You are what you eat, as the saying goes, but what if you don’t know what you’re eating? After spending a weekend listening to Jeffrey Smith talk about the pervasiveness of genetically-engineered (GE) food in America, I began to wonder.
Smith, a leading spokesperson on the subject and author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You Are Eating (2003), has toured 30 countries talking about the dangers of GE food.
Genetic engineering or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects, or animals—including humans. GMO-derived foods are pervasive and, due to current laws and regulations, it is difficult to distinguish between foods that are modified and those that are not.
Twenty-two European countries solved that problem by demanding that their governments require labels to identify all GMO foods, giving consumers the option to refuse to buy "frankenfoods." Consumer pressure was so strong that U.S. companies took their GMO products off the European market and reverted to selling non-GMO products.
Smith said that 53 percent of Americans would do the same if given the choice, but GMO foods are not labeled in the United States except in Minnesota, California, Vermont, Maine, and a few cities.
The U.S. government shares a lot of the blame for the presence of GMOs in the market, said Smith. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed it had no information showing GM foods were substantially different from conventionally grown foods. Therefore, they were considered safe to eat and warranted no safety studies. But internal memos made public by a lawsuit revealed that the agency’s position was staged by political appointees who were under orders from the White House to promote GMOs. In addition, the FDA official in charge of creating this policy was Michael Taylor, former attorney for Monsanto, who later became its vice president. Monsanto is among six multinational corporations that manufacture GM seeds.
Laws regarding genetically modified food, 2009
—graphic from Wikimedia Commons
According to Smith, FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored. Today, the same multinational and biotechnology companies that have been found guilty of hiding information about the toxic effects of their chemical products are essentially in charge of determining whether GM foods and products are safe.
Also, the same political influence and money that got the biotech corporations past the FDA have prevented any GMO labeling laws from being implemented. President Obama had indicated support for labeling laws during his campaign. However, his top appointees for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are known backers of GMO-producing corporations.
Among the prominent corporations influencing government policy is Monsanto, which has reaped billions of dollars as the world’s leading producer of the herbicide "Roundup," along with "Roundup Ready," a line of gene-modified seeds that protect plants against Monsanto-produced herbicides. Although farmers enjoyed initial increases in crop yield, their seed costs have increased disproportionately, in some cases by almost 50 percent. That’s because farmers are prohibited by contract from saving seeds and planting them the following year. If they do, they face lawsuits from Monsanto.
St. Louis-based Monsanto was recently touted as Forbes magazine’s company of the year. It also made Corporate Responsibility Magazine‘s 2010 list of "100 Best Corporate Citizens," and Fortune’s annual listing of the "100 Best Companies to Work For." What wasn’t mentioned was that Monsanto plans to dominate the seed market 100 percent. Its corporate strategy was to purchase or acquire hundreds of competing seed companies to produce GM seeds. Currently, Monsanto has 90 percent of the market share of GM seeds and is being investigated by the Department of Justice for violating federal anti-trust laws. Monsanto shouldn’t be singled out, however. Other corporations are engaged in food biotechnology including Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow, and DuPont.
According to Smith, one significant problem with GM seeds is that via the GE process mutations are generated throughout a plant’s DNA, such as deleting or permanently shutting on or off natural genes, altering the complex interactive behavior of hundreds of genes or changing or rearranging either natural or inserted genes. This can create unique proteins that can trigger allergies or promote disease.
In his second book, Genetic Roulette (2007), Smith presents irrefutable evidence of 65 health dangers linked to GMOs. For example, soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 percent. In March 2001, the Center for Disease Control reported that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the United States compared to estimates just seven years earlier. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans began eating GM food. According to Smith, "Without follow-up tests, which neither the industry or government is doing, we can’t be absolutely sure if genetic engineering was the cause."
Children with young, fast-developing bodies face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods for the same reasons that they face the greatest risk from other hazards like pesticides and radiation. They are susceptible to allergies and have problems with milk, nutrition, and antibiotic resistant diseases, said Smith.
