Simply put, scientists wanted to make crops more resilient to environmental factors. Suppose you grow tomatoes: at night it gets so cold that half of your tomatoes are frozen in the morning and you can't sell them anymore. Scientists were able to combat this problem with genetic modification. They figured out a way to take DNA from one organism and put it inside another organism to achieve a desired characteristic. Recognizing the Arctic flounder's ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures, bioengineers isolated that specific DNA trait in the fish to implant in tomatoes. The result: tomatoes highly resistant to cold and substantially greater crop yields.
The driving motivation for genetic modification was bringing 100% of your crop yield to the market; biotechnology was the answer to ending world hunger. Ironically, we unearthed studies that indicate just the opposite, showing instances where GM crops produce fewer yields. In some countries with high starvation rates, journalists documented cases of people burning GM food in protest.
Let's return to how GM food is created. Our friends at Lily Films and Deborah Koons Garcia made a documentary called The Future of Foods that explains it best.
We wanted to know what else agroengineers were capable of with this new technology. As The Future of Foods indicated, Monsanto, the largest biotechnology company in the world, successfully engineered seeds resistant to their Roundup herbicide. This allowed farmers to spray as much herbicide as they wanted without fear of their crops dying. But it didn't stop there. Scientists found they could engineer seeds that would mature into pesticide-producing crops, crops that literally emit pesticide as they grow.
How did they do this? Scientists found bacteria in soil that is lethal to many species of insects, called Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT), which they inserted into crops. What could the effects be when a bacteria once confined to soil becomes airborne? We will get into that later.
Instead of just making drugs in labs, scientists have been growing crops that produce their own pharmaceutical drugs, like research chemicals, blood proteins, antibodies, and vaccines. These are called pharma crops. According to the Society for Diabetic Rights, thousands of diabetics have experienced bad reactions and many have died as a result of genetically engineered insulin, called "human" insulin. Also, the Union of Concerned Scientists has been urging the United States Department of Agriculture to ban all outdoor production of pharma crops because of the potential to contaminate the nation's food supply.
How safe do you think GM foods are? The consensus is that there are some dangers associated with eating GM foods, but where is the proof? Through our investigation we found that many countries in Europe have taken action by either banning or labeling GM foods. Wait a minute, we're eating them while they are banning them? What does everyone else in the world know that we don't? Here is one of the many conclusive studies we came across in our quest for truth.
This study was conducted by Dr. Ermakova of the National Association of Genetic Security in Russia. Dr. Ermakova wanted to find out what eating GM foods did to pregnant rats and their offspring. The experiment had two parts. In part one there were three groups with three rats each. Let's call them Group A, Group B, and Group C. She fed each group of rats food two weeks before conception: Group A rats received no soy products; Group B received soy flour; Group C was fed GE soy flour.
The next phase of the experiment introduced two new groups with three rats each. We will call them Group D and Group E. She fed Group D food with no soy products and Group E GM soy flour. In total, Group A and Group D ate no soy products and those rats gave birth to 44 babies. Group B ate regular soy products and those rats gave birth to 33 babies. Group C & E ate GM soy products and these rats gave birth to 45 babies. Three weeks later, the results were a little shocking. In the group with no soy at all, three baby rats died. In the groups with regular soy three baby rats died. In the groups who ate GE soy, twenty five baby rats died! According to Dr. Ermakova, the reason why this is so shocking is because "the biochemical structure of rats is very similar to the biochemical structure of humans."
What are some of the other effects? Unfortunately, animals were tested in the process of these experimentsâ€¦ Sorry PETA! Also remember that these animals were fed GM food for every meal during the course of the study. Experiments performed on other animals resulted in pre-cancerous cell growth, smaller brains, livers and testicles, damaged immune systems, liver malfunctions, lesions in the liver, stomach and kidneys, inflammation of certain organs, cell malfunctions, higher blood sugar levels, fertility problems, and unexplained increases in death rates.
We also found that avoiding the consumption of GM food is still no guarantee for good health. What do we mean? Remember when we mentioned that the BT toxin is now airborne? In the Philippines, people living next to a GE cornfield developed recurring skin, respiratory and intestinal problems. Blood tests done on 39 of the Filipino residents revealed that their immune systems had been compromised by the BT toxin.
What are the consequences for the environment? Crops pollinate as they grow, and allergy sufferers everywhere can testify that pollen spreads everywhere. Some scientists are frantically trying to save natural seeds because when GE crops pollinate, they infect surrounding natural plants. Once they mix, there is no turning back. An example of the result of cross pollination is the super weed. What is the super weed? We mentioned earlier that some plants were engineered to resist herbicides, but pollination contamination has caused surrounding natural weeds to develop herbicide resistance. But it doesn't stop there: every species in the animal kingdom is at risk. Ever heard of the butterfly effect? Cornell University did a study and found that the BT toxin released from the crops is lethal to monarch butterflies. And that's just one study on one species! We also found that natural fish and marine life are threatened because GE fish have been accidentally released into the wild.
At this point you are probably wondering if we can make informed decisions to buy GM and non-GM products. Unlike many other countries in the world, there is no law in the United States that requires GM foods to be labeled. How could this be? In 1992, George Bush Sr. signed an executive order that deemed GM food as equal to non-GM food. This executive order permitted biotech companies to present GM foods as "substantially equivalent" to non-GM foods. Doesn't the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate products in the food supply? Actually, because they are "substantially equivalent," the FDA classifies GM foods under the "Generally Recognized as Safe" category. Under this category, the government does not require additional testing or labeling. Also, every GM seed has its own patent. If seeds are unique enough to patent, how can they be substantially equivalent to other crops? To learn more about seed patenting and testing, check out our separate video about Monsanto on our chapter guide.
Is there anything being done? We found an organization taking initiative to give consumers a choice in the matter, called the non-GMO project. The non-GMO Project provides an independent verification process to food distributors who don't use GM foods to put a "GMO-free" label on their packaging, thus allowing consumers to know if their food is GM or not. We sat down with director Meghan Thompson to hear more.
Some of our elected officials have begun standing up for consumer rights. Representative Dennis Kucinich introduced H.R. 3377, The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act in November of 1999, but the bill was never voted on and eventually expired. Still persevering, Kucinich introduced three similar bills in July of 2008, designed to protect consumers and food safety while defending farmer rights. H.R. 6635, 6636, and 6637 are still in the infancy stages of the legislative process. If you want to make an impact, inform your friends and family of these resolutions and lobby our representatives to work on behalf of conscious food consumption.
Labeling is the only way to make safe food purchases. When polled, 93% of Americans said that they want GM food labeled! We should follow in the footsteps of Japanese activists who pressured their government to label GM foods after years of struggle. From 1996 to 2001, Japan's "Down with Genetically Engineered Food campaign" pressured the government to label GM foods, even presenting a 2,000,000-signature petition to the Japanese Health and Ministry in 1998. In Europe, citizens from all different countries started to fight for consumer rights in 1996. Since then, 43 European regions have taken measures to regulate, label or ban GM foods.
What progress has been made in America? In Mendocino County, California, citizens mobilized an effective grassroots campaign. Their efforts resulted in the passage of Measure H, which states "It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County." A spokesperson for the Campaign for a GMO-Free Mendocino County said, "The only thing we set out to do was educate people what GMOs are, who makes them and why. Once people figured that out, they wanted to learn more, and had a tendency to reject them."