Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's)

I have been reading a lot lately about Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs for short.  According to the Human Genome Project, genetic modification (GM) "is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria.  Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products (current or those in development) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers."

Why would anyone want to genetically modify an organism?  The following is a list of benefits and controversies as described by the Human Genome Project:


  • Crops
    • Enhanced taste and quality
    • Reduced maturation time
    • Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
    • Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides
    • New products and growing techniques
  • Animals
    • Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency
    • Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk
    • Improved animal health and diagnostic methods
  • Environment
    • "Friendly" bioherbicides and bioinsecticides
    • Conservation of soil, water, and energy
    • Bioprocessing for forestry products
    • Better natural waste management
    • More efficient processing
    • Society
    • Increased food security for growing populations


  • Safety
    • Potential human health impacts, including allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects
    • Potential environmental impacts, including: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
  • Access and Intellectual Property
    • Domination of world food production by a few companies
    • Increasing dependence on industrialized nations by developing countries
    • Biopiracy, or foreign exploitation of natural resources
  • Ethics
    • Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
    • Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
    • Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
    • Stress for animal
  • Labeling
    • Not mandatory in some countries (e.g., United States)
    • Mixing GM crops with non-GM products confounds labeling attempts
  • Society
    • New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries

This has become a world-wide issue and the World Health Organization has addressed this topic.  From a global perspective, the aspect of having food with an "increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides" may yield "a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both."  However, there is much that is unknown about the long-term consequences of GMOs.  The WHO conducts a "safety assessment" of GM foods which "generally investigates: (a) direct health effects (toxicity), (b) tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity); (c) specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties; (d) the stability of the inserted gene; (e) nutritional effects associated with genetic modification; and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion."  The WHO's main issues for human health regarding GMOs are:

  • Allergenicity. As a matter of principle, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods is discouraged unless it can be demonstrated that the protein product of the transferred gene is not allergenic. While traditionally developed foods are not generally tested for allergenicity, protocols for tests for GM foods have been evaluated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market.
  • Gene transfer. Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Although the probability of transfer is low, the use of technology without antibiotic resistance genes has been encouraged by a recent FAO/WHO expert panel.
  • Outcrossing. The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as “outcrossing”), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America. Several countries have adopted strategies to reduce mixing, including a clear separation of the fields within which GM crops and conventional crops are grown.

Information about the European Unions' stance of GMOs can be found here.

As far back as 1992, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "published its "Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties" (the 1992 policy) in the Federal Register of May 29, 1992 (57 FR 22984).  The 1992 policy clarified the agency's interpretation of the application of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to human foods and animal feeds derived from new plant varieties and provided guidance to industry on scientific and regulatory issues related to these foods. The 1992 policy applied to all foods derived from all new plant varieties, including varieties that are developed using recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) technology. This site refers to foods derived from plant varieties that are developed using rDNA technology as "bioengineered foods."  It is "recommended that developers consult with FDA about bioengineered foods under development; since issuance of the 1992 policy, developers have routinely done so.  These procedures describe a process in which a developer who intends to commercialize a bioengineered food meets with the agency to identify and discuss relevant safety, nutritional, or other regulatory issues regarding the bioengineered food and then submits to FDA a summary of its scientific and regulatory assessment of the food; FDA evaluates the submission and responds to the developer by letter."

While the FDA "recommends developers consult with the FDA about bioengineered foods under development", the "FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.  Although the 1992 policy does not require special labeling for bioengineered foods, the agency advised in that policy that labeling requirements that apply to foods in general also apply to foods produced using biotechnology."

If the FDA does not require bioengineered food to be labeled and you choose not to eat genetically modified food, how can you be certain that a food was not cultivated using GMO?  If a food is certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture, then it cannot contain any GMO.  "The use of GMOs is prohibited in all ingredients in “organic” and “made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups(s)).” "To be sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)),” the product must not have been produced with "a variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology)."  There is a great blog post written a few days ago (I'm a little behind in the topics I want to cover) by a former staff writer at Gourmet Magazine that has some great tips for avoiding GMOs in your food.  

I have to admit that I am a little torn regarding this issue.  Sure it sounds weird and almost "Frankenstein-like" to think that humans are "engineering" new plant and animal products by manipulating genes.  However, at the same time, I understand the important advances that have been made using bioengineering.  Especially in areas where there is poor soil or other conditions affecting crop yield, it has been beneficial.  It has also been beneficial in medicine where vaccines and medications used to treat diseases such as autoimmune diseases and cancer have been developed through biotechnology.  Until more information is available about the long-term safety regarding GMOs, I cannot say with absolute certainty that I am completely against it.  However, I do think that consumers need to be given the tools to make informed decisions about these products through mandatory labeling requirements.  I do not think its fair that consumers are not given a choice to avoid GMOs if they are unaware that a product even contains GMOs.  I think the FDA needs to step in and make it mandatory for manufacturers to indicate that a product has a GMO in it.

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