Why We Can’t Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Whether we like it or not, we cannot avoid genetically modified foods. We have been eating them for centuries. From the first selectively bred herbs for medicines thousands of years ago or the corn crops we have enhanced since Egyptian times. Genetically modified foods are unavoidable. Look at ‘organic’ food crops. Where did those big and juicy apples or oranges come from? Apples were the size of cherries when nature evolved them. We turned them into the Washington giants we see today.
What about animal foods? Well consider what cows used to look like, about 10,000 years ago. We know that the ancient aurochs common in Asia and Europe are the original ancestors of all cattle today. We captured them like we did wolves (15,000 years ago) and started artificial selective breeding. Don’t forget oxen, asses, water buffalo, horses, goats, llamas, sheep, pigs, chicken, camels, cats, silk moths, rabbits, pigeons, pheasant, elephants, turkey, honey bees, trout and salmon. All have been selectively bred for better food quality, faster growth rates, specific colorations, desirable physical attributes (ex – long tail/short ears) and/or more docility or controllability in the last 10,000 years.
Comparing Classical Breeding and Crop Breeding Through Genetic Engineering
Crops produced through genetic engineering are sometimes referred to as genetically modified organisms. The term genetic modification, and so-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is frequently misused. All types (organic, conventional) of agriculture modify the genes of plants so that they will have desirable traits. The difference is that traditional forms of breeding change the plant’s genetics indirectly by selecting plants with specific traits, while genetic engineering changes the traits by making changes directly to the DNA. In traditional breeding, crosses are made in a relatively uncontrolled manner. The breeder chooses the parents to cross, but at the genetic level, the results are unpredictable. DNA from the parents recombines randomly. In contrast, genetic engineering permits highly targeted transfer of genes, quick and efficient tracking of genes in new varieties, and ultimately increased efficiency in developing new crop varieties with new and desirable traits.
GMOs Are Not New
To date, scientists have engineered bacteria that produce medication-grade drugs, crops with built-in pesticides, and beagles that glow in the dark. While these are all relatively recent advances in scientific technology, humans have been altering the genetics of organisms for over 30,000 years. How did the original practice of selective breeding evolve into the concept of genetically modified organisms, as we know it today? Innovators, motivated by some of the world’s most critical problems, have paved the way for GMOs — a path that leads to an unimaginable array of benefits, but also raises extremely important questions.
While our ancestors had no concept of genetics, they were still able to influence the DNA of other organisms by a process called “selective breeding” or “artificial selection.” These terms, coined by Charles Darwin, describe the process of choosing the organisms with the most desired traits and mating them with the intention of combining and propagating these traits through their offspring. Repeated use of this practice over many generations can result in dramatic genetic changes to a species. While artificial selection is not what we typically consider GMO technology today, it is still the precursor to the modern processes and the earliest example of our species influencing genetics.
Artificial selection has also been utilized with a variety of plants. The earliest evidence of artificial selection of plants dates back to 7800 BCE in archaeological sites found in southwest Asia, where scientists have found domestic varieties of wheat. However, one of the most dramatic and prevalent alterations in plant genetics has occurred through artificial selection of corn. Corn, or maize, began as a wild grass called teosinte that had tiny ears with very few kernels. Over the hundreds of years, teosinte was selectively bred to have larger and larger ears with more and more kernels, resulting in what we now know as corn. A similar process has given us large heads of broccoli, bananas with nearly unnoticeable seeds, and apples that are sweet and juicy.
Why are GM foods produced?
GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods. This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers and have concentrated on innovations that bring direct benefit to farmers (and the food industry generally).
One of the objectives for developing plants based on GM organisms is to improve crop protection. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.
Resistance against insects is achieved by incorporating into the food plant the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin is currently used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture and is safe for human consumption. GM crops that inherently produce this toxin have been shown to require lower quantities of insecticides in specific situations, e.g. where pest pressure is high. Virus resistance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants. Virus resistance makes plants less susceptible to diseases caused by such viruses, resulting in higher crop yields.
Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides. In situations where weed pressure is high, the use of such crops has resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the herbicides used.
What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
Genetically modified foods, GM foods or genetically engineered foods, are foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering as opposed to traditional cross breeding. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) favor the use of “genetic engineering” over “genetic modification” as the more precise term; the USDA defines genetic modification to include “genetic engineering or other more traditional methods.”
According to the World Health Organization, “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology’, sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’. … Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.”
The first genetically modified plant was produced in 1983, using an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. Genetically modified microbial enzymes were the first application of genetically modified organisms in food production and were approved in 1988 by the US Food and Drug Administration. In the early 1990s, recombinant chymosin was approved for use in several countries. Cheese had typically been made using the enzyme complex rennet that had been extracted from cows’ stomach lining. Scientists modified bacteria to produce chymosin, which was also able to clot milk, resulting in cheese curds.
