October is Non-GMO Month: GMOs 101

In honor of non-GMO month we've compiled basic educational info about GMOs: what they are; what the research says; what the benefits are and more... As part of our mission to provide natural products for all people, Growing Naturals is a proud supporter of Non-GMO products. All of our current products are Non-GMO Project verified.

The Non-GMO Project honors the work that certified organic companies are already doing, with the added measure of testing risk ingredients at critical control points. Although GMO human studies are limited and human health risks are yet to be fully determined, a few animal studies have presented unpleasant findings. While there are both perceived benefits and controversies surrounding GMOs, Growing Naturals avoids any detriments (human, environmental, social and ethical alike) by providing health promoting, environmentally safe, non-GMO certified products. 

What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?1

Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" (GM) are commonly used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt.

Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products (current or those in development) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

Locating genes for important traits—such as those conferring insect resistance or desired nutrients—is one of the most limiting steps in the process. However, genome sequencing and discovery programs for hundreds of organisms are generating detailed maps along with data-analyzing technologies to understand and use them. In 2006, 252 million acres of transgenic crops were planted in 22 countries by 10.3 million farmers. The majority of these crops were herbicide- and insect-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa. Other crops grown commercially or field-tested are a sweet potato resistant to a virus that could decimate most of the African harvest, rice with increased iron and vitamins that may alleviate chronic malnutrition in Asian countries, and a variety of plants able to survive weather extremes.

On the horizon are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as hepatitis B; fish that mature more quickly; cows that are resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease); fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties. In 2006, countries that grew 97% of the global transgenic crops were the United States (53%), Argentina (17%), Brazil (11%), Canada (6%), India (4%), China (3%), Paraguay (2%) and South Africa (1%). Although growth is expected to plateau in industrialized nations, it is increasing in developing countries.

The next decade will see exponential progress in GM product development as researchers gain increasing and unprecedented access to genomic resources that are applicable to organisms beyond the scope of individual projects. Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting some of the 21st Century's greatest challenges. Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Controversies surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.

Are GMOs safe?1-3

Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. However, the World Health Organization states that GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments by national authorities and are not likely to present risks for human health. In nearly 50 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.

In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. As Americans learn more about this information, they are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the "GMO experiment".

One of the biggest concerns with consumption of GMOs is the unknown, long-term human health risk. We don't know how consuming them is going to affect us 20 or 30 years from now. We can only speculate: For one thing, there is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. In addition there is the possibility that specific components are thought to have toxic properties, or adverse nutritional effects on humans. Specifically, any problematic effects on one's health from the gene transfer of GM foods to the cells of the body or gastrointestinal flora. Unfortunately, independent research on GM foods, especially long-term studies on humans is limited or suppressed. Even short-term studies on humans is limited. One major reason for this is due to the ethical challenge of having this type of study. GMO studies have been conducted on animals and the Non-GMO project and other independent organizations have cited their findings.

What do animal findings suggest?4

While animal findings may suggest problems with consuming GM foods for animals, the reality is that the findings don't suggest much for humans. This goes with any research. Just because a certain effect was seen in animals does not mean that the same effect will be seen humans as well because they are completely different organisms.

Additionally, it should be noted that animal-based studies typically include super high doses of GM foods--amounts that would not typically be consumed in a normal diet. And as the saying goes, too much of something is never good. Nonetheless, animal-studies have indeed showed some unpleasant results. For example, Russian biologists have discovered that hamsters fed Monsanto’s GM soy for 2 years over three generations led to infertility, as well as slower growth and higher mortality in their pups. Some of the third-generation hamsters also were found to have hair growing inside of their mouths. While this study is not conclusive, it does give one pause when considering the potential adverse effects of changing the genetic makeup of our food.

