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Genetically modified foods and you: Part 1

Genetically modified foods are grown from seeds which

Genetically modified foods are grown from seeds which DNA have been engineered to include foreign genes Photo Credit: iStock

Since the beginning of time, people have been sticking seeds into holes, watering them and watching them grow. It really isn’t rocket science. It used to be that the biggest fruit-and vegetable-gardening decisions were whether to grow pumpkins or watermelons, organic or conventional, heirloom or hybrid. But “progress” and technology have changed all that, and created a problem that in many circles seems to be flying under the radar: the gradual tinkering with our food supply.

The most recent strike came on Jan. 27, when despite widespread protests from public health advocates and organics proponents, and a thousands-strong petition, the USDA approved the unrestricted planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa -- the latest genetically-modified biotech plant to gain the government's blessing. In case you're wondering what alfalfa means to you, it's the fourth-largest field crop in the United States, grown on about 20 million farm acres to feed dairy cattle and other livestock. It joins several different types of biotech corn, cotton and soybeans, among others currently growing on U.S. farms, and may pave the way for more GM foods awaiting approval, including transgenic Atlantic salmon modified with growth hormone to allow it to grow at twice the normal rate.

You might be familiar with Monsanto, the biotech company that invented glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weed killer. The company also is the world’s leading producer of GMO seeds. Those are seeds whose DNA has been tampered with, or "engineered,"  by the introduction of a foreign gene. That gene could be from something natural, like another plant, insect or bacteria, or something synthetic, like Roundup. Because seeds are the precursors to life, it’s downright bizarre that they could be patented, but they can, and they were.

Plants grown from GMO seeds have been praised for increased yields and resistance to herbicides that are sprayed on fields to kill weeds. The FDA tells us this "poses no food or feed safety concerns," but the seeds haven’t been in use long enough for anyone to assess the effects of ingestion in the long term.

If your eye is on plant production and feeding a hungry world, GMO seeds might sound like a good solution, but the devil is lurking in the details: Consider that we’re eating food grown from seeds that contain things like Roundup, which some scientists contend is an endocrine disrupter that can cause gene damage in humans and animals.

Researchers at the National Institute of Nutrition in Rome, Italy, published a study in 2008 that linked consumption of a GMO diet to allergy and immune system changes in mice, and last year, the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Association for Gene Security found a diet of GMO soy led to devastating results in hamsters, including a high mortality rate and the sterility of third-generation offspring. GMO foods haven’t been in production long enough for us to know the effect they may have on third-generation humans.

So why not just avoid GMO food? Would that it were so simple, Grasshopper. Not only are they not labeled as such, but even buying organic can't possibly offer a complete guarantee.

Perhaps the biggest concern is that once we’ve messed with our food, there may not be any turning back. Saccharine (Monsanto's first product, by the way), red dye No. 2 and Meridia all were considered safe -- until they weren’t. If it’s discovered that GMOs are harmful to humans, it may be impossible to ban them because windblown pollination can cause GMO plants to pollinate conventional plants growing nearby, resulting in the presence of GMO material in seeds produced by conventional and organic plants. Nature being what it is, there might come a day when there aren’t any unadulterated seeds left.

Imagine if, years from now, some scientists link GMO seeds to a human disease, as they did with cigarettes. While we can decide not to smoke cigarettes, we won’t be able to return to non-GMO seeds if the world’s seed supply has been infiltrated.

We’re digging ourselves the mother of all holes with this one, and I fear the genie’s already out of the bottle: Last summer, fields of genetically modified transgenic canola (rapeseed) were discovered growing rampantly in the wild in North Dakota. Not only did these plants escape from farms -- typical behavior for plants -- but now the municipality has to deal with herbicide-resistant canola growing by the side of the road that can’t be eliminated with weed killer. This potentially sets up the plants to become an invasive species. Who’s to say they won’t choke out natural vegetation and mess with the entire ecosystem? Certainly not India, which, with about 230 million undernourished people among its residents, has refused to accept genetically engineered seeds and food. If they don’t need them, why do we?

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