Ancient Rice in a Modern World: Biopiracy and Bioengineering

by Michele McKay

In the course of 8,000 years, innovative Asian farmers have bred over 10,000 varieties of rice, each suited to different growing conditions and tastes. Today, centuries-old practices of traditional rice cultivation are threatened by corporate financial interests and technologies known as "biopiracy" and "bioengineering."

Biopiracy

Basmati rice, bred into many strains over thousands of years by Indian and Pakistani growers, is prized in the world market for its quality and fragrance. Approximately 80 percent of India’s Basmati rice is grown for export, and thousands of farmers depend on it for their livelihoods. In 1997 the Texas-based corporation RiceTec, Inc., was granted a U.S. patent on the name Basmati, giving it commercial ownership of the name for rice seed, rice plants, and rice grain. This case of “biopiracy” raised global outrage, as Indian rice growers and exporters would have to pay royalties to RiceTec if they sold their traditional product under the familiar Basmati name. International organizations launched a challenge to the patent, and in 2001 their effort was successful. In addition to forcing RiceTec to drop its Basmati venture, the campaign raised awareness and understanding about biopiracy and the issues associated with patenting living organisms.

Bioengineering

Although the Basmati patent was struck down, biotech giants Monsanto, Syngenta, and others are moving forward with genetic research and are patenting “bioengineered” rice. One controversial example is Golden Rice, a genetically modified organism (GMO) created by adding genetic material from flowers and bacteria to the DNA of rice. The resulting rice grain contains vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, and is touted as a solution to childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Scientists and activists who are opposed to the GMO-related corporate control of agriculture argue that vitamin A deficiency in developing countries is not caused by deficiencies in crops themselves, but by the loss of diverse sources of food. Golden Rice provides only a minimum percentage of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A, while a varied diet including leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, and fruit would provide families with plenty of vitamin A. If the money spent on developing Golden Rice could be spent instead on distributing seed for safe, naturally vitamin A-rich crops, a serious health issue would be addressed, while fostering biodiversity and sustainable traditional agriculture.

What you can do:

  • Vote with your dollars by purchasing GMO-free products.
  • Visit www.gefoodalert.org for information on global biopiracy and bioengineering issues.
Footnotes: 

Visit www.higean.org for information on GMO-related cultural and agricultural issues in Hawaii.

GMOs: Risky Business

by Michele McKay

Food labeling laws have come a long way. For the benefit of the consumer, requiring identification of allergens and trans-fats is now mandated by the law. However, biotechnology, the process of genetic engineering that creates genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is a rapidly growing and potentially dangerous technology that has no labeling requirements. Today, many commercial crops are genetically engineered, with soybeans, corn, and canola at the top of the list. The only way to avoid them is to purchase products labeled “organic” or “Non-GMO.”

GMOs are the result of splicing genetic material from any living organism (including bacteria and viruses) into the genetic material of another living organism. Genetic engineering is not the same as traditional breeding since the organisms used can be completely unrelated to each other. Genetically engineered foods have the potential to create allergens, toxins, health problems, or changes in the nutritional value of foods. Yet no studies have monitored their impacts on people, and the lack of labeling makes health effects difficult to determine. In addition, it is impossible to contain genetic material in open-field tests, risking permanent damage to other species or to entire ecosystems.

Here in Hawai'i, there are many controversial issues surrounding GMOs, including open-field testing of experimental corn, the widespread contamination of papaya crops with genetically engineered seed, and the patenting of genetically engineered taro.

What you can do

  • Educate yourself. Visit the GMO-free Hawai'i website: www.hijean.org and its links for information on health and economic impacts of GMOs in Hawai'i.
  • Join a GMO-free group on your island.
  • Call or write to elected officials. Tell them you support labeling requirements and a moratorium or ban on biotech farming in Hawai'i.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspapers to help inform others.
Footnotes: 

Avoid genetically engineered foods by buying organic and “GMO-free” products. If you love papayas, rest assured that the Down to Earth stores carry only certified non-GMO varieties.

Down to Earth to Require GMO Labeling by 2018

All Products Containing Genetically Modified Ingredients Will
Need to Be Labeled As Such

Down to Earth Organic & Natural today announced it will begin requiring any products with ingredients containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such by 2018. The decision follows a similar announcement by Whole Foods this past Friday.

