Sunday, November 3, 2013

A lesson in GMOs - be informed!

Until last year I didn't understand what GMOs were - I had heard the acronym before but had no idea what the fuss was all about. My ignorance is EXACTLY what major food manufacturers and bio-tech companies want - for consumers to be in the dark about what is in their food.

Simply stated a genetically modified organism (GMO) is when a seed is manipulated in a laboratory to do something not intended by nature. DNA of one species - including bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or humans - are forced into the DNA of unrelated plants or animals for a desired trait, such as insect resistance, starch content, ripening or resistance to herbicides, viruses, or fungus. This is very different from traditional hybrid seeds that naturally cross two similar species and has safely been used by farmers for hundreds of years. For example, the bio-tech giant Monsanto spliced soil bacteria into corn to create a GMO designed to produce poisonous insecticide in every cell. The insecticide, called Bt-toxin breaks open the stomach of certain insects to kill them. Bt Corn is classified by the EPA as a pesticide and is commonly used as feed for livestock. This is an important concept to understand: Bt toxin is not sprayed on the plant, the plant is genetically altered to produce it in EVERY cell in the plant - it's impossible to wash off. Consumers then eat the eggs and meat from these animals that were fed the pesticide laden Bt corn and it enters their bodies. 

In 2011, doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt-toxin in the blood of 93% of pregnant women tested, Bt in 80% of umbilical blood in tested babies, and in the blood of 67% of non-pregnant women. There have been no long term human studies performed to confirm the safety of Bt corn, but Monsanto swears up and down its safe for human consumption. If Bt genes are indeed capable of transferring into the bacteria colonizing the human digestive tract, scientists believe it could result in:  

  • Gastrointestinal problem
  • Food allergies
  • Childhood learning disorders
  • Autoimmune diseases
Interesting how all of these problems have drastically increased in prevalence in recent years.....

Last month I attended a gardening class at Renfrow's Hardware & General Merchandise lead by owner David Blackley. Renrow's has been a downtown Matthews institution since 1900 and is as down home Americana as you can find - I LOVE this place and they have been a wealth of knowledge in my gardening endeavors. David is an organic farmer and spoke very passionately against GMOs in the class. I decided to interview him because he has a very interesting perspective as a farmer and seed expert, plus I have loads of respect for his opinion. Here is what he said (all of his statements will be in purple):

"Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seeds are seeds that have been developed by bio tech to be used under their direction and under their control forever. Traditionally for the last 10,000 years we've been able to grow things and save our own seeds. At the very least if we had a hybrid seed for some food we wouldn't have to pay any royalties, or you wouldn't have to worry about using pesticides on them. So its a marketing thing. The big companies say it's going to help feed the hungry and it's going to help reduce pesticide use. There are lots of buzz words, but the fact remains that these modified seeds haven't been thoroughly tested enough to know what its doing to animals or humans."
To expand on David's quote about feeding the hungry, GMO farming is not the answer. Sustainable agricultural practices are the answer to world hunger. Farmers who plant GMOs are not able to save their seeds from year to year due to patent infringement and poor fertility in the seeds. Many farmers have been sued by Monsanto (they actually have an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers). So after getting a first year of good harvests, the following year farmers must continue buying seeds which leads to perpetual debt. This has caused enough financial despair in India (the Bt cotton scandal) that an Indian farmer took his own life every 30 minutes (a total of 17,638 in 2009). India is now considering a ten year ban on all GMO crops.
"Most of the modified seed grown goes to animals - cows, pigs, chickens. So we're eating the eggs or meat from those animals and they've eaten the genetically modified corn and soy. But now it's creeping into our diets as well because any high fructose corn syrup, which is in everything is coming from GMO plants. There are basically two kinds. There is one GMO that is for herbicide resistant, so that Roundup and other chemicals can be sprayed on the plant and it kills all other plants, collateral damage so to speak. But it is absorbed into that plant, so it is in what we are consuming. The other type of genetic modification is for insecticide, for insect control. That's the one that seems to be causing problems the most. If the bug spray is basically in the plant then we're consuming that and the consumption of this bacilis BT is causing a lot of problems - reflux, digestive issues. Because in nature BT doesn't persist - you can spray it over a crop, it will kill the worms but it's gone. You can eat the crop the same day - basically it's on the exterior of the plant. But when its bred into the plant, every kernel of corn or every cotton seed that's pressed for oil has that insecticide in it, and that's just not good."

