Roost: Three reasons to worry about genetically modified organisms

By Amy Roost

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a broad group of plants, animals and bacteria that are engineered for a wide variety of applications ranging from agricultural production to scientific research. We’re not talking plumcots here. We’re talking the insertion of genes with herbicide and/or pesticide components. GMO producers claim that this only hurts insects, is safe for humans and reduces our use of pesticides.

Amy Roost

There are at least three reasons we should be worried about GMOs:

Most of the concern surrounding GMOs relates to their potential for negative health effects. What happens when you eat plants grown from seeds that are synthesized with everything from bacteria to fish to herbicides? What happens when you eat the animals that ate these crops? The answer is we don’t know…yet. Monsanto, a giant biotech company with a monopolistic corner on the GMO market conducted a three-month study on rats and claims their products show no adverse health effects…on humans.

Several studies suggest otherwise. For example, The International Journal of Biological Sciences recently published findings based on Monsanto’s own data that consumption of three of the company’s genetically modified corn products resulted in statistically significant damage to the liver, kidneys, heart, adrenal glands and spleen. Other potential health effects include the production of new allergens, increased toxicity, decreased nutrition and antibiotic resistance.

Second, more than 80 percent of corn and more than 90 percent of soybeans planted each year in the U.S. are Monsanto seeds. Even the freest of free market capitalists should agree that it’s bad for competition and hence the economy when one corporation holds control over any one product, let alone the global food system. Monopolies are the reason for anti-trust laws and it’s a primary reason we Americans rail against the Middle East oil cartel.

Additionally, Monsanto’s monopolization of the seed supply pushes indigenous/regional and older seed varieties out of the marketplace. This has the effect of reducing the genetic diversity in our critical staple crops. The 19th century Irish potato famine resulting in over a million deaths is a good example of this. Broad diversity means that if something comes along to threaten or wipe out one crop, there will be many surviving backups.

Finally, there are the economic pitfalls associated with GMOs. On a micro level, small farmers are hurt. As non-genetically modified seeds are phased out, higher seed prices are unavoidable. As under colonialism, actual producers (farmers) of the raw materials and commodities extracted get little or no benefit of what they produce, while rich corporations like Monsanto enrich their bottom line. The resources may have changed from gold and silver to seeds, and the location from the Third World to the Great Plains, but the process is the same.

On a macro level, consider what happened last month when it was announced that a herbicide-resistant strain of wheat was found on an Oregon farm. The finding came as a surprise because genetically modified wheat has only been grown in experimental settings and is not approved for cultivation. Following the announcement, Japan and South Korea suspended some imports of U.S. wheat, and the European Union said it was testing U.S. wheat shipments to make sure they did not contain genetically modified wheat. Wheat prices took an immediate nosedive on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Not so long ago, the tobacco industry told us there was no evidence that smoking causes cancer. Now we have Monsanto telling us GMOs are safe. Would it be wise for us to trust them to be telling us the fully informed, unbiased truth? What will the future have to say about this? If we’re not careful, it may say we have an increasingly narrowing set of alternative food options from which to choose. Another future development seems all but certain: Worldwide population trends will eventually lead to food shortages. This augers well for the GMO industry. Let’s hope that it also augers well for the rest of us.

Roost works in the book publishing industry.

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Posted by Staff on Jun 12 2013. Filed under Columnists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Comments for “Roost: Three reasons to worry about genetically modified organisms”

  1. Jerry

    You said, "We’re talking the insertion of genes with herbicide and/or pesticide components." That statement is incorrect. GMO plants have a gene, often coding for the resistance to an herbicide or pesticide. The inserted gene codes for a new protein or proteins that disable of block the action of the pesticide.

    You said, "What happens when you eat plants grown from seeds that are synthesized with everything from bacteria to fish to herbicides?" Again, that statement is incorrect. The GMO seeds contain novel genes (i.e. DNA) that may have come from bacteria or from a plant or from fish. Finally, I am unaware of any GMO seeds that have been synthesized from herbicides and I am unclear as to how that could take place. Many GMO seeds do contain genes that code for proteins that confer herbicide resistance.

    Lots of confusion here! One of the benefits of genetic engineering is that it allows one to precisely add genes of known structure and function to an organism.