"Whole Foods announcement is a game changer," says Mark Fergusson, Down to Earth Chief Organic Officer. "It marks a big victory in the move towards the labeling of genetically labeled foods. Down to Earth will monitor and review the situation and may move our implementation date earlier if that becomes possible."

Fergusson says Down to Earth believes in providing foods that are good for people and the environment. "GMOs pose health and environmental risks, and have resulted in increased herbicide use, growth of super-weeds, and loss of biodiversity. GMOs have led to increased control over the food supply by a handful of multinational companies and, simply put, are moving in the wrong direction. We should be moving towards organic sustainable agriculture, not towards ever increasing use of harmful pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, and dangerous genetic modifications with a host of unwanted, and little understood, negative impacts on human health and the environment” he explains.

"We call upon all natural food retailers and other natural products industry members to join the requirement for GMO labeling for all products sold by the industry. Acting together we can implement labeling without having to wait for government," said Fergusson.

As Down to Earth moves towards its long term goal of being all organic and GMO free, the company is gradually eliminating, and avoiding adding, products that may contain GMOs. The company does not sell single-ingredient GMO foods including, papaya, corn, soy, canola or sugar. And, they give preference to products that are USDA certified Organic or have the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, which is which is backed by independent testing. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit initiative of the natural products industry.

"The natural products industry along with many concerned consumers and others, have long pressed for and supported efforts to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs," adds Fergusson.

Proposition 37, which was introduced in California this past November, would have required mandatory labeling of GMO foods. While it failed to pass by a narrow margin, it sparked a growing movement across the Nation as consumers in virtually every state are organizing to pass laws on the state level that will require labeling of foods containing GMOs, including in Hawaii where HB174 would require labeling of genetically modified imported produce items.

Fergusson is also the President of HOFA (Hawaii Organic Farming Association) which advocates for and educates about organic and sustainable agriculture and related issues.

Started in Maui in 1977, Down to Earth is Hawaii's leading organic and natural food store chain. It has four stores on Oahu: Honolulu, Kailua, Pearlridge, and Kapolei; and one in Kahului on Maui.

Organic Food: Good for You and the Environment

by Tandis Bishop

When we think about consuming the freshest and healthiest food possible, it is important to consider two questions. One – what makes organic food natural? And the other – what impact do your shopping choices have on the environment?

On Organic food

If you’re reading this article, you are probably someone who wants to become more health conscious and to make healthier choices in your eating habits and lifestyle. You are likely to be interested in foods containing as little chemicals, preservatives, additives, or pesticides as possible. And certainly you would prefer eating foods that are not irradiated or genetically modified. In general, you want to eat food that is by nature’s arrangement, all natural.

Organic food gives you all the things you are looking for, grown naturally the way nature intended it. When you buy organic foods, you don’t have to worry because organic farmers follow strict standards to grow the most natural fruits and vegetables. They don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, irradiation, or any genetically modified organisms. Just look for the “USDA/Organic” label, and you can be confident that stringent guidelines have been followed to bring you that wholesome natural product. Down to Earth is proud to offer you an enormous selection of such organic products.

On the Environment

Along with this awareness of wanting to eat healthy foods usually comes a concern for how we treat the environment. As we become more educated about how conventional farming methods destroy top soil and pollute our waters, etc., it is only natural to want to buy food that has been grown by sustainable agricultural methods that avoid the unnecessary pollution caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Genetically Modified Organisms are another concern. Through scientific intervention to “improve” crops, mankind has potentially opened a Pandora’s box by messing around with Mother Nature. The long-term damages caused by these biological experiments could be irreversible. While government agencies argue they are perfectly safe, the jury is still out. One example of the damage that can be done by “arranging” nature is when people brought mongooses to Hawaii to get rid of the rats. It did not work, we still have plenty of rats, and now, unfortunately, there are not as many native birds.

The Easy Answer

If you want to eat healthy and/or help the environment, choose Organic foods.

