Good Meal Options? – Toni Cummings
I’m guest blogging again, this time with a slight twist to the idea of healthy Good Meal Options. To be and stay healthy, I think we’d all agree that one vitally important component is the food we consume. After all, eating a fresh mostly raw plant-based diet is how we optimally fuel our physical bodies and feed them the nutrients they need to stay in good health. However, since the late 1990’s and growing at an alarming rate, there has been a “silent invader” infiltrating the fresh produce found in our supermarkets. It seems that not all produce is equal even though it may ‘appear’ to be the same. You may be thinking, “Yes, I know about organic versus non-organic produce.” But this article isn’t about eating organic fruits and veggies or not, although that issue is related and one that demands our vigilant attention as well.
Granted, my article title is somewhat misleading, but I wanted to draw your attention to three letters – G M O. Maybe you’ve heard about the great GMO debate or maybe this is foreign to you. So before proceeding, I need to clarify exactly what GMO means…Genetically Modified Organisms. “Wait a minute,” you may say, “that sounds rather serious! If a food item’s genes are being changed, isn’t that messing with Mother Nature?” You bet it is!
To understand genetic modification better, we need to first be aware that the altering of Mother Nature is not anything new. In one sense, any change in an organism’s genes could technically be considered “genetic modification.” For thousands of years, farmers had been changing the genetic makeup of crops through domestication of wild seed varieties. Along came Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, who in his 1865 paper explained dominant and recessive forms of genes. However, it took awhile for his ‘novel’ ideas to be accepted; therefore, it was not until the twentieth century that a major change in plant breeding methods occurred.
Since the mid-1900’s, we have had, at our disposal, hybrids of basically all plant seeds. Through the use of controlled artificial self-pollination followed by cross-pollination, plant breeders create desirable “mutants” between plants of the same species as well as between two species within the same genus. Though uncommon, there have been crosses between members of two different genera. Certain traits are selected for improving plant quality such as size, growth rate, and taste. The “offspring” from these seeds are most often disease resistant and heartier than their original parent plants.
Consequences of Alterations
Now logically speaking, that’s a great improvement, wouldn’t you agree? But do you know that if you wanted to grow that same plant the following season, you cannot save the seeds from the hybrid produce and expect to get the same hybrid plant? For lack of a more simple way to say it, the seeds from hybrid plants are not ‘pure.’ They cannot replicate themselves. Slowly the pool of unadulterated seeds capable of reproducing their own kind has been dwindling. Even though the original intent suggests a noble purpose, we must be aware that there are often unintended outcomes.
When you take time to consider it, the ‘control’ of just which seeds will be available for gardeners and farmers to use lies in the hands of the seed producers. If you are using any type of “altered” seeds, you no longer have the capability of raising plants the following year from seeds saved from the plants you grow this year. You must rely on the seed companies to provide you with the hybrid seeds they sell. Now don’t get me wrong; these hybrid plants are good, and I use them all the time in my garden. However, the fact still remains that many plant varieties have and may continue to become extinct. Thankfully, there are seed companies dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds for posterity. Check out Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at www.rareseeds.com for one company of this ilk. I try to only use organic seed varieties whenever starting a plant from seed.
A New Breed
So why have I taken the time to give you a refresher course in Biology 101? How is an understanding of the consequences of producing “abnormal” plants important to understanding what is now referred to as GMO’s? The truth is that the formulation of hybrid seeds is NOT the same as creating a “transgenic plant”, which is another name for a genetically modified organism. Transgenic technology enables “crosses” that go beyond the normal crossing of sets of genes. Genes for this use do not come from the same species or genera. In fact, only one or a few genes (instead of the complete set of genes) from an entirely different organism are transferred to a recipient plant. How, you might ask, can this be accomplished? Simple (well, not really)…through the alteration of the recipient plant’s DNA by “insertion” of a donor plant’s DNA through its cloned desirable gene. That particular gene is said to be “designed” since it must undergo several modifications before it can be inserted into the recipient plant. It becomes what is known as a “constructed transgene.” http://cls.casa.colostate.edu/transgeniccrops/how.html.
You can imagine that placing one or two cloned and modified genes from a donor organism into a completely different organism thus changing its DNA is no simple task. We’re talking major test tube work here! Until the introduction of transgenics, any plant gene modification by man was simply accomplished by learning from and artificially replicating the instinctive pollinating role of the birds and bees. But now, we have “plants and animals that have had their DNA modified in a lab.” http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/05/01/say-no-to-gmos-how-to-change-the-way-we-eat.
