Folly or Fodder? Clearing the Air on GMOs
Being a politically charged food subject, GMO is not an acronym taken lightly. Regardless of peoples’ GMO knowledge, most have an opinion: “It’s not natural!” “The science is good!” “It’s making us sick!” “It’s perfectly safe!” For the number of articles declaring GMOs evil, there are a competing number affirming their safety and benefits. All of the information can be stressful for the health and environmentally conscious consumer. What exactly are GMOs and how do they affect our world?
“I know it’s like, some corn, bad stuff, right?”
Jimmy Kimmel, popular comedian and television host, recently aired a segment on his late-night show asking random Americans, “What’s a GMO?” Most people who answered said that they think GMOs are bad and prefer to avoid them, but they couldn’t explain why. For comedic relief, it’s likely editors cut out people who understood GMOs, but the segment did uncover how media and marketing compels people to subscribe to a particular, ideological opinion without reason. So, what is a GMO?
GMO stands for ‘genetically modified organism.’ Through genetic engineering (GE), GMOs are created in a lab by taking genes from one living organism and implanting them into the DNA of another living organism. While in the past farmers have selectively bred and cross-bred varieties of a plant within the same species altering genetics to create better plants and vegetables, genetic engineers may transfer the genes from one species into an entirely different species, creating transgenic organisms. This means, for example, that a disease-resistant trait from a bacterium may be introduced into the DNA of a vegetable to help it resist diseases or frost.
All GMOs are unique entities engineered with traits serving different purposes; GMO corn differs from GMO soy or GMO cotton. GMOs have been around for the past thirty years and continue to be a growing sector of biotechnology. Today we have verified GMO versions of corn, canola, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, and zucchini, while others are being tested. Derivatives of these plants, mainly corn and soy, can be found in packaged foods in Unites States supermarkets. Noted in National Geographic in 2002, more than 60 percent of processed food in the United States contains some trace of GMOs and the number is greater today. This field of biotechnology has come with loads of skepticism, criticism, and politicization of its effects on humans and the environment.
For laypeople, we can only trust evidence based on what we read from scientists or those who have extensive food science knowledge. The problem is that many articles are devoid of science-based reasoning, and those that aren’t often summarize data instead of displaying specific information from scientific studies. Reading and interpreting scientific studies on our own can be challenging, so we must consider what the majority of scientists and world science and health organizations have to say. There have been over a thousand studies over the past decade examining the effects of GMOs on living beings with a majority of the worlds’ scientists coming to a consensus: GMOs pose no new risks to humans.
Prominent American astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson recently criticized the anti-GMO movement for rejecting all GMO subject matter instead of identifying specific issues. He supports GE, stating that it is just a new way of doing what farmers have done in the past with genetic alteration in seeds, and that there is no evidence to suggest it is harmful. Jon Entine, science journalist and executive director of Genetic Literacy Project, recently wrote an article in Forbes Magazine grounding the ideological discussion of GMOs in science. He notes that over a hundred independent science organizations in the world including the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization have determined that GMOs are as safe as conventional crops.
In his article, Entine also mentioned that there are no tests on humans for food or drugs except for monitoring, so animal feeding studies are the foundation for GMO tests. Cattle have been monitored for illness and growth, as well as their ability to produce dairy; mortality rate is also monitored in poultry. There has been no strong evidence concluding that GMOs pose a health risk to animals or to humans who eat GMO-fed animals. Technically, one can say people alive today are test-subjects, but no studies have conclusively linked any health issues to GMOs.
The risks with GMOs are the same as with any other foods. In the past there have been peanut butter recalls for Salmonella, multiple e.coli outbreaks from spinach and other vegetables and meats, and other health risks caused by conventional and organic foods. GMOs don’t pose any greater risk. Just like contaminations happen with conventional food items, GMOs have the same risk, as in the StarLink controversy case when GMO corn meant only for animal feed was discovered in Taco Bell taco shells.
Dissenting organizations do exist, such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and Union of Concerned Scientists who argue that GE crops are not sufficiently tested because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers GMOs to be the same as conventional crops; they contend that because these crops have genetic additives, they should be treated similarly to chemical additives, including more regulations and labels to educate consumers.
Biotechnology Coordinator of the FDA, Jim Maryanski, PhD, confirms that if GMOs are essentially similar to already approved conventional items, they are safe and do not need further approval to be used in foods. If a GMO is quite different from what has already been approved as safe, the FDA must test and approve it before it is allowed in foods.
Charles Margulis, genetic engineering specialist at environmental nonprofit Greenpeace, believes that the United States government is keeping the public in the dark about GE foods because the FDA will not approve GMO labeling, which would educate consumers and give them a choice. Martina McGloughlin, PhD, director of biotechnology and life sciences informatics programs at UC Davis, understands why the FDA does not require labeling:
“ […] the focus up until now had been on the product, not the process by which it’s produced […] Agricultural practices or processing practices have never been a requirement of labeling. And now suddenly they are, which is a total departure from the way regulations have been put into place on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Margulis believes that GMOs should be banned because he contends that the negative effects are unknown. Many nonprofits focusing on environmental and food issues share his position, including the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, and Organic Consumers Association, who have been successful at keeping GMO salmon from supermarkets. In a recent article in The Guardian, Marc Gunther writes that most of the public opposes GMOs because many of these nonprofits, deemed more trustworthy than corporations or government, have taken that position. He makes a valid point that NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and nonprofits suffer from similar temptations and outside pressures as corporations, and their positions should be scrutinized just as much.