Ways to Avoid Genetically Modified Food

GMO: Genetically Modified

by Tandis Bishop

Much of the food in the supermarket today is made with genetically modified ingredients or GMOs. As a consumer you can avoid GM food in several ways:

  1. Buy foods labeled “100% Organic.” U.S. law prohibits genetically engineered food or ingredients in products labeled 100% organic. However, if processed or packaged food is simply labeled “organic” then it can contain up to 30% genetically modified (GM) food. “Organic” is fine for single food items such as produce.
  2. Look for "Non-GMO Project Verified” label on product packaging. Down to Earth strongly promotes the organic industry, whose products are produced without GMOs. Until recently, selecting foods labeled Organic has been the only way customers could avoid non-GMO foods. However, organic certification covers how a food is grown, not the content of the food itself. And, since food production has become increasingly compromised by cross pollination and cross contamination in processing and handling, even organic certification does not guarantee that a product is GMO free.
    If a non-organic product contains corn, soy, canola oil, or even sugar (as a significant amount of sugar is now produced from GMO sugar beets) it may contain GMOs unless the manufacturer makes a specific claim that their product is GMO free. However, even if a manufacturer makes such a claim there is no way to know whether such claims are actually valid because they generally are not backed by third-party testing or adherence to independent standards of transportation and processing, etc.
    The natural products industry, along with many concerned consumers and others, have long pressed for and supported efforts to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. Consumers have repeatedly stated they do not want GMOs in their foods. If such products were labeled, their sales would likely plummet resulting in their economic failure. Sadly, for various reasons, mandatory labeling efforts have not succeeded.
    As a result of these issues Down to Earth, along with the natural products industry, has strongly supported the Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project provides manufacturers with a "Non-GMO Project Verified" logo backed by independent testing. The “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo means that GMO contamination has been avoided throughout the growth and harvesting of crops, their processing, storage and packaging. Over 1,000 products have been verified to date, with thousands more in the process.
    As manufacturers begin to include the “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo on their packaging, you will see more and more of the verified products on Down to Earth's shelves. Consumers have the right to choose what foods to eat and feed their families. This Non-GMO logo enables consumers to exercise this right!
    For more information visit The Non-GMO Project
  3. Eat locally grown food. Since most genetically engineered food comes from large industrial farms, you are more likely to find non-GMO food grown by small local farms. You can also contact your local farmers and ask them directly about how the food is grown.
  4. Identify how produce is grown by reading its label or sticker number.
    • 4-digit number means food was conventionally grown.
    • 5-digit number that begins with a 9 means produce is organic.
    • 5-digit number that begins with an 8 means it is genetically modified. (PLU labeling is optional so not all genetically modified produce can be identified)
  5. Know which foods and their derivatives are most likely genetically engineered. Such as:
    • Soybeans and soy products such as soy lecithin, soy protein, isolated soy, soy flour, etc. Soy is the most heavily modified food and is also commonly used as an additive. So in the U.S., if your label says it contains soy, then it contains GMO. If you consume soy products such as tofu or soymilk, make sure the labeling states that the tofu or soy beans are organic. You will find that many of the soy products at Down to Earth are organic.
    • Corn and corn-based products. Corn is also a heavily modified food (with the exception of popcorn). Best to look for products that say “100% organic.” Corn derivatives include corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup, modified food/corn starch, corn oil, etc.
    • Canola oil. Virtually all canola oil (or rapeseed oil) grown in the world (except in the EU) is from genetically engineered crops.
    • Dairy products. Many dairy farms give cows the genetically modified growth hormone rBGH or rBST to increase milk production. Look for dairy products labeled as r-BGH/rBST-free. Better yet, buy organic milk and dairy products to also avoid GMOs and pesticides.
    • Sugar beets. Product labels containing “sugar” can be from either cane sugar or sugar beets. So to avoid beet sugar, look for products with ingredients that say evaporated cane sugar, organic sugar or cane sugar.
    • Aspartame. Aside from being an unnatural, unhealthy artificial sweetener, it is made from GMOs. Aspartame is found in products such as “Equal”, “NutraSweet,” sugar-free gum, and diet sodas and beverages.

Down to Earth Named Top 10 “Right-to-Know Grocer”

Our GMO Labeling Efforts Are Among Best in Southwest Region, Says Organic Consumers Association.