    There is a very broad scientific consensus that GMO plants currently in the marketplace are safe to eat. Farmers have been cultivating GMO plants for 16 years, with over 2 billion acres planted and there have been zero adverse health or environmental effects.

  2. Amy Roost

    I'm not a scientist Jerry (I just play one in my columns ;), but I found a great deal of evidence from objective sources (not one's with axe to grind on either side) to support my claims, otherwise I would not have printed them. I'm happy to provide you with a list of links if you'd like to research and comment further.

  3. Cin An

    Amy, it’s very clear that you are not a scientist and playing one is a dangerous thing when making decisions about food safety and health. Of course it’s easy to find lots of “evidence” with a Google search, but that doesn’t make those claims real. The sources of “scares” on GMOs also have big financial gains to make.

    • Amy Roost

      Cin An, Thanks for the website you passed along. I'll have a look. Little known fact about your friendly community columnist is that I moonlight as a medical and legal researcher so I do know the difference b/w scientific evidence and a rant by some blogger with an axe to grind. The study I cited in my column is from a peer reviewed journal and it made use of the data Monsanto itself collected. It got that data by going to court and suing for it. If you know anything about peer reviewed journals, then you know it's not easy to pass muster and get your study published. In other words, there may be credible evidence to support GMOs but there is also credible evidence that should make us skeptical and move slowly, which was the bottom line of my column. Thanks again for your input.

    • Wanna be

      Amys just a small town columnist in search of greater aspirations hardly achieved.

  4. Tom Yarnall

    Amy, I am astonished you did not report a scientific study that ties GMO's to global warming.
    Do you think genetically modified marijuana is bad for us or is it all good?
    Do you think, without , GMO's the life span of humans would be higher or do you think medical science has just offset the ill effects of it?
    Do you think the wolves in Montana give a damn about whether the sheep are eating GMO's?

  5. Donald Guiney

    Amy, I am an internationally recognized geneticist and physician, and I have not seen any widely accepted study that demonstrates an adverse health effect for commercially available genetically modified food. California voters recently rejected a ballot proposal that genetically modified crops need to be labeled. In fact, we have been eating genetically modified food for thousands of years: it is called breeding. Your article based on non-scientific innuendo does not serve the public interest. Also, there is nothing magical about peer-reviewed research. I have seen it be wrong numerous times. I challenge you to supply any widely accepted studies that show a harmful health effect of GMOs. The lack of such information was why California voters wisely rejected the labeling measure.

    • Amy Roost

      Define "widely accepted" and (depending on how constrained your definition is) I will be happy to research further and try to oblige. Trust me, Since our food isn't labeled, I'd feel better if there were convincing evidence (btw, where's yours?) that GMOs are safe.

      And I'm not a "internationally recognized geneticist" but I spent my summers growing up on a farm and know enough to know there is a difference between hybridization and genetically modifying a plant. Talk about your red herring! Also, if you are a geneticist, would you happen to have a vested interest in GMOs being proven safe for consumption?

      • Donald Guiney

        I am no enthusiast of Monsanto, and also have no vested or conflict of interest in GMOs. However, I objected to both of the columns by you and Dick Lyles because they were designed to be inflammatory without any scientific basis. I found the article that you mentioned, and it was a re-analysis of a rat study done by Monsanto, not even original work performed by the authors, and based its conclusions on a few laboratory values of uncertain overall significance to the health of the rats, much less to people. In addition, a critical review published in another journal raised the issue that the diets may have been contaminated with pesticides. My point is not to argue the safety of GMOs. That issue should be decided by careful scientific study. My argument is that non-critical columns like yours and Dick's do not do any service but to increase the confusion and irrational debate on this question.

  6. Wes

    Lots of character attacks going on here, unwarranted in my opinion. The fact that an internationally known scientist has not read all the studies in his field is btw, a given. And it seems unlikely that your information comes from sources entirely independent of Monsanto, since we have decided that the free market is the best dictator of science.

