Rethinking GM foods

Forest McKenzie

When I was in middle and high
school, the biotechnology industry
was booming. Companies like
Monsanto were patenting and profiting
from genetically modified
crops such as soybeans resistant
to the common herbicide Round-
Up, and corn that could produce
its own insecticide using a protein
manufactured by an assimilated
gene of the bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis.
During this time period, our
classes often discussed the scientific,
economic, political and ethical
nature of GM foods. The excitement
of my science teachers was
counter-balanced by films such as
“The Future of Food” and articles
published in Sierra magazine. I
was presented with both sides and
soon felt informed to make my
own decision on the subject.
As it turns out, this wasn’t
possible. And it still isn’t. This is
due to the fact that the U.S. does
not require the labeling of GM
foods. Furthermore, the Economic
Research Service of the USDA
reported that in 2009 a majority
of corn and soybeans grown in the
U.S. were genetically modified.
Thus, we have all eaten genetically
modified foods. They have
become a part of our lives, whether
we like it or not.
The most recent issue of the
International Journal of Biological
Sciences includes a study that
assessed the effects of three genetically
modified corn varieties on
mammalian health. This study is
the first ever to perform a comparative
analysis of blood and organ
data collected from rats fed commercially
used GM corn.
The most striking results show
a significant detrimental effect on
liver and kidney function in rats
that were fed GM corn. The authors
of this article were also given access
to studies done by Monsanto that
supposedly assessed toxicity of
GM corn on animals.
The authors point out that previous
studies by Monsanto were
“clearly inadequate” in refuting
toxic effects. This is especially disturbing
as Monsanto’s studies are
often the basis for approval of
GM crops; the same crops that are
used in many of the processed
foods that billions of people consume
around the world on a regular
basis.
These concerns must be met
with a genuine assessment of the
potential for GM foods. If scientists
continue to be successful, there are
surely benefits associated with GM
foods for both humanity and the
environment.
For example, GM crops can
already be enriched with added
nutrients and yield a higher amount
of produce on smaller plots of
land. This has major implications
for extinguishing malnutrition and
hunger while simultaneously putting
less pressure on the land for
agricultural acreage.
If the need for agricultural acreage
is reduced, there is less cause
for deforestation. Deforestation
increases carbon dioxide emissions,
accelerates erosion leading
to potentially lethal mudslides,
decreases biological diversity
and ecosystem functionality, and
increases contact between humans
and unknown diseases that were
previously restricted to organisms
within the forest.
Crops that produce insecticides
internally reduce the need
for chemicals and thus reduce contamination
of critical water sources.
This is important for human
access to clean drinking water and
for aquatic ecosystems.
Additionally, as water will
become scarcer in regions such
as West Africa, the ability to engineer
drought-resistant crops could
also be of critical importance for
humanity’s adaptation to a changing
climate.
However, there are certainly
environmental risks associated
with GM crops. These risks involve
the evolutionary and ecological
disruptions that may occur from
using GM crops that can spread
genes to other non-genetically
modified organisms and from
using GM crops that are incapable
of adapting genetically to new
strains of disease and pests.
While GM foods – and biotechnology
in general – have enormous
potential, it is of critical
importance that proper research is
conducted before they are given to
the general public, or put into the
environment.
These studies should occur in
the lab, field, and in computer
generated models to give the best
picture of the potential costs and
benefits to GM foods. Once safety
is proven for both humans and
ecosystems, the seed and resultant
products should be labeled for
consumers. Choice is as essential
as proper research, and currently,
Americans have neither.

Top