Down to Earth was named among the Top 10 “Right-to-Know Grocers” in the Southwest Region by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Nominations were submitted by customers and friends of Down to Earth. Thanks to all who helped to support us in this campaign!

“Currently, people don’t have a choice," says Mark Fergusson, Down to Earth Chief Organic Officer (CEO/CFO). "They don’t know whether what they are buying is GMO. So, it’s really a right-to-know issue and also a freedom-of-choice issue. Down to Earth and the Organic industry feel that GMO agriculture is totally moving in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t be putting more and more poisons on the land and genetically modifying crops. We should be growing organically and sustainably.”

“We’re honored by OCA’s recognition of our call to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and our efforts to educate the community about the right to know,” said Mark Fergusson, Down to Earth Chief Organic Officer (CEO/CFO). Ronnie Cummins, OCA National Director, noted that “As demand grows for organic and locally grown non-GMO foods and truth in labeling, hundreds of food retailers are rising to the occasion. The OCA recognizes the efforts stores like Down to Earth are making.” Down to Earth proactively advocates GMO labeling through a wide variety of efforts. Mark Fergusson, Down to Earth Chief Organic Officer (CEO/CFO), regularly:

  • Submits written and in-person testimony at the legislature in support of GMO labeling
  • Speaks at community educational panel discussions on Oahu and Maui in support of GMO labeling
  • Represents the consumer's right to know on TV and radio shows such as the GMO debates earlier this year on PBS TV "Insight," KGU-AM with Jeff Davis "The Solar Guy," and Hawaii Public Radio's news with Molly Solomon, among others.

Trisha "Mama T" Gonsalves, Down to Earth Community Coordinator, advocates for GMO labeling through legislative testimony and community presentations. She represents Down to Earth on the organizing committee of Label It Hawaii (LIH), a grass roots community organization dedicated to promoting GMO labeling. Down to Earth is an LIH founding member. Down to Earth also provides GMO education online via our website and Facebook:

The OCA also recognized Down to Earth for its efforts in encouraging food manufacturers to transition from GMO to non-GMO ingredients, for our commitment to eliminate all foods containing GMOs from our store and to not add any new GMO foods. Down to Earth will require GMO labeling by 2018 for all products in its stores containing GMO ingredients.

Non-GMO Products on SALE – Celebrating your right to know!

by Tandis Bishop

Down to Earth is celebrating Non-GMO Month by putting a wide variety of non-GMO products on sale from Thursday, October 10th through Wednesday, November 13th. Customers can see which items are on sale by viewing our Super Saver Flyer Deals online. The flyer is also distributed in our stores. Look for these special signs featuring the Non-GMO Seal. 


Food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the result of a laboratory process where genes are taken from one species and inserted into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. GMOs are also known as genetically engineered-, bio-engineered-, biotech crops, or transgenic organisms.


As consumer awareness has drastically grown over the past few years about the unknown health and environmental hazards from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), so has the demand for non-GMO food products and consumers’ demand to label GMO food.


GMOs Stir Uproar in Hawaii


Worldwide the concern about GMOs continues to rise. Not only is there concern about uncertain health effects of consuming GMOS, but there is also the concern about the chemical farming practices that are harmful to humans and the environment. Here in Hawaii, with five of the largest chemical biotech companies using thousands of acres as GMO test fields, local residents' objection to their use of pesticides has made national headlines. Just this week Kauai County Council has passed Bill 2491 that will set up buffer zones around housing communities, schools, medical facilities, public roadways and water facilities. It will also require mandatory disclosure of any use of more than 15 gallons of restricted pesticides annually. The Big Island of Hawaii is also very close to passing Bill 113 that will actually be a GMO ban on any new GMO crops or testing fields. GMO papaya and corn that already exists on the island will continued to be allowed. The Bill passed its first reading 10/16/13 with a vote 6 in favor to 2 no votes. The second reading will be in early November.