My main concern is the toxicity of GMOs. Are they safe in moderation? How do we know what that threshold of moderation actually is? No long term studies on humans have ever been done and the animal studies are appalling. GMOs have been shown to accelerate aging, cause organ failure, cause tumors, affect unborn babies, affect fertility and weaken the immune system. When fed to hamsters, the 3rd generation were not able to produce babies. I strive to avoid them for my family whenever possible, which is becoming increasingly difficult. 
"The testing for consumers... I'm not satisfied has been done completely. The Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department passes all of this because the big chemical companies say we'll do the testing for you to save you money. Most of the big wigs in the Department of Agriculture and the FDA are former Monsanto employees, so the fox is guarding the hen house."
Monsanto has incestuous ties to the US Government. Despite blatant conflicts of interest, Monsanto executives have held Cabinet, judicial and policy-making positions in the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations. These commissioners, directors and secretaries of these agencies are put in place to grease the wheels for the wealthy bio tech firms - the abuse of power is disgusting. Unfortunately if the FDA, USDA or the EPA approves something now, I view it with more suspicion than acceptance. Something is amiss if they say that radiation and pesticides are acceptable in your food, but raw milk isn't safe for consumption?!

  • Michael Taylor: VP of Monsanto > Deputy Commissioner of the FDA
  • Roger Beachy:  Director of the Danforth Plant Science Center (paid for by Monsanto) >director of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
  • Elena Kagan:  Obama Solicitor General (when she famously took Monsanto’s side against organic farmers in the Roundup Ready Alfalfa case) > US Supreme Court justice.
  • Clarence Thomas:  General Counsel for Monsanto > US Supreme Court justice.
  • Margaret Miller:  Monsanto supervisor > Deputy Director of Human Food Safety
  • Donald Rumsfield: Board of Directors for Monsanto’s Searle Pharmaceuticals > US Secretary of Defense
  • Ann Veneman:  Monsanto Board of Directors > US Secretary of Agriculture
  • Linda Fisher: Assistant Administrator at the EPA >VP of Monsanto > Deputy Administrator of the EPA
  • Dr. Michael A.Friedman: Deputy Commissioner of the FDA > Senior VP of Monsanto
"The way to avoid it is buy organic, grow your own or buy from a farmer's market. In the grocery store you don't know what you're buying unless its labeled organic because the Supreme Court and Congress said we don't need to label because they're scared to because they know what consumers will do. The state of Washington is currently the latest state that is trying to pass GMO labeling. North Carolina is one of them - there are 13 or 14 states. The Europeans require that - if you go to England or to Germany it will tell if it's GMO or not. The rest of the world requires labeling - we'll get to that point..."

