Genetically Modified Organisms
By Sarah Kacso and Colin McMahon
(WINDSOR, ON) – Imagine today was the day that we ended world hunger. In Africa, in South America, in downtown metropolises around the world, not a single person was left unfed. Certainly, the person or people who accomplished this lofty feat would be celebrated the world over.
Now imagine that instead of increasing the food supply, we simply decreased the other coefficient – the human demand. That’s right – imagine that the human population was decreased, ensuring enough food supplies for humanity to continue. That’s a scary thought, and it may, I’ll admit, sound like a conspiracy theory. But intended or not, that’s the path that genetically modified foods are beckoning us down.
First, a quick biology lesson: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the instruction manual for our bodies. Our DNA contains building instructions for everything from hair and eye colour to the efficiency of our digestive system to the manufacturing of proteins and hormones. Patterns of genes make up the DNA instructions, like sentences in a book. When DNA is genetically modified, those sentences are rearranged in different orders, or sentences from other ‘manuals’ are added to replace deleted ones. Suddenly, that instruction manual isn’t as easy to read. Now, imagine that those new ‘sentences’ implanted in your instruction manual didn’t come from the human species, but instead from a virus, a bird, a jellyfish, or a goat. That’s the idea behind genetically modified organisms.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been around for millennia. There is some research that suggests that mitochondria, the ‘batteries’ in each and every human cell, were once plant-based, and evolved a symbiotic relationship with animal cells millions of years ago. GMOs are not always plants or animals – one of the first genetic experiments in 1978 using recombinant DNA techniques allowed e. coli bacteria to produce human insulin. Genetic modification is also used in gene therapy to combat a variety of diseases and disorders. However, the kind of GMOs we’re talking about here aren’t found in hospitals – they’re found in grocery stores. It’s been estimated that 60-70% of all food found in stores in the US, including packaged food, has been genetically modified. The statistics for Canada are likely in the same range.
North Americans are woefully misinformed about the health and environmental hazards that GMOs pose, but it’s not entirely our fault. Money has been spent by corporations to hide the risks, advertise the supposed benefits, and lobby politicians and even the United Nations. In Europe, it’s a bit different. Some GMO companies do operate there, but there are thousands of pages of legislation governing the growth and distribution of GMO products. Most importantly, mandatory package labeling allows consumers to differentiate between products made with GMO crops and those naturally produced, and GMO crops must be grown a certain distance from other crops to prevent the genetically altered pollen from mixing with natural crops. GMO food has not been nearly as successful in Europe simply because of the government-mandated transparency.
So, just how bad are GMO foods? After all, they haven’t sparked a global health epidemic… or have they? Consider the case of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the world’s top GMO safety researchers. Dr. Pusztai fed supposedly harmless GMO food to lab rats, which caused them to develop cancerous growths, undersized livers, testicles and brains, and damaged livers and immune systems.
The Russian National Academy of Sciences also used rats to study GMOs, feeding one study group of young rats GMO soy beans and another naturally-produced soybeans. After 3 weeks, 50% of the rats fed GMO soy had died, compared to 9% on the natural diet.
Certainly, these studies have proven that GMO food is not safe for small mammals. But what about humans? Only one study on the effects of GMOs on humans has ever been released to the public. This study revealed that the foreign genes inserted into the DNA of GMO crops transfer to our own cells after we eat the food. This means that when we eat chips made with pest-resistant corn, the bacteria in our digestive systems could start to produce that same pesticide.
GMOs also impact the environment and peoples’ livelihoods. Monsanto (manufacturer of 90% of GMO seeds) has created Terminator and Traitor seeds. Terminator seeds grow crops that are pest-resistant or disease-resistant. Monsanto markets them as ‘Roundup Ready’, after the herbicide normally used to banish tough weeds. These crops produce well, but their seeds are sterile. That means that if a farmer grows Terminator corn, he can only sell the corn. He cannot save corn kernels to produce more crops the following year. That farmer is forced to buy more seed each year. Traitor seeds also make money for patent-holding corporations. In order for Traitor seeds to germinate, they must be sprayed with a chemical concoction produced by the patent holder. Otherwise, the seeds will not grow.
What is our government doing to protect us from these genetic mutations? Not much. Foods made with genetically altered crops, and the raw fruits and vegetables themselves, fill grocery store shelves. Our government does not force producers to label their products GMO, preferring to take the US Federal Drug Administration’s stance that GMO foods are almost exactly the same as non-GMO, and therefore consumers should not be made aware of the difference. But only after thousands of documents were revealed by a lawsuit did the public learn what FDA scientists really knew: GMO crops were too unpredictable and could likely introduce toxins, allergens, diseases, and nutritional problems to the public. The Canadian government prefers to cut funding to departments that oversee food safety, and instead is increasingly allowing the industry to police itself .
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