States Continue Introducing GMO Labeling Bills


The uproar of consumer demand has been growing for some time. In March of 2012, a petition with over one million signatures demanding labeling of GMOs was delivered to the FDA, and the list of supporters has only continued to grow. In fall of 2012, Kaiser Permanente published an article in one of their newsletters advising consumers to reduce their exposure to GMO foods.1 And in November 2012, nearly half of California voters voted in favor of Proposition 37, which called for mandatory GMO labeling. This was an overwhelming turnout despite the $45 million spent by GMO companies to fight Prop 37. The ads depicted farmers, politicians, and scientists claiming GMO labeling would be detrimental to business, confusing and costly to consumers, and counterproductive to research. Although the measure did not pass, it raised unprecedented awareness, and 30 other states are now working on mandatory labeling initiatives.2 Washington State now waits in the balance with GMO Labeling Bill I-522. Biotech companies are doing exactly what they did in California to defeat this Bill by pouring millions of dollars into opposing propaganda. November 4th all eyes will be on Washington as we wait to see if the peoples' right to know prevails.


Introduced in 1996, the genetic engineering of plants and animals today looms as one of the greatest and most intractable environmental and health challenges of the 21st Century. With promises of making more and supposedly “better” food, this new technology has invaded our farmlands, grocery stores, and our kitchen pantries by fundamentally altering some of our most important staple food crops.


As of 2011, 88% of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 94% of soy, 95% of sugar beets, 90% of canola oil, 90% of cotton, and about 80% of Hawaiian papaya.3 Everything including bread, cereal, frozen pizza, soup, soda – all sorts of processed foods – now contain genetically engineered ingredients. Dairy products from cows treated with a genetically modified hormone, rBGH, are also a common source of GMOs. Because there are no laws mandating that these ingredients must be labeled as genetically modified, many consumers are purchasing and eating genetically modified ingredients without knowing it.


Mexico Bans GMOs Outright


The government and GMO industry claim that GMO crops are safe for human consumption and the environment. According to them we don’t need to know, so no labeling is required. The FDA has rejected labeling of GMO foods since their commercialization in 1992. By contrast, labeling is required in countries including the 27 member nations of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Brazil, and China. Some countries have even banned GMOs outright. Mexico is the latest to announce a ban on GMO corn. Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo, of Mexico City ordered a mandatory ban on 10/15/13, effective immediately. Judge Verdugo states that the corn posed, “the risk of imminent harm to the environment”.


Today, never have there been more biochemists, biologists, agriculturalists, environmentalists, physicians, dietitians, and even genetic engineering researchers speaking out about the potential adverse health effects and environmental harm associated with the genetic engineering of our food supply – and our right to know. Down to Earth joins the call for GMO labeling so that, if we want, we can choose not to eat GMOs. Our right to know what is in the food we are buying and our right to choose our preferred food should not be usurped for any reason. And so, in celebration of Non-GMO Month, we want you to take advantage of your “right to know” by offering savings on Non-GMO Verified products!

Footnotes: 
  1. Prevention. Kaiser Permanente Highlights Risks of Genetically Modified Foods. November 2012. http://blogs.prevention.com/inspired-bites/2012/11/29/kaiser-permanente-...
  2. Forbes. GMO Labeling Proponents Look to Farm Bill. November 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/11/13/with-california-pro...
  3. USDA Economic Research Service, "Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S."

Become A GMO-Conscious Shopper

Photo: Woman Reading Ingredients in Grocery Aisle

by Manjari Fergusson

With the risks of eating genetically modified food so uncertain, many Americans wisely try to avoid consuming GMOs as much as possible.


Unfortunately, genetically modified food is not required to be labeled. Therefore, it can be hard to know if what you buy is genetically modified or not.


Luckily, there are ways to avoid GMOs. The following is a guide on how to be a smart, GMO-aware shopper.


