to Republicans” (Smith). Stricter guidelines and extensive testing are not required because the companies have such strong political ties that they can influence the policy that is implemented upon them. In 1992, former U.S. Vice President, Dan Quayle, exemplifies this in his speech on behalf of the Council of Competitiveness, “We will ensure that biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products, instead of being hampered by unnecessary regulation” (Garcia). The FDA approved genetically modified foods with a high sense of hesitant reluctance. Consumers are supposed to rely on the FDA to determine if food is safe for consumption; the agency is supposed to be a protective one. This was a landmark decision for the FDA, a decision which required strong political influence for the agency to decide against its own principles. This is evidenced in The Future of Food; Dan Quayle and the Bush administration appointed Michael Taylor as Deputy Commissioner for Policy, which Andrew Kimbrell divulges in an interview, noting that Taylor was formerly Monsanto’s Senior Counsel at the King and Spaulding law firm. Taylor instituted a no-regulation policy and left it to the biotech companies to determine whether or not genetically modified food was deemed safe for human consumption (Garcia). As the examples presented indicate, the successful clearance of GM foods has been engineered by companies like Monsanto and politicians, almost as much as the foods themselves. With the FDA swept out of the way, the companies that dominated the biotech industry were free to roam as they pleased, testing at their fingertips. How can the consumers trust Monsanto to act in their best interest, especially when the company’s Director of Corporate Communication, Phil Angell, says things like “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job,” (Robbins). Without extensive testing, which would almost certainly yield new truths about the harmful effects of GM foods, Monsanto can achieve its goal of selling as much as possible while disregarding the consequences this has on society and the environment.

Testing is probably the biggest grey area of them all. The FDA has a persona of an overseer and protector, meaning that people generally believe that all
food undergoes tests by the FDA to ensure their safety. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Testing genetically modified foods is dependent on the words of the companies that develop them. According to Consumer Union’s Jean Halloran, “When a company comes in with data, the FDA looks at it and writes a letter saying, “Dear Monsanto, you supplied information regarding the safety of corn variety X and we are confident about what you’ve shown,” “It is your responsibility,” (CBS). The FDA is in a difficult position. It is presented with its initial objective of protecting the American people but now, with biotechnology and GM foods, it is faced with a decision of whether or not to promote the biotech industry. The FDA regulates GM foods as part of the “coordinated framework” of federal agencies that also includes the EPA and the United States Department of Agriculture (Bashshur).

The problem is that this framework has been the subject of critical analysis and calls for redesign; it is outdated, with the FDA policy unchanged since 1992. It is available online and contains a searchable database that covers “genetically engineered crop plants intended for food or feed that have completed all recommended or required reviews,” (Bashshur). The policy places responsibility on the producer or manufacturer to assure the safety of the food, explicitly relying on the producer or manufacturer to do so: “Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the producer of a new food to evaluate the safety of the food and assure that the safety requirement of section 402(a)(1) of the act is met,” (Bashshur). It is also this policy that establishes that the “substantially equivalent” concept, with which the FDA judges most GM crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops. In these cases, GM crops are “designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and do not require pre-market approval,” (Federation of American Scientists). Although these products are described as substantially equivalent, their manufacturers stress that they are different so that they can patent them and continue to profit. In this situation, the consumer must take the producer’s angle. Their products are dramatically different; their genetic composition is very different in comparison with that of their ancestral forms. In deciding whether or not to ingest these products, the consumer must realize that if the companies that produce them stress they are dramatically different, and there is minimal testing done on them, these GM food products could be extremely dangerous. Currently, there is no regulatory scheme requiring GM foods to be tested to see if it is safe for humans to eat or not. FDA guidance to the industry issued in 1997 covered voluntary “consultation procedures,” but “still relied on the developer of the product to provide safety data,” (Bashshur). There are numerous pieces of evidence that indicate that GM food testing is completely unregulated. The FDA’s policy is outdated and weak, “substantially equivalent” cannot be justified when such a small level of testing has been done. The fact that this policy has remained unchanged for two decades is staggering; there’s probably a lot of money keeping it that way. In tackling what Ramona Bashshur describes as the FDA’s “dual mission,” rational thought is vital. Although the FDA cannot ignore the opportunity to make scientific advances with the potential to better society, it must reflect on its original role, as a protector. While scientific advances with GMOs are rapidly continuing, there hasn’t been enough testing on them to determine how dangerous they are. If testing was done and the foods proved safe, which they probably wouldn’t, there would be nothing wrong with promoting it. In the meantime, as more and more harmful aspects of GM foods come to the surface, it would be smart for the FDA to revise its policy, improve the extent of testing done on these foods, so that America can move forward in science with the assurance that it won’t hurt its citizens. This is a difficult task; there is so much political influence on the industry that it may never occur.