A Bit of History
How did the technology for developing GMO’s occur? During the early 1980’s, four groups of scientists working independently each announced they had successfully modified plant DNA. Three of the groups publicized their “breakthrough” as placing bacterial genes into plants. The fourth group “had inserted a bean gene into a sunflower plant.” http://cls.casa.colostate.edu/trangeniccrops/history.html. One of those four groups was the now infamous Monsanto Corporation.
Earlier in 1970 and working for Monsanto Agriculture Company, Dr. John Franz produced N-(Phosphonomethyl) glycine (glyphosate) as a herbicide for use in agricultural weed management. By 1974, Roundup brand (one trade name for glyphosate) herbicide products were sold for use in Malaysia and the United Kingdom; that same year the product was registered for industrial use in the United States. Two years later, in 1976, the Roundup herbicide gained agricultural use in this country. In 1978, Monsanto started a molecular biology program for research in agriculture, and after their above mentioned discovery in 1983, this same company tested their first transgenic (genetically modified) plants in fields in 1987, a mere four years later. http://www.monsanto.com/weedmanagement/Pages/highlights-throughout-the-years.aspx
Why Transgenic Plants?
Biotech companies tout numerous benefits of these transgenic plants. For example, Monsanto, known as a sustainable agriculture company, claims that it is all about farmers. Its purpose is “to help them meet the needs of a growing population.” Their company online website says they are working to reduce the land, water, and energy needed to grow crops; they plan to produce and conserve more so as to improve the lives of everyone. With their improved agricultural technology, they claim to be increasing crop yields to help feed the world’s population of starving. What could be a more noble ambition? With the use of genetically modified crops, the world will be able to sustain its ever-increasing numbers of people, right?
In addition, biotech companies say they have created GMO’s for other reasons beyond just increasing yields so that the world’s growing population can be fed. The list includes making plants with greater resistance to weed killers and insects, decreasing the overall amount of agricultural herbicides used, reducing pesticide use, and enabling a longer shelf life for food products. In addition, farmers will realize maximum profit opportunities, time efficiency, and convenience from worry-free crop production. For some of these proposed benefits, the exact opposite has proven true.
Monsanto’s Roundup Ready System
It is most interesting to note that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready System views their Roundup brand products (begun in 1974) as the “perfect fit” for use on their Roundup Ready crops (begun in 1987). To quote their site, “Herbicides are key products used in conservation tillage (or no-till) farming, which leaves the soil undisturbed between cropping seasons – therefore being a major force in reducing soil lost to wind and water erosion.”
Let’s make sure we understand this “system”:
*Step 1 – “Plant OUR Roundup Ready transgenic seeds, which are resistant to OUR (earlier made) Roundup brand weed killers.
*Step 2 – Spray OUR Roundup products on the plants to kill the weeds but not the crop.
*Step 3 – After harvesting (between one growing season and the next), DO NOT till the soil to let it lay fallow (rest) for the next season. INSTEAD spray OUR Roundup products on the field stubble weeds. This no-till method conserves soil that might otherwise be lost from wind and rainwater wearing it away.
*Step 4 – Plant OUR Roundup Ready transgenic seeds the next season. Repeat Steps 2 & 3.
You be the judge, but I think we just discovered yet another reason for genetically modified crops!
So this is HOW Monsanto expects to reach all of their lofty goals. Their transgenic plants contain a bacterial gene that makes them resistant to herbicides. Growing crops can be sprayed with weed killers without doing any harm to the plants; however, the weeds are quite nicely eradicated…along with anything else in the ecosystem that cannot withstand the effects of the herbicide. Since the inception of these herbicide resistant plants, strains of “superweeds” have been popping up in fields. This gradual development of weeds that defy weed poisons is referred to as “herbicide selection pressure.” What’s Monsanto’s answer to this unwelcome challenge? Use more or different kinds of herbicides! They also concede that crop rotation and tilling (organic farming practices) do help to manage weeds, but both of these suggestions are contradictory to their “system.”
Besides “superweeds”, there are dozens of other risks involved with the use of GMO’s. These worries fall into broader categories: damage to human health, damage to the natural environment, and the disruption of conventional and traditional farming practices in developed and less developed countries.