  1. Buy Organic. Foods with the Organic seal certify that GMOs were not used in production.
  2. Buy foods with the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal issued by the Non-GMO Project.1 Down to Earth and the natural food industry are very strong supporters of this initiative. Through independent, third party testing, the Seal verifies that products are made according to a rigorous standard for avoiding GMOs. There is no way to say something is completely free of GMO contamination due to testing limitations, however the Non-GMO Project uses a 0.9% “Action Threshold”, which was made based on European Union laws where products containing more than 0.9% GMO are labeled as such.
  3. Stay away from known foods made from GM crops. These include:
    • Corn and corn-derived products such as corn flour, corn meal, corn oil, corn starch, gluten, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose and glucose.
    • Soy and soy-derived products including soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate and isoflavone, vegetable oil and protein.
    • Canola oil
    • Cottonseed oil
    • Rainbow papaya
    • Sugar beets. When sugar is listed as an ingredient it is either coming from sugar beets or cane sugar. To avoid GM sugar beets, consume products that say organic sugar, cane sugar or evaporated cane sugar.
    • Avoid aspartame, the artificial sweetener that is derived from GM microorganisms.
  4. Stick to locally grown foods. Most GM foods are grown on large, industrial farms. In buying local produce at Down to Earth or your local farmers' market, you are more likely to avoid GM crops.
  5. Check labels on dairy products. Many dairy cows are given the GM growth hormone rBGH or rBST to enhance milk production. Look for dairy products labeled as r-BGH/rBST-free. Buy organic milk and dairy products.
  6. Use whole foods as much as possible and try to grow your own. These days it is much easier to buy packaged food products, but Americans are paying for that in increased health problems. By incorporating more whole foods into your diet it is easier to avoid GM foods and it is also healthier.
Footnotes: 
  1. Non-GMO Project, ‘The ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ Seal,” 2012. http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/understanding-our-seal/ (Accessed 10-08-12).

GMO Labeling: The Right to Choose

Photo: GMO Corn with Syringe

by Tandis Bishop, DTE Nutritionist

When it comes to food science, I often think of what food will be like in twenty, fifty or even a hundred years. I wonder about the quality of food available for my children, future grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I question whether that food is going to be good for their health or not. And at the very least, if they will have the right to know what is in the food they consume.

Like me, many people are also raising questions and concerns about the quality of our food today, in particular Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Today, the majority of the foods found on supermarket shelves are not only highly processed and laden with artificial ingredients, but are often genetically modified. GMOs are essentially plants and animals that have had their genetic material (DNA) altered in a way that does not occur naturally. GMOs are created using processes that do not occur naturally, which poses questions about their safety, and their introduction into the environment is irreversible.

Over the years some people, including those in the scientific community, have raised concern over GMOs and their potential harm to health. Concerns such as:

  • Genetically engineered crops could bring (and some scientists believe they have already brought) new allergens into foods that sensitive individuals would not know to avoid.
  • Genetic engineering often uses genes for antibiotic resistance as "selectable markers." The presence of antibiotic-resistance genes in foods could have two harmful effects. First, eating these foods could reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight disease when these antibiotics are taken with meals. Second, the resistance genes could be transferred to human or animal pathogens, making them impervious to antibiotics.
  • Many organisms have the ability to produce toxic substances. For plants, such substances help to defend stationary organisms from the many predators in their environment. Addition of new genetic material through genetic engineering could reactivate these inactive pathways or otherwise increase the levels of toxic substances within the plants.
  • Some of the new genes being added to crops can remove heavy metals like mercury from the soil and concentrate them in the plant tissue.
  • GMOs’ unknown harm to health. As with any new technology, the full set of risks associated with genetic engineering have almost certainly not been identified. The ability to imagine what might go wrong with a technology is limited by the currently incomplete understanding of physiology, genetics, and nutrition.


As concerns about food safety and GMOs intensify, Down to Earth has joined the Non-GMO Project to give consumers the right to choose what foods to eat and feed their families. Whether or not GMOs are safe is still in question. Our right to know what is in the food we are buying and our right to choose our preferred food should not be usurped for any reason. So if you are concerned about the effects of GMOs on your health and the health of your loved ones, the best thing you can do is choose non-GMO products. The new “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal on retail products is an excellent means to identify products that are safe. You can read more in this months Feature Article about Down to Earth’s part in the new Non-GMO Project and the benefits it can bring to you.

Are GMOs Safe To Eat?

Photo: Researcher Sampling Plant Material

by Caitlin Rose

Since the dawn of time, human beings and animals alike have asked the question every day, “What should I eat?” We need to know not just what tastes good, but what is good for our survival and for our long-term health. We employ our sense of smell, taste, sight and touch, our intelligence, our knowledge of cause and effect and our culture to help us decide what to eat.


These days, most people think the answer is pretty simple. To the question, “what should I eat?” the answer “anything in the supermarket” would satisfy most. But what if 75-90% of the food in the supermarket had been changed on a molecular level in a way you couldn’t detect, and which had largely unknown and potentially dangerous side effects? Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want a choice?