If the policy for testing cannot be amended, there is action that can be taken that could have a similar outcome. Specialized labeling for GM foods would set them apart from normal foods and make it easier for consumers to make healthy choices. In the United States, they aren’t labeled, while in Europe, Russia, China, and other countries, they are. This is an extremely popular movement in the United States. An example is California’s Proposition 37, which would’ve required “labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.” And it would prohibit marketing “such food, or other processed food, as ‘natural,’” (Bittman). The numbers don’t lie; people supported Proposition 37; roughly 65% for to 20% against, with 15% undecided. From a national perspective on the labeling issue, 91% of
voters believe that the FDA should require that “foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled to indicate that,” (Bittman). With these numbers as a reference for the support that Proposition 37 had, it’s hard to believe that it was struck down. Again, this is an instance of money having the loudest voice in the room. Money flew in from both sides, but the food companies that stood to lose in the situation, like Monsanto and The Hershey Co., contributed to what was “eventually a $44 million windfall for “No on Prop 37,” while proponents were only able to raise $7.3 million,” (Almendrala). According to MapLight, an organization that tracks campaign contributions, biotech companies amassed $46 million to defeat the measure, with Monsanto contributing $8.1 million and Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola each contributing at least $1.7 million (Pollack). In contrast, those who backed Proposition 37 were only able to contribute $9.2 million; money made the difference. Proposition 37 was close, garnering 47% of the vote, with campaigns like the online based “Just Label It” collecting signatures and comments on a petition to the FDA, requesting rules “similar to those in the European Union, Japan, China, India and Australia, stating what transgenic food is in the package,” (Moskin). The biggest thing about Proposition 37 is that it had national implications; it wasn’t just California that the food conglomerates were worried about. If it passed, it could’ve been the beginning of a national labeling revolution, potentially the beginning of an even greater revolution.

Throughout history, organisms have developed through a recurrence of genetic mutations that have naturally selected the organisms that are most fit for survival. The rise of GMOs can be viewed through the same lens. GMOs arose from the conditions following the monoculture agricultural shift in the 1960’s Green Revolution. The key here is that they are not natural. The “mutations” that have aided the rise of GMOs are manmade, manufactured, and abnormal. GMOs are a result of the American obsession with optimization, which manifests itself in technology. After World War II and throughout the Green Revolution, America sought numerous technological advancements as it relished its role as a world power. With GMOs, America breached the gap between technology and nature in an effort to optimize food. Companies like
Monsanto, with their growing number of political connections, began using their funds to pave the way for GMOs to become and remain a staple contingent of the American diet. Today, GM foods are still privately and minimally tested and they remain unlabeled in the United States. While the FDA stands by its outdated 1992 policy, claiming that GM foods are “substantially equivalent,” the producers stress that they are different in an effort to obtain patents. America cannot trust the sources it looks to for accurate information because there has been little testing but there is hope on the horizon after California nearly passed a law forcing GM foods to be labeled. As concerned parties seek an answer, they must first look towards labeling these foods, sparking a chain reaction that causes uninformed consumers to ask questions like, “Why are these foods specially labeled?” and “What makes these foods different?” Labeling could prove to be the beginning of a further revolution to enhance regulation of GM foods. This revolution, though currently nonexistent, must occur before this problem mutates even further, before not just the American people, but the entire world, reaps the consequences for playing the role of Creator.

Anderson, L. (1999). Genetic engineering, food, and our environment. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Clark, E. A. & Lehman, H. (2001). Assessment of GM crops in commercial agriculture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 14 (1), 3-28. Retrieved October 26, 2006, from ProQuest Research Library. Guidance for industry: Voluntary labeling indicating whether foods have or have not Been developed using bioengineering. (2001) Retrieved November 8, 2006, from http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/biolabgu.html. Garcia, D. K. (Director, Producer, Writer). (2004). The future of food. [DVD]. Mill Valley: Lily Films.

Hart, K. (2002). Eating in the dark. New York: Pantheon Books. Pascalev, A. (2003). You are what you eat: genetically modified foods, integrity, and society. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16 (1), 583-594. Retrieved October 29, 2006, from ProQuest Research Library. Pringle, P.
(2003). Food inc. New York: Simon & Schuster. Robbins, J. (2001). The food revolution: How your diet can help save your life and the world. Berkeley: Conari Press.

Smith. J. (2003). Seeds of deception. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing. Ticciati, L. & Ticciati, R. (1998). Genetically engineered foods. Are they safe? You decide. New Canaan: Keats Publishing.

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