    Everyone who is a scientist knows, that every step forward in increasing understanding of genetics, indicates that genes rarely serve a single specific function. Even in traditional genetic manipulation through cross breeding, unforeseen traits arise. In the same way that breeding fixes for tameness resulted in multi colored coats, and vocalization, we have no idea of what secondary effects such changes will make. And if you move beyond the hubris of assuming your perfectly designed study could account for every possible adverse effect in the lab, that does nothing at all to ameliorate real world effects, such as wind borne cross pollination.

    It's true that GMO makes food more plentiful, cheaper, more shelf stable, etc. But we cannot know what long term results are in a short lived field. Unless you have forgotten about radium watches, DDT, Lead Paint, mercury in seafood, thalidomide etc., unintended consequences are as often the rule as the exception. No rational argument can be made that we are now immune.

  7. Peter Riordan

    Credentials: rational human being
    How's that?
    GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS blessed to be safe by MINIMAL testing, by a huge conglomerate on a global domination mission. Yum! and has the FDA etal eating out of it's' hand. Glory be and as such ba-da-bing! approved by the FDA. Oh, okay! Must be like apple pie and baseball.
    "Please, Sir can I have some more?"
    C'mon, drop the facade. Nobody wants to eat this stuff! And a large percentage of the masses who are unknowingly ingesting it now, in the form of un-organic corn, soy and beets and there bi-products, would not be eating it if the products were labelled, as such. I, also believe that as the masses become educated about the inherent unknowns and knowns (stick a laundry list of footnotes here) they will be leaving all that stuff on the shelves to eventually rot.
    I think the cigarette industry is an apropos analogy. i stand with the global leader PERU and the European Union and most of the free world on this and by the way, the vast, vast majority of the American people want them labelled. All figures I've see were over 90%. Personally, i do not. i don't want GMO's labelled. I want them banned!
    "Doctor(s), scientist(s)", what does that mean? Well, let me put this out there . . . it means you had/have great opportunity. it also means you have great responsibility. With all due respect i know earning such a professional title requires a lot. Once attained, one can only hope the humanistic ideal which would bring one to such an arduous pursuit was not abandoned for greener pastures. The pursuit was based on humanistic ideals, wasn't it?
    look forward to replies . . oh, get me going!

  8. Commonsense

    If you don't want to eat GMO's, then don't. But why would anyone think they have the right to have them banned?

    It's a free country.

    And to say that "nobody" wants to eat that stuff, is not rational and just not true. To say that "the vast, vast majority of the American people want them labelled" is also untrue. How does he know what over 300 million people want?

    I wish that people would turn as much attention to the cigarette makers as they would to Monsanto, now THAT would provide benefits.

    • Peter Riordan

      Personally, I don’t eat GMO’s. My diet, as far as I know is near 100% organic. I want to know what I put in my mouth and chew and swallow and digest. The thing is that almost all un-organic corn, soy and sugar beets and their products are now GMO and as such, unlabeled in this country. I believe that most would be left on the shelves if they were labelled. I know a ban is a far reach here, but why such resistance to labels? Oh, right ‘cuz the “ignorant masses” wouldn’t then buy them.

  9. Donald Guiney

    Amy: I define "widely accepted" as a consensus among responsible scientists in the field that the conclusions of a study are valid. The harmful effects of cigarette smoke and alcohol are illustrations of a broad consensus. The only consensus that I can determine regarding studies in the safety of GMOs is that there needs to be more high quality work done in this area. But where is the money to come from? NIH, NSF, and the Agriculture Department are completely underfunded. Here I have to claim a conflict of interest since I have gotten NIH and Agriculture grants (but not to study GMOs). Perhaps the most responsible position would be to require corporations like Monsanto to fund independent, third-party research on the safety of GMOs. That would serve the public health.

    • Amy Roost

      Don, Perhaps you need to re-read my column. I suggested there jury is still out and there needs to be more evidence. I'm sorry if the study I cited was proof enough for you and others, but I can't take up my whole column with a bibliography. Personally, I wouldn't trust a third part study funded by Monsanto any more than I trust the research that came out of England re: autism which as I understand it, was a similar arrangement. It's like the US intelligence that got us into Iraq and the IRS mess. It is human nature to want to provide information we think will please our employers. I do appreciate your contribution to the topic. It's all I really wanted to come out of this column.

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