"This is the first time in human history that we have dealt with a clinical trial on such a massive scale," said Dr. Ron Klein, retired Senior Research Scientist from Pharmacia who actively worked in recombinant DNA/ molecular genetics for 25 years.
"It is even larger than the 9 million people who during 1973-1974 were poisoned in Michigan when PBB was introduced by error into the food supply. Think about it. For organisms to survive, they must co-evolve with their environment and their nutrient sources over countless generations. In the case of GMOs, we have short-circuited this co-evolution of adapting to our food whether it is highly-refined or processed, genetically-manipulated (by gene insertion) or being exposed to novel synthetic compounds. The latter mimic natural hormones or activate cells into uncontrolled differentiation (i.e., cancer), whereas the reactions reported to GM foods are probably unidentified and novel proteins produced by gene insertion, mutation, gene scrambling, and modified genetic expression. We saw these things in experiments when we genetically engineered single-celled organisms and certainly would expect them in organisms as highly complex as plants."
Smith pointed out that the presence of GMOs in food at the grocery store is vast. It can be in food that is frozen, canned, or processed—and that includes fast food. So, the safest bet in avoiding GMOs is to eat organic foods, buy foods that are labeled non-GMO, steer clear of the "Big Four" ingredients (soy, corn, cottonseed, and canola), and buy products from companies listed in a non-GMO shopping guide.
Smith’s website also provides a summary of the crops, foods, and food ingredients that have been genetically modified as of July 2007. Government statistics from 2007 show that the vast majority of the country’s commodity ingredients come from GMO crops: 91 percent of soy, 87 percent of cotton, and 73 percent of corn. It is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than 80 percent of packaged food products found in U.S. or Canadian supermarkets. "The coming year promises to bring about a greater, more pervasive awareness of those numbers as opponents of GMOs bring a unified campaign—complete with a non-GMO standard—to the public," notes Robert Vosburgh, editor of Supermarket News.
Vosburgh is referring to the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit collaboration of manufacturers, retailers, processors, distributors, farmers, seed companies, and consumers who believe that everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified products. The group’s mission is to ensure the sustained availability of non-GMO choices so it lists participating food companies and state-by-state retailers. It also has created an independent verification system that offers transparency and a consistency of standards consumers can trust. Its core requirements are traceability, segregation, and testing at critical control points. The campaign is having an effect. In 2009, Nielsen Ratings also noted that the non-GMO label was the fastest growing label.
Are Americans willing to jeopardize their health with GMO foods? Smith is convinced that they are not, so he is promoting the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America. He figures that it will take only 15 million Americans or 5 percent of the population to pressure food companies not to use GMO ingredients or products and thus establish a tipping point for change—just as the Europeans did.
Smith has identified potential target audiences receptive to his message including food co-ops, health-conscious shoppers, schools, parents of young children, medical practitioners, green groups, chefs, and food service executives. Meanwhile, many physicians are already telling their patients to avoid GMOs and religious organizations are looking into the ethical and spiritual aspects of food production.
"When people see what is going on, they realize that it’s bad," said Smith. "We want to take that energy and turn it into effective action instead of feeling like victims. We want people to say to themselves: ‘I determine what food I eat.’"
Smith pointed out that in the past when consumers found a product to be a health risk—as with bovine growth hormones in milk in 2009 (a product of Monsanto) and Alar in apples in 1989 (a product of Uniroyal Chemical Company, Inc., now integrated into the Chemtura Corporation)—they voted with their wallets. Likewise, in India when there was talk of concocting GMO eggplant, a staple in that country, 100,000 people put on a fasting demonstration and 8,000 others showed up at a government hearing and stopped it.
"We actually have the power to eliminate GMOs ourselves instead of waiting for government or for labels," said Smith. "We must move through our networks and let others know that GMOs are unhealthy. That’s what will allow us to make change."
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She writes for several national magazines on social justice and religion.