A growing body of food safety advocates, scientists, teachers, doctors and food retailers want a choice, and they are working hard to educate the public about the need to demand strict labeling laws regarding the production and sale of genetically modified ingredients. So what are GMOs and why should you be concerned? Here are some straightforward answers that dispel many of the myths surrounding GMOs:


Q: What is a GMO? A: GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and refers to a plant or animal whose genetic structure has been modified by injection of a foreign DNA. GM foods may also be referred to as GE or Genetically Engineered.


Q: Isn’t genetic engineering basically the same as crossbreeding, which people have been doing for centuries? A: No. This relatively new science allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. GMOs are problematic because the science of genetic modification is based on the faulty premise that DNA is static, and that it is therefore possible to take pieces out and put pieces in with precision and control, impacting only the chosen genes. However, recent studies have shown that DNA is dynamic, meaning that if one gene is manipulated, those changes can and do affect other genes in ways scientists do not fully understand.1, 2


Therefore, when using GM techniques, there is really no way to know what kind of outcome you will get. Allowing large-scale production of plants with untested and unpredictable genetics presents significant risk to human health, environmental well-being, and worldwide food security.


Q: Weren’t GMOs developed to help feed the world? A: No. Although the biotech industry has spent a lot of money trying to convince people that genetic engineering is in the best interest of the consumer and the farmer, in fact no GM traits are in commercial production for increased yields, drought tolerance or nutritional superiority. 90% of the world’s GMO seeds are sold by Monsanto, the same company that sells the Roundup® to spray on them, and the same company that brought us DDT. 75% of GMO crops grown are bred for herbicide tolerance (e.g. “Roundup Ready” crops). The majority of the rest are bred to produce the pesticide Bt in their DNA.2


Q: Don’t GMOs help reduce pesticide use? A: No. Because of the GM Roundup Ready trait, there has been a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) on the major field crops since GMOs were introduced.3 This heavy spraying has led to the rise of “super-weeds”—weeds that are Roundup tolerant. To deal with that, farmers are now being told to spray 2-4D (a highly toxic herbicide) in addition to Roundup. The super-weed problem reached epidemic proportions in 2010 and has been covered in mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Because of the Bt crops, there are also now “superbugs” that are resistant to Bt insecticide.


Q: Don’t the FDA and the USDA oversee the production of GMOs? Haven’t they done testing for safety? A: No. According to a report in Reuters last year, “the U.S. government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after…. the United States has never passed a law for regulating genetically modified crop technologies.” Furthermore, “a string of federal court decisions found its officials acted illegally or carelessly in approving some biotech crops.”4


Q: Aren’t GM foods still relatively rare? A: No. The Grocery Manufactures Association estimates that roughly 75% of all conventional, processed food contains genetically modified ingredients.5 So, while less than one third of respondents in a Rutgers survey believed they had consumed GM food,6 the reality is that unless you are vigilant about your food sources and educated about which foods to avoid, chances are you eat GMOs on a regular basis.


Q: What are the potential health concerns of GM foods? A: On its website, The Institute for Responsible Technology lists 65 documented health risks associated with GM foods, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) acknowledged that, "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) food," and asked physicians to advise all patients to avoid GM foods.7 The studies cited found that mice and rats fed GM foods experience allergic reactions,8 immune system response,9 damaged intestines,10 partially atrophied livers,11 premature death,12 infertility13 and excessive cell growth in the intestinal lining that may lead to cancer.14


Q: How can I avoid eating GMOs? A: The four most common GM ingredients are conventional soy, canola, corn, and beet sugar. Between 80-90% of these crops are genetically modified, and they end up in almost every processed food on the shelves and in restaurants. Eating whole, unprocessed organic food is a good first step to avoid GMOs. However, because plants can so easily experience cross-contamination, there is no guarantee that even organic foods are GMO-free.


As a result of these issues Down to Earth, along with the natural products industry, has strongly supported the Non-GMO Project. The Non-GMO Project provides manufacturers with a "Non-GMO Project Verified" logo backed by independent testing. The “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo means that GMO contamination has been avoided throughout the growth and harvesting of crops, their processing, storage and packaging. Over 1,000 products have been verified to date, with thousands more in the process.