The GM soybeans also contain much higher levels of herbicide, which could account for some of the problems found in the animals consuming these products. In 2005, another scientist with the Russian National Academy of Science, found that more than half of baby rats from mothers fed GM soy died in the first 3 weeks of life. The non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) soy group had a mortality rate of 10%. The babies in the GM group also were smaller and sterile. When the male rats were fed GM soy, their testicles turned dark blue. Other scientists have found that:

  • GM soy caused testicle changes and damaged young sperm cells in mice
  • Mice had fewer babies when fed GM corn
  • Cows and pigs became sterile and some pigs had false pregnancies or gave birth to bags of water when they consumed GM corn feed
  • Rats raised on corncob bedding made from GM corn neither bred nor exhibited reproductive behavior, and had higher rates of breast and prostate cancer cell cultures
  • Buffalo consuming GM cottonseed suffered from infertility, frequent abortions, premature deliveries, prolapsed uteruses, and mysterious deaths

Are GMOs labeled?2

Although polls consistently show that a significant majority of Americans want to know if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs, the US does not currently require labeling of all GM foods. However, labeling requirements under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act may determine whether certain GM foods are in fact labeled. If a GM food is significantly different from its non-GMO counterpart, the name must be changed to describe the difference. This includes changes in nutritional properties or allergenicity.

For example, some soybeans have been genetically-modified to contain high amouts of oleic acid (omega-9 fats). These must be labeled as high-oleic soybean, rather than just soybean. In spite of limited labeling requirements, companies like the Non-GMO Project have come together to give consumers the informed choice they deserve.

How do GMOs affect farmers?2

Because GMOs are novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents with which to restrict their use. As a result, the companies that make GMOs now have the power to sue farmers whose fields are contaminated with GMOs, even when it is the result of inevitable drift from neighboring fields. GMOs therefore pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country where they are grown, including the United States.

How do GMOs impact the environment?3

Issues of concern include: the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations; the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested; the susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product; the stability of the gene; the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity; and increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions. Current research studies are focusing on: the potentially detrimental effect on beneficial insects or a faster induction of resistant insects; the potential generation of new plant pathogens; the potential detrimental consequences for plant biodiversity and wildlife, and a decreased use of the important practice of crop rotation in certain local situations; and the movement of herbicide resistance genes to other plants.

What foods are GMOs?5

Agricultural products are segmented into two groups: (1) those that are high-risk of being GMO because they are currently in commercial production, and (2) those that have a monitored risk because suspected or known incidents of contamination have occurred and/or the crops have genetically modified relatives in commercial production with which cross-pollination (and consequently contamination) is possible.

High-Risk Crops (in commercial production; ingredients derived from these must be tested every time prior to use in Non-GMO Project Verified products (as of December 2011):

  • Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
  • Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
  • Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
  • Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
  • ALSO high-risk: animal products (milk, meat, eggs, honey, etc.) because of contamination in feed.

Monitored Crops (those for which suspected or known incidents of contamination have occurred, and those crops which have genetically modified relatives in commercial production with which cross-pollination is possible; we test regularly to assess risk, and move to “High-Risk” category for ongoing testing if we see contamination):

  • Beta vulgaris (e.g., chard, table beets)
  • Brassica napa (e.g., rutabaga, Siberian kale)
  • Brassica rapa (e.g., bok choy, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, turnip, rapini, tatsoi)
  • Curcubita (acorn squash, delicata squash, patty pan)
  • Flax
  • Rice

Common Ingredients Derived from GMO Risk Crops

Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.

GM Products: Benefits and Controversies1

  • Crops
    • Enhanced taste and quality
    • Reduced maturation time
    • Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
    • Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
    • New products and growing techniques
  • Animals
    • Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
    • Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
    • Improved animal health and diagnostic methods
  • Environment
    • "Friendly" bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
    • Conservation of soil, water, and energy
    • Bioprocessing for forestry products
    • Better natural waste management
    • More efficient processing
  • Society
    • Increased food security for growing populations
  • Safety
    • Potential human health impacts, including allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects
    • Potential environmental impacts, including: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
  • Access and Intellectual Property
    • Domination of world food production by a few companies
    • Increasing dependence on industrialized nations by developing countries
    • Biopiracy, or foreign exploitation of natural resources
  • Ethics
    • Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
    • Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
    • Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
    • Stress for animal
  • Labeling
    • Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
    • Mixing GM crops with non-GM products confounds labeling attempts
  • Society
    • New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries
  1. S. Department of Energy Genome Programs. Genetically modified foods and organisms. 2012. Available at: http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml
  2. Non GMO Project. GMO facts. 2012. Available at: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/
  3. World Health Organization. 20 questions on genetically modified foods. 2012. Available at: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/
  4. Genetically modified soy: Cause for concern? 2011. Available at: http://www.nutrition411.com/content/genetically-modified-soy-cause-concern
  5. Non GMO Project. Agricultural crops that have a risk of being GMO. 2012. Available at: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/

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