For decades, corporations have been promoting foods from genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a way to enhance their profits and garner monopoly power. GMO proponents claim that genetic modifications promise food abundance safely. History has already shown otherwise.
“Gene editing is super-powerful, but so far a lot of trial and error. The way it works has been a black box with a lot of assumptions,” reported American molecular biologist Jacob Corn in 2018.
Genetics as a science dealing with the principle of heredity and variation emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Its application to practical problems came decades later; but ignorance of genetics had not been a detriment to breeding advances. American horticulturist Luther Burbank had impressive success with varieties of vegetables and fruits without any knowledge of genetic principles.
“New biotech crops will not solve industrial agriculture’s problems, but will compound them, and consolidate control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few large corporations,” said American ecologist Andrew Kimbrell.
Genetics has not been a godsend to agriculture: to the contrary. The application of genetics to food production has had negative environmental and health impacts. The ability to play God with Nature does not bode well when profit is the sole motivation.
“A lot of naïve science has been involved in pushing this technology. 30 years ago we didn’t know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later,” noted American cytologist David Williams in 2013.
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A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism, whether microbe, plant, or animal, whose genetic material has been directly manipulated via human engi-neering. The term transgenic is also used to refer organisms subjected to such artificial mutations. GMOs became controversial because of artificial genetic insertions into food crops.
By selecting various strains of plants and breeds of an-imals as livestock, humans have been making indirect genetic selections since the dawn of agriculture. Almost all crops harvested today descended from ancestors that were much different.
Carrots were originally pale or purple, not the orange as we know them. Sweet potatoes were bred 8,000 years ago out of the swollen tubers of regular potato roots. They did not exist before human tinkering.
GMOs represent more than simply the next step in agricultural advance. The momentous distinction is in directly inserting an artificial gene which otherwise would not be there. It is the unnaturalness that has been unsettling to some.
The first genetic tinkering was on E. coli bacteria in 1973. That was just the GMO jumping-off point to a focus on agriculture and food production.
Antibiotic-resistant GM tobacco was developed in 1982. Tobacco plants were then engineered for herbicide resistance in 1986.
In 1987, tobacco plants were stuffed with genetic material that the soil-dwelling bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) uses to produce insecticidal proteins. Other Bt crops followed, including potatoes, cotton, and corn: food with biocides built in.
coli bacteria engineered to make the enzyme chymosin were the first GMO food product approved by the FDA. Chymosin is widely used as a ripening agent in the production of cheese.
Prior to employing GMO bacteria as a source, chymosin was harvested from the stomachs of butchered nursing calves as a by-product of the veal industry. Now 80% of the hard cheeses sold in the US are made via GM chymosin.
The first commercial foray in genetic produce was the Flavr Savr tomato. The result was a tomato with a long shelf life but unappealing taste. The Flavr Savr was in supermarket bins for only 3 years in the mid-1990s before its disappearance, at a net loss of tens of millions of dollars to its developer.
“Glyphosate is virtually ideal: a highly effective broad-spectrum herbicide, yet very toxicologically and environmentally safe,” claimed US government herbicide researcher Stephen Duke & Australian herbicide researcher Stephen Powles.
The greatest reaping of GMO profits has come from genetically engineering food crops to withstand the application of the herbicide glyphosate.
Glyphosate was first synthesized in 1950 by Swiss chemist Henry Martin. Corporate chemists at Monsanto rediscovered the compound in 1970, which it markets as Roundup®.
Glyphosate adsorbs strongly to soil and is degraded by microbes there. Its half-life in water is almost a half-year. Vegetables grown under its application, including root vegetables, are invariably laden with the herbicide. “The landscape-scale application of large quantities of pesticides has negative consequences that are often hard to predict,” said English ecologist Dave Goulson.
Though supposedly just an herbicide, insect pollinators of glyphosate crops are poisoned, as their gut flora are devastated by exposure to the chemical. “Exposing bees to glyphosate alters the bee gut community and increases susceptibility to infection by opportunistic pathogens,” reported American evolutionary biologist Nancy Moran. “The use of glyphosate combined with the dominance of genetically engineered crops has produced a looming public health threat both in the US and around the world,” said American biologist and ecologist Mary Ellen Kustin.
Internal emails reveal that Monsanto paid academics to sign off on reports ghostwritten by the company: “… us doing the writing and they would just edit and sign their names….,” wrote Monsanto executive William Heydens.
Government regulators and other researchers, funded by industry, examined glyphosate for animal safety by testing only the compound itself, not the toxic cocktail into which glyphosate is mixed to make the weed killer that is used. Thus, the product’s mutagenic and carcinogenic properties, as well as other detrimental effects on the body, were overlooked. “Monsanto specifically went out of its way to bully and to fight independent researchers. They fought science,” noted American attorney Brent Wisner, after reviewing Monsanto internal emails.