As manufacturers begin to include the “Non-GMO Project Verified” logo on their packaging, you will see more and more of the verified products on Down to Earth's. Consumers have the right to choose what foods to eat and feed their families. This Non-GMO logo enables consumers to exercise this right!


I join Down to Earth in calling on Congress to support labeling of foods that contain GMOs. For more information visit The Non-GMO Project

Footnotes: 
  1. Institute for Responsible Technology. (2011). 65 Health Risks of GM Foods. Retrieved from http://www.responsibletechnology.org/gmo-dangers/65-health-risks/2notes
  2. Randall G. L., Zechiedrich L., Pettitt B.M. (2009). In the absence of writhe, DNA relieves torsional stress with localized, sequence-dependent structural failure to preserve B-form. Nucleic Acids Research.. (2009) 37 (16): 5568-5577. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkp556
  3. Popsci. (2011). How to Genetically Modify a Seed, Step by Step. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-01/life-cycle-genetically-mod...
  4. James, C. (2000). Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops. ISAAA Briefs No. 21: Preview. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY
  5. Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety. (2008, February). Who Benefits from GM Crops? The Rise in Pesticide Use. Retrieved from http://www.foei.org/en/resources/publications/pdfs/2008/gmcrops2008full.....
  6. Gillam, C.(2010, April 13). Special report: Are regulators dropping the ball on biocrops?. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/13/us-usa-gmos-regulators-idUSTRE...
  7. Associated Press. (2005, March 23). Americans clueless about gene-altered foods, NBC News.
  8. Hallman, W. K., & Hebden, W. C. (2005). American opinions of GM food: Awareness, knowledge and, implications for education. Choices, 20, 239-242.
  9. American Academy of Environment Medicine. (2009). Genetically Modified Foods. Retrieved from https://www.aaemonline.org/gmo.php
  10. M. Green, et al., “Public health implications of the microbial pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis: An epidemiological study, Oregon, 1985-86,” Amer. J. Public Health 80, no. 7(1990): 848–852; and M.A. Noble, P.D. Riben, and G. J. Cook, Microbiological and epidemiological surveillance program to monitor the health effects of Foray 48B BTK spray (Vancouver, B.C.: Ministry of Forests, Province of British Columbi, Sep. 30, 1992)
  11. Vazquez et al, “Intragastric and intraperitoneal administration of Cry1Ac protoxin from Bacillus thuringiensis induces systemic and mucosal antibody responses in mice,” 1897–1912; Vazquez et al, “Characterization of the mucosal and systemic immune response induced by Cry1Ac protein from Bacillus thuringiensis HD 73 in mice,” Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 33 (2000): 147–155; and Vazquez et al, “Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ac protoxin is a potent systemic and mucosal adjuvant,” Scandanavian Journal of Immunology 49 (1999): 578–584. See also Vazquez-Padron et al., 147 (2000b).
  12. Nagui H. Fares, Adel K. El-Sayed, “Fine Structural Changes in the Ileum of Mice Fed on Endotoxin Treated Potatoes and Transgenic Potatoes,” Natural Toxins 6, no. 6 (1998): 219–233.
  13. Arpad Pusztai, “Can science give us the tools for recognizing possible health risks of GM food,” Nutrition and Health, 2002, Vol 16 Pp 73-84
  14. Irina Ermakova, “Genetically modified soy leads to the decrease of weight and high mortality of rat pups of the first generation. Preliminary studies,” Ecosinform 1 (2006): 4–9.
  15. Velimirov A, Binter C, Zentek J. Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice. Report-Federal Ministry of Health, Family and Youth. 2008.
  16. Arpad Pusztai, “Can science give us the tools for recognizing possible health risks of GM food,” Nutrition and Health, 2002, Vol 16 Pp 73-84; Stanley W. B. Ewen and Arpad Pusztai, “Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine,” Lancet, 1999 Oct 16; 354 (9187): 1353-4; and Arpad Pusztai, “Facts Behind the GM Pea Controversy: Epigenetics, Transgenic Plants & Risk Assessment,” Proceedings of the Conference, December 1st 2005 (Frankfurtam Main, Germany: Literaturhaus, 2005)

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