Damage to Human Health
At this point, it is still not certain if or how genetic changes may affect the health of people. In the process of changing a plant’s DNA, certain vital nutrients may have been removed or lost from a plant. In independent rodent studies, rats that were fed GMO foods had smaller organs, compromised immunity, and deteriorated liver function. According to Chinese scientists, humans who ate genetically modified rice, had small pieces of rice RNA in their blood and organs. Mice that were fed GM soy had altered digestive enzymes. Other animal studies have shown a connection between GMO’s and reproductive problems as well as infant mortality.
Allergic response to GMO’s has become yet another issue. During the 1990’s, when the Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company wanted to make soybeans more nutritious, it did so by adding a gene from Brazil nuts. After the addition, however, studies concluded that consuming this “new breed” of soy might prompt anaphylaxis and other allergic reactions in people who had a Brazil nut allergy; the plan was abandoned. To a host of other issues such as “antibiotic resistance genes” and “foreign DNA” in transgenic plants, promoters of biotechnology argue that risk is low or that so far there is no concrete evidence that these organisms are dangerous to humans.
It has been less than twenty years since the public has consumed produce from transgenic plants. Perhaps you are not even aware that many processed foods as well as fresh produce in your supermarket contain or are GMO’s! “According to the USDA Economic Research Service, in 2011 approximately 81 to 86 percent of all of the planted acres of corn in the country were genetically modified, as well as 87 to 90 percent of all soybean planted acres.” http://kimberlysnyder.net/blog/2012/05/05/the-scary-truth-about-genetically-modified-foods-and-what-you-should-do/. Studies at the University of Florida have concluded that in American food stores 60 to 70 percent of consumables contain genetically modified ingredients. Unbelievable! Biotech companies claim that they have conducted a considerable amount of research testing to ensure the safety of their products, but has there been enough time to determine the long-term effects of consuming GMO’s? From just what we’ve learned so far, there is bound to be more herbicides in foods as well as higher levels of allergens.
Damage to the Natural Environment
Our environment comes with animal/insect varieties to prevent one species from dominating another. It’s a delicately balanced system. However, we are now seeing a worldwide destruction of frogs, which naturally control insect populations; this decline has been linked to the use of Roundup. Research done in 1997 at The Scottish Crop Research Institute found that ladybugs who were fed aphids that had eaten GM potatoes, laid fewer eggs and only lived half as long. One variety of Biotech corn produces pollen that is toxic to Monarch butterfly larvae; with fewer butterflies to pollinate, food sources and ecosystems will be in jeopardy.
Disruption of Current Farming Practices
As if damage to our health and environment are not enough, farmers wishing to grow conventional or organic crops are finding they have a battle on their hands. In the past several years, seed companies have been increasingly turning to GM seed varieties because that’s what the corporate farms want; they, of course, buy the most seed products. The small farmer is finding it harder to purchase non-GMO seeds, and they also have fewer varieties from which to choose. Another major concern is that if a neighbor plants GM seed varieties, how can the crop-to-crop gene flow be controlled? Wind and insects will most likely carry the pollen from GM plants into a non-GMO field. Who is liable? How can the “purity” of our food supply be protected? When farming gets too BIG, then shortcuts that overwork the land to increase profit margins become the rule of the day!
What To Do
*Support your local farmer’s markets and be sure to ask if their produce is GMO free.
*Buy organic whenever possible; any GMO produce will be laced with herbicides/pesticides.
*Encourage organic farmers to keep practicing the tried-and-true methods of husbandry.
*Support programs that give small farmers in developed and underdeveloped countries the means to grow their own non-GMO crops.
*Grow your own garden and be sure to read seed/plant labels.
*Do your own research; be informed and spread the word.
*Support the labeling of GM products and produce in food stores.
*Contact your congressmen to let them know your stand on GMO’s. Ask why organic is so expensive and encourage laws to change that.
*Get involved in activities supporting non-GMO crops. If possible, join the March Against Monsanto tomorrow, May 24th.
Let’s KEEP the GOOD in Meal Options. Let’s NOT have Gardening (and farming) Manipulation Overkill! Just because “we can” doesn’t mean “we should!”
The Organic and Non-GMO Report. March 2013, Issue #131, pp. 5-6.