“Herbicides are not designed to affect animals, but we are learning that they can have a wide range of surprising effects by altering how hormones work in the bodies of animals,” explained American biologist Rick Relyea.
“Prior to the introduction of genetically modified foods, very few people had detectable levels of glyphosate. Our exposure to these chemicals has increased significantly over the years, but most people are unaware that they are consuming them through their diet,” reported American physician Paul Mills.
To develop crops resilient to glyphosate, genetic material was taken from bacteria resistant to glyphosate, then inserted into target plants. Monsanto genetically engineered soybeans, then corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, sorghum, and wheat. GM seeds are sold at a premium price by Monsanto under restrictive licenses using the trade name Roundup-Ready.
“Farmers have sprayed billions of pounds of a chemical now considered a probable human carcinogen over the past decade. Spraying has increased to multiple times a year recently on the majority of US cropland. The sheer volume of use of this toxic weedkiller is a clear indication that this chemical dependency is a case of farming gone wrong,” reported Mary Ellen Kustin.
The widespread use of glyphosate accelerated the ability of weeds to resist the herbicide. This was countered by farmers using even more Roundup, which exacerbated the problem. “Resistance problems result from overuse and mismanagement,” explained American botanist Carol Mallory-Smith.
Genetic manipulation of the food supply has been like that of a pyromaniac having found a box of matches. No human attempts at altering Nature have ever gone without unexpected consequences.
Pesticides, and even synthetic fertilizers, are excellent examples. Chemists did not anticipate the biological and environmental damage that they had brewed and set loose. It took decades to discover their folly.
In the US, 33% of all drugs approved by the FDA are later found unsafe. Commercial and public service chemists are unable to establish safety for chemical compounds explicitly and extensively tested for their health effects.
In creating genetically modified organisms, geneticists have been proceeding with much less surety in their foundation of comprehension than those chemists did.
To date, all genetic modifications have been to introduce a single gene package into an organism. Geneticists know next-to-nothing about the functional interrelationships between genes, or even the dynamics within a single gene complex. What is being discovered is that genes have intricate, unexpected relationships.
Even more damning is that geneticists understand little about genomes, period. Genetic modification efforts to manipulate insect pests have failed. “Small genetic variations within species can seriously impact the effectiveness of attempts using genetic technology,” reported American biologist Michael Wade.
Due appreciation of the importance of epigenetics – intricate changes in the employment of genes – is recent and remains a crucial variable outside geneticists’ control. “All mechanisms are interrelated. Epigenetics are responsible for a considerable part of the phenotype of complex organisms,” explained American molecular biologist Gary Felsenfeld.
Moreover, geneticists do not know how microbiomes work with host cells, and how those interactions affect the host genome. Healthy microbiomes are essential to the lives of macroscopic animals. Artificial genetic modifications necessarily involve setting off dynamics with unknown consequences.
It is known that gene editing is a stress which may cause cells to reject the injected mutagens. As CRISPR is derived from bacteria, immune systems may attack gene edits as foreign agents.
Accurate gene editing is problematic. Edits may target the wrong sites. Even if properly placed, a gene edit can affect DNA in a distant location via unknown interactions. CRISPR can cause large chunks of the chromosome to rearrange itself.
CRISPR editing works more efficiently in cancer cells than normal cells, which rightly resist the interference. Geneticists have yet to discover that gene editing incites cancer in animals, but such a finding would be unsurprising given its disruption.
That genetic manipulation would somehow be exempt from negative environmental side effects is unimaginable. That does not matter. Proceeding with speculative ventures is a sine qua non of human behavior – economists celebrate risk-taking exuberance as entrepreneurship. The point is that profiteers simply don’t care about anything but profiteering – genetics may be complex, but commercial motivation is quite simple. As the touted technological edge in industrialized agriculture, GMOs benefit the promoting chemical companies and food producers rather than consumers, who pay whatever the costs turn out to be.
Herbicide-resistant GM strains have engendered excessive use of herbicides – a known peril over an unknown peril. Evolutionary reaction by the weeds under threat ensures that the war will only escalate. “Strong selection pressure exists for the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds because management tactics vary so little between crops,” noted the US National Research Council.
Conversely, Bt GMO has facilitated using fewer pesticides. Less spraying has allowed arthropod predators to survive, thus affording natural pest control that otherwise would not be available. Meanwhile, consumers eat the toxins geneticists build into the food crops.
“Mosaic viruses cause damaging diseases in several important crops,” observed Swiss botanist Hervé Vanderschuren.
The cassava plant, also called manioc or yuca, is a staple root vegetable crop for its tuberous starch: tapioca. Cassava is subject to the mosaic virus, which retards growth and reduces yield.