Corn used for food and ethanol has been genetically modified to tolerate various herbicides and to express a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills certain insects. About 90% of the corn grown in the US was genetically modified in 2010. In the US in 2015, 81% of corn acreage contained the Bt trait and 89% of corn acreage contained the glyphosate-tolerant trait. Corn can be processed into grits, meal and flour as an ingredient in pancakes, muffins, doughnuts, breadings and batters, as well as baby foods, meat products, cereals and some fermented products. Corn-based masa flour and masa dough are used in the production of taco shells, corn chips and tortillas.
Genetically modified soybean has been modified to tolerate herbicides and produce healthier oils. In 2015, 94% of soybean acreage in the U.S. was genetically modified to be glyphosate-tolerant.
As of December 2017, genetically modified wheat has been evaluated in field trials, but has not been released commercially.
The US imports 10% of its sugar, while the remaining 90% is extracted from sugar beet and sugarcane. After deregulation in 2005, glyphosate-resistant sugar beet was extensively adopted in the United States. 95% of beet acres in the US were planted with glyphosate-resistant seed in 2011. GM sugar beets are approved for cultivation in the US, Canada and Japan; the vast majority are grown in the US. GM beets are approved for import and consumption in Australia, Canada, Colombia, EU, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, the Russian Federation and Singapore. Pulp from the refining process is used as animal feed. The sugar produced from GM sugar beets contains no DNA or protein – it is just sucrose that is chemically indistinguishable from sugar produced from non-GM sugar beets. Independent analyses conducted by internationally recognized laboratories found that sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets is identical to the sugar from comparably grown conventional (non-Roundup Ready) sugar beets.
Most vegetable oil used in the US is produced from GM crops canola, corn, cotton and soybeans. Vegetable oil is sold directly to consumers as cooking oil, shortening and margarine and is used in prepared foods. There is a vanishingly small amount of protein or DNA from the original crop in vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is made of triglycerides extracted from plants or seeds and then refined and may be further processed via hydrogenation to turn liquid oils into solids. The refining process removes all, or nearly all non-triglyceride ingredients. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) offer an alternative to conventional fats and oils. The length of a fatty acid influences its fat absorption during the digestive process. Fatty acids in the middle position on the glycerol molecules appear to be absorbed more easily and influence metabolism more than fatty acids on the end positions. Unlike ordinary fats, MCTs are metabolized like carbohydrates. They have exceptional oxidative stability, and prevent foods from turning rancid readily.
Livestock and poultry are raised on animal feed, much of which is composed of the leftovers from processing crops, including GM crops. For example, approximately 43% of a canola seed is oil. What remains after oil extraction is a meal that becomes an ingredient in animal feed and contains canola protein. Likewise, the bulk of the soybean crop is grown for oil and meal. The high-protein defatted and toasted soy meal becomes livestock feed and dog food. 98% of the US soybean crop goes for livestock feed. In 2011, 49% of the US maize harvest was used for livestock feed (including the percentage of waste from distillers grains). “Despite methods that are becoming more and more sensitive, tests have not yet been able to establish a difference in the meat, milk, or eggs of animals depending on the type of feed they are fed. It is impossible to tell if an animal was fed GM soy just by looking at the resulting meat, dairy, or egg products. The only way to verify the presence of GMOs in animal feed is to analyze the origin of the feed itself.”
Genetically modified livestock are organisms from the group of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, birds, horses and fish kept for human consumption, whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. In some cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the animals which does not occur naturally in the species, i.e. transgenesis.
A 2003 review published on behalf of Food Standards Australia New Zealand examined transgenic experimentation on terrestrial livestock species as well as aquatic species such as fish and shellfish. The review examined the molecular techniques used for experimentation as well as techniques for tracing the transgenes in animals and products as well as issues regarding transgene stability.
What are the main issues of concern for human health?
While theoretical discussions have covered a broad range of aspects, the three main issues debated are the potentials to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), gene transfer and outcrossing.
Allergenicity: As a matter of principle, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic organisms to non-allergic organisms is discouraged unless it can be demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. While foods developed using traditional breeding methods are not generally tested for allergenicity, protocols for the testing of GM foods have been evaluated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market.
Gene transfer: Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used as markers when creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Although the probability of transfer is low, the use of gene transfer technology that does not involve antibiotic resistance genes is encouraged.
Outcrossing: The migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as “outcrossing”), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. Cases have been reported where GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial use were detected at low levels in the products intended for human consumption. Several countries have adopted strategies to reduce mixing, including a clear separation of the fields within which GM crops and conventional crops are grown.
Are They Safe for Consumption?
The genetically modified foods controversy consists of a set of disputes over the use of food made from genetically modified crops. The disputes involve consumers, farmers, biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations, environmental and political activists and scientists. The major disagreements include whether GM foods can be safely consumed, harm the environment and/or are adequately tested and regulated. The objectivity of scientific research and publications has been challenged. Farming-related disputes include the use and impact of pesticides, seed production and use, side effects on non-GMO crops/farms, and potential control of the GM food supply by seed companies.
