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GMOs & Us

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Garden expert Mikl Brawner explains why GMOs are controversial.

by Mikl Brawner

GMOs-Shutterstock.comGenetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not natural. Genes from often vastly different beings are “shot” into each other using a gene gun or other method. Some of the results are valuable to the industry, like a plant with herbicide tolerance, or a plant with a built-in pesticide. But there are many unknown consequences that are not immediately obvious.

Concerns about GMOs fall into two categories: 1.) health concerns for humans who eat processed foods that contain GMO corn, soy, canola or sugar beets (like chips, cereals, snack packs, tortillas, etc.), or who eat animals (chicken, pork, steaks, processed meats, etc.) raised on GMO feed; and 2.) concerns about biodiversity and the environment. Because GMO crops easily contaminate other seed crops, there is increasing loss of heirloom and non-GMO seeds, and risk of contaminating organic crops.

Also, since much of the current use of GMOs is for resistance to Roundup herbicide, the use of Roundup has increased dramatically, causing higher concentrations in the plants and animals we eat. Roundup has been shown to harm soil organisms, to harm trees growing nearby, to reduce food for monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and to pollute air and water. Roundup is not safe once it touches the soil, and Roundup is not harmless to humans—those were marketing myths promulgated by Monsanto, the agrochemical company that makes Roundup.

In general, the GMO model of industrial agriculture is not earth friendly or sustainable. GMO seeds and related pesticides have been peddled around the world, replacing local seeds saved for generations and bankrupting thousands of farmers, including farmers in India where, in their hopelessness, many have committed suicide. (See Frontline’s “Seeds of Suicide” episode and the documentary Bitter Seeds.)

The concern about GMO’s effects on human health is difficult to validate. For one thing, Monsanto requires buyers of GMO seed to sign an agreement that if the seeds are used in research, the results must be okayed by Monsanto before publishing. Toxicity tests have had conflicting results, and clinical toxicology tests in humans have never been conducted.

Despite the lack of any real evidence of GMOs’ safety, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has defined GMO foods as being “substantially equivalent” to existing foods and therefore the FDA only needs to review data provided by the chemical companies producing them.

However, determining what is “substantially equivalent” by compositional analysis can fail to identify all sources of toxicity, and a toxic gene may not show up until the organism is under environmental stress. This may result in human problems such as allergies and gastrointestinal problems, which have been observed in GMO studies on laboratory rats.

We cannot know if the skyrocketing health problems in the last 10 years or so, including diabetes, food allergies, gluten intolerance, ADHD, autism and clinical depression, among others, may be related to GMOs because they are not labeled or adequately researched.

Sixty-four countries have been concerned enough to require labeling of GMOs. These include the European Union, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Russia and even China. The United States has not required labeling.

Round ’n’ Round We Go

Because 31 weed species have developed resistance to Roundup, which contains glyphosate as its active ingredient, Dow Chemical developed “2, 4-D resistant” corn and soy seeds. The USDA approved these GMO seeds in 2014, even though the agency admits it could cause “significant environmental harm.”

What we do know is that many GMO crops contains Bacillus thurengensis (Bt), a bacterial toxin that is a built-in pesticide in many GMO plants. This toxin is not broken down in digestion. In a Canadian test, the toxin was found in 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of fetuses.

On Election Day, Colorado voters rejected Proposition 105, which would have required labeling foods containing GMOs. Big corporations and agrochemical companies outspent the pro-GMO labeling campaign by 22 to 1. So far, only three states have passed measures to label GMOs—all in New England and all facing legal hurdles, while 64 other countries (including China) have strict GMO labeling requirements.
On Election Day, Colorado voters rejected Proposition 105, which would have required labeling foods containing GMOs. Big corporations and agrochemical companies outspent the pro-GMO labeling campaign by 22 to 1. So far, only three states have passed measures to label GMOs—all in New England and all facing legal hurdles, while 64 other countries (including China) have strict GMO labeling requirements.

We cannot trust test results by chemical companies that have conflicts of interest. They also told us DDT, PCBs, phthalates and pesticides are not harmful to our health.

GMO sweet corn containing Bt is now in our supermarkets. GMO papaya and some squash are also available. GMO Kentucky bluegrass has been approved, as well as GMO alfalfa. More and more patented GMOs are in line to be approved.

Although GMOs have been promoted as the answer to feeding the world, there is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, as more acres of land have been used for GMO production, the number of malnourished people has increased. That is because most GMO crops are traded as commodities and don’t make it to the tables of the poor.

Genetics is not completely under-stood, and therefore genetic engineering is a risky playground to take out of the laboratory and put in our supermarkets. Recent research has proven that exposure to pesticides and toxins can cause inheritable problems that can show up in our children and grandchildren.

Genetic engineering is completely different from genetic plant breeding, which humans have performed for centuries. Crossing plants to make hybrids is imitating the functions of pollinators that go from one plant to another dusting pollen from the male part of one plant to the female part of another plant. This is the exchange of genetic material within the same genus, and could never take place between an animal and a plant. GMO foods have been called “frankenfoods,” because they are a freak of nature, like Frankenstein’s monster.

Monsanto believes all Roundup Ready crops—crops that have been genetically altered to be tolerant of glysophate so that farmers can spray an entire field and kill only the weeds instead of the crops—would be a miracle for humanity.

And of course they have enough money to lobby people in power to let them make that money. The transgene responsible for tolerance to Roundup in soybeans, corn, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, etc., has already been found in many soil organisms, which might move transgenes through the soil into non-GMO plants.

The bottom line is that the lust for profit is pressuring our government to take risks with our health and the future health of our planet. Until our scientists are freed to really study these new genetic creations and their longterm effects, we have a right to know if they are in our foods.

In November, Colorado voters failed to pass Proposition 105, which would have required foods that contain GMOs to be labeled as such. Now, to be safe,  your only recourse is to support the organic economy by eating organically grown food.


Mikl Brawner and his wife, Eve Reshetnik, own Harlequin’s Gardens Sustainable Nursery and Garden Center in Boulder.

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