Geneticists used CRISPR to try to make manioc resistant to the virus. The attempt failed spectacularly: provoking the virus to sharpen its virulence.
“CRISPR applied to the virus encouraged it to evolve in a way that increased resistance to intervention,” concluded Indian geneticist Devang Mehta.
GMO is certainly an uncontrolled experiment in genetic drift, as artificial modifications inevitably make their way to other plants, animals, and microbes. Transgenic traits spread through populations that sexually reproduce, such as with flowering plants and animals. “To say that genes don’t cross the species barrier in Nature, that’s just simple ignorance,” said American plant geneticist Alan McHugen
Genetic engineering is like letting an unknown genie out of the bottle. All outcomes propagate.
Any GM aimed at targeted pests has a limited lifespan, as adaptive evolution weighs in to grace the besieged with survival. How such evolutionary gyres may play out is unknown.
After 3 decades, it may be too soon to adjudge the long-term environmental consequences of this unnatural naturalization. But the health implications of GMO are not sanguine, despite innumerable studies which spuriously contend that GM foods are safe. These studies universally rely upon phony statistics which confuse correlation with causation, and that is after positing statistically specious premises.
Italian biotechnologist Alessandro Nicolia and associates published in 2013 a meta-review of the previous decade of GMO research, including 770 studies which related to animal safety. “So far, there is no reason for concern,” claimed Nicolia.
Such confidence is false. Meta-studies are simply compilations of studies: an abuse of statistics in which addition cannot yield a clearer result; nor can statistics ever assign causality (only correlation).
Despite the mountain of studies and assurances, suspicion lingers, as most research is funded by interests disposed to deploying genetic modifications. “Whether it’s conscious or not, it’s in their interest to promote this field, and they’re not objective,” noted David Williams.
For instance, Nicolia’s team was unscientifically biased, as evidenced by their celebratory tone of GMO: “The technology to produce genetically engineered (GE) plants is celebrating its 30th anniversary and one of the major achievements has been the development of GE crops.”
Suspected bias has spelled continuing concern; with good reason. The data about GMO is invariably subject to interpretation.
“Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food. Genetically modified foods pose a threat to consumers’ health,” reported American physician Amy Dean, American Academy of Environmental Medicine.
The heavy-duty herbicides sprayed onto and pesticides built into GM crops are ingested by consumers. There is no disputing that these are toxins, not food, fed directly to the gut microbiome: the little ones responsible for digesting our food. No testing has been done on how GM food affects human gut flora. Results to date have been damning to GMO advocates.
Various health ills have been attributed to eating the produce of GM crops. The most common complaint is allergic reaction: a sure sign of bodily rejection. Numerous animal studies and events indicate that consuming, or even being near, GM crops can be bad for one’s health. Pigs refuse to eat GMO corn.
Long-term health effects can be subtle, and nearly impossible to link to specific environmental changes. Scientists have long believed that cancers and many other debilitating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, are more than mere genetic destinies. Instead, they have ecological components which often have been devilishly difficult to spot. “You’d certainly find out if the result is that the plant doesn’t grow very well. But will you find the change if it results in the production of proteins with long-term effects on the health of the people eating it?,” wondered David Williams.
Beyond bias, a primary problem with GMO is inadequate testing. Bt is exemplary. “Documenting the full range of impacts on the environment and public health associated with Bt plants remains a challenging and largely ignored task,” said American agricultural economist Charles Benbrook.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) stores multiple toxic proteins. The Bt DNA sequences inserted into transgenic crops are altered from their natural state to make insecticidal action more vigorous. In many instances, the amino acid sequence of the toxin is altered to make the compound more soluble in a plant cell. As these are unnatural genes, GM plants have no adaptation for mitigating introduction of this DNA into their cells. These essentially parasitic genes alter plant growth to include generating alien proteins that do nothing but be toxic.
Tests related to Bt crops in North America have been done on the toxicity to mammals of the natural Bt toxins, but not on the synthetic genes in GM crops. Regulators naïvely allowed the assumption that the 2 were the same.
As the different Bt toxins invoke their own individual actions on animal cells, that assumption is ill-founded. Studies show retention of Bt toxins in the body of animals that consume Bt food crops, and cellular damage to mammals from certain Bt toxins produced in transgenic plants.
GM crops are the insidious introduction of poison into food. To pretend that such practice can be healthy for food consumers is absurd. One thing is certain about GM crops: they do nothing to improve yields. Genetic modification has proven a waste of resources as well as a peril.
Ishi Nobu, The Fruits of Civilization, BookBaby (2019).
Mitch Daniels, “A fishy campaign against salmon,” The Washington Post (12 February 2020).