There is a scientific consensus that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food, but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction. Nonetheless, members of the public are much less likely than scientists to perceive GM foods as safe. The legal and regulatory status of GM foods varies by country, with some nations banning or restricting them, and others permitting them with widely differing degrees of regulation.
GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods.
A 2011 analysis by Diels et al., reviewed 94 peer-reviewed studies pertaining to GMO safety to assess whether conflicts of interest correlated with outcomes that cast GMOs in a favorable light. They found that financial conflict of interest was not associated with study outcome (p = 0.631) while author affiliation to industry (i.e., a professional conflict of interest) was strongly associated with study outcome (p < 0.001). Of the 94 studies that were analyzed, 52% did not declare funding. 10% of the studies were categorized as “undetermined” with regard to professional conflict of interest. Of the 43 studies with financial or professional conflicts of interest, 28 studies were compositional studies. According to Marc Brazeau, an association between professional conflict of interest and positive study outcomes can be skewed because companies typically contract with independent researchers to perform follow-up studies only after in-house research uncovers favorable results. In-house research that uncovers negative or unfavorable results for a novel GMO is generally not further pursued.
A 2013 review, of 1,783 papers on genetically modified crops and food published between 2002 and 2012 found no plausible evidence of dangers from the use of then marketed GM crops. Biofortified, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to providing factual information and fostering discussion about agriculture, especially plant genetics and genetic engineering, planned to add the studies found by the Italian group to its database of studies about GM crops, GENERA.
In a 2014 review, Zdziarski et al. examined 21 published studies of the histopathology of GI tracts of rats that were fed diets derived from GM crops and identified some systemic flaws in this area of the scientific literature. Most studies were performed years after the approval of the crop for human consumption. Papers were often imprecise in their descriptions of the histological results and the selection of study endpoints and lacked necessary details about methods and results. The authors called for the development of better study guidelines for determining the long-term safety of eating GM foods.
A 2016 study by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that GM foods are safe for human consumption and they could find no conclusive evidence that they harm the environment nor wildlife. They analyzed over 1.000 studies over the previous 30 years that GM crops have been available, reviewed 700 written presentations submitted by interested bodies and heard 80 witnesses. They concluded that GM crops had given farmers economic advantages but found no evidence that GM crops had increased yields. They also noted that weed resistance to GM crops could cause major agricultural problems but this could be addressed by better farming procedures.
Regulators check that GM foods are “substantially equivalent” to their conventional counterparts, to detect any negative unintended consequences. New protein(s) that differ from conventional food proteins or anomalies that arise in the substantial equivalence comparison require further toxicological analysis.
In 1999, Andrew Chesson of the Rowett Research Institute warned that substantial equivalence testing “could be flawed in some cases” and that current safety tests could allow harmful substances to enter the human food supply. The same year Millstone, Brunner and Mayer argued that the standard was a pseudo-scientific product of politics and lobbying that was created to reassure consumers and aid biotechnology companies to reduce the time and cost of safety testing. They suggested that GM foods have extensive biological, toxicological and immunological tests and that substantial equivalence should be abandoned.
Kuiper examined this process further in 2002, finding that substantial equivalence does not measure absolute risks, but instead identifies differences between new and existing products. He claimed that characterizing differences is properly a starting point for a safety assessment and “the concept of substantial equivalence is an adequate tool in order to identify safety issues related to genetically modified products that have a traditional counterpart”. Kuiper noted practical difficulties in applying this standard, including the fact that traditional foods contain many toxic or carcinogenic chemicals and that existing diets were never proven to be safe. This lack of knowledge on conventional food means that modified foods may differ in anti-nutrients and natural toxins that have never been identified in the original plant, possibly allowing harmful changes to be missed. In turn, positive modifications may also be missed. For example, corn damaged by insects often contains high levels of fumonisins, carcinogenic toxins made by fungi that travel on insects’ backs and that grow in the wounds of damaged corn. Studies show that most Bt corn has lower levels of fumonisins than conventional insect-damaged corn.
While some groups and individuals have called for more human testing of GM food, multiple obstacles complicate such studies. The General Accounting Office (in a review of FDA procedures requested by Congress) and a working group of the Food and Agricultural and World Health organizations both said that long-term human studies of the effect of GM food are not feasible. The reasons included lack of a plausible hypothesis to test, lack of knowledge about the potential long-term effects of conventional foods, variability in the ways humans react to foods and that epidemiological studies were unlikely to differentiate modified from conventional foods, which come with their own suite of unhealthy characteristics.
Additionally, ethical concerns guide human subject research. These mandate that each tested intervention must have a potential benefit for the human subjects, such as treatment for a disease or nutritional benefit (ruling out, e.g., human toxicity testing). Kimber claimed that the “ethical and technical constraints of conducting human trials, and the necessity of doing so, is a subject that requires considerable attention.” Food with nutritional benefits may escape this objection. E.g., GM rice has been tested for nutritional benefits, namely, increased levels of Vitamin A.