There are at least 26 countries that have total or partial bans on GMOs, including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Hungary Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, Mexico. Significant restrictions exist in about sixty other countries. Not included on this list are the United States and Canada where GMOs are embraced by the government - their citizens are denied the basic right to know what's in their food. The Agriculture and Bio-tech industries have spent over $572 million dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying to make sure they don't get labeled. Last year California voted on Proposition 37 to label GMOs, which lost by a tiny margin. On Tuesday, November 5th Washington State will cast their votes for people's initiative 522, "The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act." The opposition has spent over $68 million dollars on these two campaigns in attempts to confuse voters and defeat the bill. General Mills, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey's, ConAgra Foods, Heinz and Campbell Soups were among last year's anti-labeling campaign top contributors and spent millions to prevent labeling. One parent sated in a comment on Cheerio's Facebook page:
"So sorry that the food my kids loved as toddlers is one I can't support anymore. I can't believe that General Mills has the well-being of its customers in mind when it contributes to movement against labeling of GMOs."
Couldn't have said it better. What's frustrating to me is that these same companies already label their products in 64 other countries around the world. The big question stands: Why are they spending so much money to not disclose to the American public what is in their products? Click here for a comprehensive list of products with GMO ingredients - time to clean out your pantry!!
"sugar beets, soy, corn, cotton which you think, oh that doesn't matter but cotton seed oil is in everything. And alfalfa, alfalfa is a new one. Alfalfa is a tremendous amount of feed for cows and now there is no way of knowing. We sell alfalfa meal here as a fertilizer and now we're selling GMO alfalfa, so we're about to quit selling it cause we don't agree with that. Alfalfa is the latest it was approved last summer by the Supreme Court and congress and there is no stopping it. A lot of the yellow crook neck and straight neck squash and zucchini in grocery stores some potatoes, but they've kinda gotten away from that. But when you buy squash out of season at the grocery store its probably GMO and that's only come on the scene in the last couple of years - its got the Bt in it for the worms."
In one form or another GMOs are found in nearly every non-organic item at your grocery store. The most common:
  • Cotton - 94% (cotton seed oil)
  • Soybeans - 93%
  • Sugar - 90% (beet sugar - i.e. refined sugar)
  • Canola - 88%
  • Corn - 88%
  • Papayas (from Hawaii)
  • Dairy (conventional American cow's milk and cheese)
  • Aspartame
  • Zucchini and Yellow Squash
  • Conventional meat (they are fed GM corn and soy)
  • Alfalfa (recently approved by the FDA; widely fed to animals to produce meat and milk)
  • Kentucky Bluegrass (recently approved; widely fed to animals
  • Farmed salmon (slated for approval by the FDA)
Corn and soy are most prevalent ingredients in food processed in the US today - here is a list of corn and corn based products and soy based products. We're not just talking corn on the cob and edamame... 
"Its like cloned animals, we'll be seeing cloned hogs before long. I'm not sure that's the best way either because when you have 1,000 hogs in a hog house and they're all genetically the same the diseases could all run rampant. You could kill off a population in no time and you've got genetically modified animals like this GM salmon being fed GM feed, well nobody has done the research to these salmon that are already super duper "franken-salmon" and you're feeding them "franken-food" whats gonna happen? Now what happens when that salmon escapes into the wild and starts breeding with nature? It's the genie out of the bottle and you can't get it back." 
How I avoid GMOs:
  • We strive to eat "old school" like our Grandparents did - we make the majority of our food using real whole food ingredients. The blog 100 Days of Real Food is an incredible resource for cutting out processed food and has tons of great recipes.
  • Any processed foods are almost guaranteed to have GMO ingredients (especially if made by big name companies like Kraft, General Mills, etc) unless they are organic or have the Non-GMO label. I avoid the middle aisles of the grocery store and avoid processed foods. 
  • All Trader Joe's brand foods are GMO free although they are not labeled Non-GMO. Blogger and food advocate "Food Babe" does not believe this and you can read her thoughts at this link. I however feel liability wise they would not make that claim if it was not true - they have way too much to lose and hopefully I'm not being naive here….. Many companies that claim to be "natural"  have lost millions class action suits because they use GMO ingredients. I was personally duped by Barbara's Naturals cereal - all natural since 1972. I paid a premium for their "Shredded Spoonfuls" and "Puffins" cereal and was very frustrated to learn they use GMO ingredients - I submitted my claim. Anyways, I love Trader Joe's and think they're on a great track of providing healthy choices for consumers. 
  • I shop regularly at our local farmer's market. Any local small farmer will be very anti-GMO.
  • Eat from our own raised bed gardens (what's left after the rabbits have their lunch....)
  • We rarely eat out at restaurants. The Food Babe blog has some great tips on how to avoid GMOs when you eat out. She offers a few questions to ask including: Is your cheese imported? If it's French, you're safe. What oils are used to make your food? Most restaurants use the cheapest, which are soy, corn and canola oils. 
  • I just added the Non-GMO shopping guide app to my phone to help me identify products safe to buy at the grocery store.
For additional information check out these articles:
GMOs not even in moderation
10 myths GMO companies want you to believe
Former "Pro-GMO" scientist speaks out about GMO Dangers
Robyn O'Brien on Kids and Food Allergies from GMOs
Are GMOs killing the bees? 

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