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GMO Truths and Consequences

Health and Safety are Question Marks by Melinda Hemmelgarn


he food industry tells consum- ers that genetically engineered foods

are safe. On uni- versity campuses, agriculture students learn that such ge- netically modified organisms (GMO) are both safe and necessary to feed the world. The Council for Biotechnology Informa- tion, a biotech industry- supported nonprofit, even created a coloring book to

teach children about the many benefits of GMO crops, including improved nutrition.

Most GMO crops have been ge- netically engineered to withstand spray- ing with herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready soybeans, or to pro- duce their own pesticides, such as “Bt” corn and cotton. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, warns us to be leery of simplistic claims that don’t take into account unintended consequences. For example, he points out that, “GMO crops have nothing to do with feeding the world, because almost all geneti- cally engineered crops are corn and soybeans... used to feed livestock in rich countries, or to feed automobiles.” Approximately 40 percent of corn cur-

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rently is used to make ethanol. Freese adds, “They don’t increase yields and they don’t increase nutrition.” But GMO crops have led to a staggering increase in herbicide use, putting both farmers and consumers at greater risk for exposure to these toxins and related dis- eases, accord- ing to the Center for Food Safety.

So the question is: Are GMOs the panacea industry wants us to believe, or are they contributing to chronic disease? Here are three claims commonly heard about GMOs, gener- ally made by the biotechnology indus- try and their funded researchers.

Claim: GMOs are safe.

Fact Check: Little research exists on the long-term effects of consuming GMO foods. According to Douglas Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, safety assessments have left us with significant uncertainties about whether GMO food is safe or not. However, concerns voiced by the Center for Food Safety revolve around potential allergens and toxins from both herbi-

cide and pesticide residues and new genetic material. New research from the Euro- pean Union published in Food and Chemical Toxicology adds to growing concerns about the risks. Researchers discovered that rats fed GMO corn and drinking water containing Roundup herbicide experienced negative health effects during their two-year lifes- pan, including mammary tumors and disabled pituitary function in females, and liver and kidney damage in males. These outcomes were attributed to the endocrine-disrupting effects of Round- up, as well as the genetic makeup of the engineered corn.

What makes this study unique and troubling is that it’s the longest such study period to date. Most stud- ies funded and conducted by industry last just 90 days—not long enough to fully document potential harm. Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior

scientist at Consumer Reports, states in a memo to the American Medi- cal Association’s (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health, “Unlike all other developed countries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for GE [genetically engineered] plants.” Hansen explains, “In addition to

the FDA not requiring any pre-market safety testing, there is virtually no in- dependent safety testing of these crops in the United States, due to intellec- tual property rights. When farmers buy GE seed in the U.S., they invari- ably must sign a product stewardship agreement that forbids them from giv- ing such seeds to researchers.” Plus, “Researchers must get permission from the biotech companies before they can do research, which means there is a paucity of independent research.”

The good news is that last June,

the AMA recommended mandatory pre-market safety testing to better characterize the potential harms of bioengineered foods.

Claim: GMO crops use fewer pesti- cides, and those used are safer than

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