DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the substance that carries the genetic information on which our entire existence is built. And genetically modified organisms are plants and animals who have had those genes modified by humans.

Would you willingly buy and eat food containing GM ingredients as opposed to normal, natural foods that humans have consumed for as long as we have existed? What if you didn’t even know you were eating them?

History of GMO

The technology that enabled genetic modification of crops was first developed in the 1970s in the United States. By the 1980s, an optimistic biotechnology industry and the government had worked together to create relevant regulatory structures to further the technology and its business goals in
both the U.S. and Canada. Genetically modified foods have been sold in North American markets since the mid 1990s; yet almost two decades later, as leading American GMO activist Jeffrey Smith notes in his book Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, upon being asked whether they have ever eaten genetically modified foods, 60 percent of average Americans say no and 15 percent say they don’t know.

Prevalence of GMO

Common GM products on the market in the United States are corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, milk (because cows are injected with BGH or bovine growth hormone) and some zucchini and yellow crookneck squash; in Canada, corn, soy, canola, flax seeds and Canadian honey. Today, nearly 80 percent of all packaged foods in North American supermarkets contain one or more varieties of GM ingredients. They’re in almost all widely used food brands. They’ve been part of our diet since 1996. But no significant measures have been taken by the manufacturing biotech companies or the American and Canadian governments to educate or include the common person in the debate whether or not to genetically modify what we eat. The corporate-government partnership took the liberty to play with a basic part of our survival—our food—and we were barely given a choice or warning.

Harmful effects of eating GMO

Minimal studies have been done on the health impacts of eating GMOs, and almost no long-term research exists. Whatever research does exist remains confined mostly to the sites and blogs of environmentalists and other activists. Jeffrey Smith’s website responsibletechnology.org lists 65 identified health risks. Evidence of harm published on the site includes the following:

» Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 percent in the UK, soon after GM soy was introduced.


» A skin prick allergy test shows that some people react to GM soy, but not to wild natural soy.


» GM soy also contains a new unexpected allergen, not found in wild natural soy.


» Rats fed GM potatoes had smaller, partially atrophied livers.


» The livers of rats fed GM canola were 12 to 16 percent heavier.


» GM soy altered mouse liver cells in ways that suggest a toxic insult. The changes reversed after they switched to non-GM soy.


» More than half the babies of mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks.


» Male rats and mice fed GM soy had changed testicles, including altered young sperm cells in the mice.


» The DNA of mouse embryos functioned differently when their parents ate GM soy.


» The longer mice were fed GM corn, the fewer babies they had, and the smaller their babies were.


» Babies of female rats fed GM soy were considerably smaller, and more than half died within three weeks (compared to 10 percent of the non-GM soy controls).


» Female rats fed GM soy showed changes in their ovaries and uterus.


» By the third generation, most hamsters fed GM soy were no longer able to have babies.

In the 1980s, a contaminated brand of a food supplement called L-tryptophan killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness and disability in another 5,000 to 10,000 people. The source of contaminants was almost certainly the genetic engineering process used in its production. The disease took years to find and was almost overlooked. It was only identified because the symptoms were unique, acute and fast-acting. If all three characteristics were not in place, the deadly GM supplement might never have been identified or removed.

The only published human feeding experiment revealed that the genetic material inserted into GM soy transfers into bacteria living inside our intestines and continues to function. This means that long after we stop eating GM foods, we may still have their GM proteins produced continuously inside us.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine shows (many such) effects of GM foods including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.

There’s no way to provide an organized and exhaustive list of harmful effects. Genetic modification is the alteration of the most fundamental blocks of life by humans. Some effects could take years or generations to be noticed and by then far too much damage may be done. Is it possible that educated scientists would not see the uncertainty and unpredictability involved in messing with such a fragile part of nature? How have foods containing GMOs been allowed to pervade the market for so long without any long-term or follow-up studies? Through deception and suppression.

How GM foods maintain legitimacy in North America

The biotech industry has always argued that crops genetically engineered to increase yields will help solve global hunger and poverty. Reality: more and more cases over the years have shown yields have not increased, and costs for farmers have shot up. The global hunger argument is a blatant lie. Authorities all over the world agree the food crisis is not due to a lack of food, but a lack of access to it. A 2003 report by UN’s Food and Agricultural Association says biotechnology isn’t necessary to meet hunger demands.

Another lie: genetic engineering is no different from classical breeding, a process that has been practiced for thousands of years. The truth is classical breeding is done through cross-pollination within a single species. Genetic engineering is the forced injection of genes from one species to another. Forced, because it is not naturally possible. It allows humans to mate completely different species like a tomato with a pig or a bacterium, which is certainly impossible through classical breeding.

The 1992 report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared GM foods safe for consumption because “they do not contain substances that are significantly different from substances already in the diet, (products known as GRAS—generally regarded as safe).” This was outright misleading because this claim is lawfully required to be backed by a large number of studies and a consensus among the scientific community. Scientists in both the U.S. and Canada warned of unpredictable side effects and urged for long-term studies before introducing GMOs to the market. FDA documents leaked in a lawsuit later showed these voices were suppressed and the possibility of harm hidden.

As early as 1987, the countries of the European Union adopted the precautionary principle in regulating GMOs. According to this principle, products cannot be made available to the public until proven safe. EU requires biotech companies to submit detailed risk assessments and thorough investigations led by individual countries before GMOs can be approved. This principle has been completely neglected by American and Canadian policymakers. Companies in the U.S. consult with the FDA on a voluntary basis and can choose whatever information to submit or not. Although Canada requires more formal investigations, the precautionary principle is still ignored by Health Canada.

Some proponents of GMOs argue the precautionary principle is unfair to the scientific enterprise because the emphasis is on the supposed risks over the proven benefits. But what has been equally argued is these hypothetical risks outweigh the apparent benefits. In such a case, is it really unfair to set strict regulations on GMOs until proven absolutely safe or is it unfair to loosen regulations until proven absolutely unsafe or until it is too late?

The unforeseeable harm to human and animal health is just one piece of the pie. It is a much more far-reaching racket where natural processes and the entire cycle of food production are at stake. Humans may have planted the first GMO seed, but after that, the crops reproduce naturally. We may reach a point where we cannot control their growth anymore—a point of irreversibility from genetically modified crops.

As environmentalist and writer Frances Moore Lappé has so powerfully said, this issue is a grave assault on democracy. A society that prides itself on freedom and democracy has been scammed, excluded from debate and kept in the dark. To think that to eat natural and unmanipulated foods, we have to search for “certified organic” brands or that organic foods are “specialty products” and a minority in grocery stores dominated by GM foods, is a truly sad thought. And the fact that most people don’t even know they are eating foods genetically modified by humans is an absolute violation of human rights. My family didn’t know about GMOs until three years ago, whereas given the nearly 16 years of their existence, this should have been common knowledge. The truth about GMOs cannot remain a topic of discussion among environmentalists and activists. Over the years, awareness has increased and there’s more demand for organic foods. The more people that know and choose organic, the less GMOs will remain in our food. The biotech industry’s power depends on consumers. And if aware and educated, we have the power to choose to say no to GMO.

For brands that do not use GM ingredients read the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.

image: GMO corn via Shutterstock