As a food writer for Grist, Nathanael Johnson has researched, interviewed scientists, and analyzed various aspects of GMOs. He states that when it comes to the environment, GMOs have contributed to less insecticide usage because some crops, specifically corn, are engineered to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), an insect-resistant bacterium. Less insecticide needs to be sprayed on crops and, because it only harms a small set of insects, predator insects survive and can kill other crop-threatening pests. While some insects are becoming resistant to Bt crops and results with Bt crops vary throughout the world, chemical insecticide use is still declining in the United States.
Johnson also writes that GMOs have contributed to an increase in herbicide glyphosate usage. Because farmers plant glyphosate-resistant crops and glyphosate kills weeds well, they spray more often than usual; however, glyphosateresistant weeds are spreading and farmers are considering stronger, more dangerous chemicals. While glyphosate is a mild and safe herbicide, its effects are potentially harmful. In Mother Jones, Tom Philpott presents results from studies indicating that GMO soy averages significant glyphosate residue; while the amount is well below the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit, glyphosate also seeps into our water and air supply creating uncertainty in how much glyphosate people ingest. Some studies have shown that small levels of glyphosate produce changes in some species, such as harming the beneficial gut bacteria in chickens, while Salmonella is resistant. The effects of glyphosate are still unclear, and many agree on more tests and decreasing its use. According to Johnson, Monsanto, who makes the glyphosate-resistant crops and glyphosate herbicide Roundup, has encouraged farmers to continue these dangerous tactics, claiming there is no problem, presumably to maximize profit.
Oftentimes, supporters of GMOs assert that they are necessary to feed impoverished populations and the growing, overpopulated world. While the technology can be used to solve major, agricultural problems globally, it is clear that the Big Agriculture corporations like Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta, who corner the GE market, have no real interest in feeding the hungry. The developed agricultural system and its dependence on pesticides is more to blame for harming the environment than GE technology. Johnson believes that more long-term, realistic solutions must be made in order to keep the environment safe and healthy.
One of the main issues with GMOs regarding Islam is that modifying living things is not permissible; however, if its purpose prevents harm or is used to benefit people then it is permissible. Isabel Schatzschneider from the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics writes in 2013 that some religious leaders conclude that there isn’t enough evidence determining the overall effects of GMOs on humanity and the environment to establish their permissibility. Despite this skepticism amongst some scholars, the Islamic Jurisprudence Council has concluded that genetically engineered crops to date are halal. Sheikh Rachid Belbachir, IFANCA’s resident religious scholar, agrees that if it is not harmful to man or animal then it is halal. Since GMO opponents have not provided concrete evidence to suggest GMOs are harmful, he says that they are then permissible until proven otherwise.
Ongoing discussion regarding halal certification of GMOs includes potential issues if DNA is engineered from forbidden foods. For instance, if the DNA from a pig was taken and placed into the DNA of another organism, can that new GMO be halal since its original source is not halal? Sheikh Belbachir remarks, “If it is from haram [forbidden] and it did go through istihala [transformation] process, most of today’s scholars consider it to be halal.”
The World Halal Forum in 2010 in Malaysia also established that GE crops are halal and can be beneficial; however, they formed a resolution stating that more Islamic scholars should be involved in scientific discussions about biotechnology and GMOs. As biotechnology prospers and transgenic crops increase, halal certification will face new challenges in determining the source of GE food.
Unlike the Jimmy Kimmel segment, if you really asked random Americans about GMOs, they would each provide different answers. Some are skeptical of GMOs, some want to embrace the science, and others are somewhere in between, taking the attitude, “If it hasn’t harmed me yet, then I see no problem with it.” Health-conscious individuals tend to be more skeptical of GMOs, and others have more disdain for corporations like Monsanto than the technology itself.
It’s normal to fear changes in systems that affect us; it’s good to be cautious, particularly with what we put in our bodies and spread to the environment. It’s not practical, however, to completely deny technological innovations without proper analysis. Regarding genetic engineering, one should neither completely accept nor refuse the technology, but instead be open and honest about its various facets. We already live in a world with GMOs. They aren’t going anywhere and there will be more to come. We can halt innovation or proceed with a healthy dose of realistic skepticism to create a more positive future.
Annan Shehadi is a graphic designer from the Chicago area. She has an MA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her interests include writing, research, food, tea, and natural living.
It is interesting to note that one of the early products certified halal by IFANCA® was a GMO rennet. In the 1970s, calf rennet, a conventional enzyme used to curdle milk for cheese manufacturing, was in short supply. The dairy industry extended its supply of rennet with porcine trypsin (derived from pigs). Since the development of a GMO enzyme, Chymax, by Pfizer in the 1980s, the cheese industry has switched to this new, more standardized enzyme. The development and certification of this GMO enzyme made it possible to produce halal-certified cheese and dairy products. IFANCA has certified dairy products produced by Cabot® Creamery, Organic Valley®, Mariposa Dairy, Tofutti Brands Inc., and Whitehall Specialties. [IFANCA]