The left is in frenzy over the American agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto and other agribusinesses that tinker with crop genetics. Is there any truth to their scare stories asserting that we're being poisoned with "Frankenfood," breeding new strains of superbugs and superpests?
Genetically modified crops, known as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), have been used by American farmers since the mid-1990s in order to increase crop yields and reduce the use of pesticides. The FDA has approved their use. Today, 70-80 percent of grocery products in the U.S. include genetically engineered ingredients. In contrast, only 5 percent of the food sold in Europe contains GMOs, due to governmental restrictions.
According to opponents of GMOs, "The concern is that genetic modification alters the proteins in foods in ways that researchers do not yet fully understand. Substances that have never existed before in nature are entering our food supply untested." In addition to ingesting modified food, people are eating livestock that has been fed GMOs. Food sensitivities, allergies and other health problems have been increasing in recent years, and opponents claim it is due to GMOs. Where the science gets murky is whether this correlation is true.
Efforts are being made by the left to pass laws requiring the labeling of GMOs. In Washington State, Initiative 522 would require fruits, vegetables and grain-based products to be labeled, but exempts meat and dairy products from animals fed genetically engineered grains. Monsanto has contributed $4.6 million to defeat I-522, and opponents are outspending proponents by more than three to one. A similar initiative lost in California last year, where opponents including agribusiness and major food manufacturers outspent proponents almost five to one. Initiatives have passed in Connecticut and Maine, and legislation is pending in 20 states.
I-522 opponents cite estimates by the state's Office of Financial Management computing that the average family's food bill would rise $490 a year if it passes. The liberal Seattle Times editorialized against the initiative, pointing out that consumers already have the option of buying organic foods, and many companies already choose to self-label. Dan Newhouse, a former director of the Washington Department of Agriculture, says the bill is poorly written, containing confusing and absurd requirements.
The website junkscience.com says labeling genetically modified food would put a stigma on it. "The very act of labeling suggests to consumers there's something potentially risky about X – if you don't believe it try giving away bottles of water labeled 'Contains DiHydrogen Monoxide' and see what reactions you get."
There is some scientific approval of GMOs. The American Medical Association has come out against labeling GMOs, declaring, "There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods." UCLA professor Bob Goldberg, a molecular biologist and a member of the National Academy of Science, asserts, "Bioengineered crops are the safest crops in the world. We've been testing them for 40 years. They're like the Model T Ford. There is not one credible scientist working on this that would call it unsafe." One prominent environmentalist activist, Mark Lynas, recently switched his position on GMOs, coming out in support of them.
The problem with GMOs is there hasn't been scientific testing done on human subjects - and both sides of the debate are using this to their advantage. Rats given massive doses of GMOs had adverse reactions. Female rats lost their babies at a high rate, gave birth to fewer and smaller babies, and the testicles of male rats changed color. A study of buffaloes in India that were fed GMOs produced similar results. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine warned, "Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation, including upregulation of cytokines associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation."
The problem with studies like these is the dosages of food given the animals is forced and unrealistic. There have been reports of humans becoming sick who live in close proximity to GMO-producing farms. Yet these stories are anecdotal evidence and not rigorous scientific studies.
The most controversial aspect of GMOs involves the modification of crops beyond just hybrids. The latest modification added an actual pesticide component to food. A built-in pesticide was added within the cellular structure of corn, a gene copied from the insect-killing bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. It eliminates the need to spray the corn with pesticides. This prompted concerns about humans ingesting food containing a built-in pesticide.
One study found that this pesticide-enhanced corn is causing problems for some crops in Illinois. Michael Gray, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois, observed that rootworms are growing more resistant to the genetically modified corn - despite the fact that the corn was modified to resist the rootworms. Previously, farmers rotated corn crops with soybean crops, since rootworms would not infest the soybeans. Since the modified corn was introduced, rootworms are now being found in the soybean fields too, destroying both kinds of crops. Some farmers are reluctant to reject the modified corn, however, because generally it helps reduce pesticide use.
There is a lawsuit in place currently against Monsanto by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), a group of 73 American organic and conventional family farmers, public advocacy groups and seed businesses. They are accusing Monsanto's genetically engineered seed of contaminating neighboring non-GMO farms via wind-borne pollen and insects.
Monsanto spends millions lobbying Congress and the Department of Agriculture. A Monsanto attorney, Michael Taylor, has spent the last few decades revolving between Monsanto and government jobs with the FDA and the USDA, where he directed much of those agencies' policies on GMOs. To the casual observer, this would appear to be a clear conflict of interest. This is typical of the Obama administration, known for its revolving door between the big banks and Obama's cabinet.
Republicans better not be in the pockets of big agricultural business. While onerous regulations are not the answer to murky science, sweeping everything under the rug isn't either. Many of those speaking out in defense of GMOs come directly from the GMO industry, lowering their credibility. Unfortunately, most Republicans have little interest in investigating GMOs, since the hysterical left is leading the opposition to them, straining credibility.
Americans are getting sicker than people in other high-income countries. Until there are rigorous scientific studies performed on human subjects, both sides should tread carefully in this area. Since "you are what you eat," consumers who believe that GMOs present a threat to their health should put their money where their mouth is and buy food from businesses like Whole Foods, which label food or provide organic food. And don't force everyone else to.