Genetically modified (GM) crops have been used widely in the United States since the late ’90s, but for years they were mostly able to fly under the radar. Lately, though, the world of GMO news hasn’t been running short on worrisome headlines. From multiple studies warning of safety concerns to high-profile battles to enact mandatory GMO-labeling laws, genetic engineering is a hot-button issue.
Farmers and concerned members of the public have long been waving their arms about the potential for GM crops to contaminate the seed supply for growers using conventional seed. Earlier this year, in Oregon, a farmer discovered GM wheat growing in one of his fields. GM wheat has never been approved for use in the U.S. So far, no one knows how the Roundup-resistant GM wheat ended up in the Oregon field, but we do know that biotech giant Monsanto trialed GM wheat in the U.S. between 1998 and 2005. The discovery strongly suggests that the USDA should have stronger regulatory oversight of field trials. Headlines about the Oregon wheat mystery triggered concern in countries that import U.S. wheat, causing wheat prices to drop. Farmers harmed by the price declines have filed lawsuits.
In addition to contamination concerns, there are safety worries about eating foods made from the engineered crops. Do such foods affect our bodies any differently than “regular” foods? In the April/May 2013 issue, MOTHER EARTH NEWS reported on a recent study that showed an increased incidence of tumors in rats given GM feed (see Longest-Running GMO Safety Study Finds Tumors in Rats). In June 2013, another GMO safety study — this one conducted using pigs as the subjects — was published in the Journal of Organic Systems. For about 23 weeks (the normal life span of a commercial pig from weaning to slaughter), one group of pigs in the study was fed a diet of GM corn and GM soy, while another group of pigs ate the same diet with non-GM ingredients. The two groups were then compared post-mortem, and the gastric and uterine differences were stark. Female pigs in the GM-fed group had uteri that were, on average, 25 percent heavier than those of the non-GM-fed females. GM-fed pigs also had a higher rate of severe stomach inflammation: 32 percent of GM-fed pigs compared with 12 percent of non-GM-fed pigs.
One pressing food safety question is how much of an effect the herbicide residues from herbicide-resistant GM crops have on our health. Some of the most ubiquitous GM crops are “Roundup-Ready” crops, meaning they’re engineered to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The chemical is then used to control weeds during the growing season, and — as touted on Monsanto’s website — it can even be sprayed on crops just a few days before harvest to promote faster combining and lower drying costs. (So, if you’ve considered buying straw to use in your garden, be aware that “treated straw should not be used as horticultural growth medium or mulch,” according to Monsanto.) This herbicide does stay on the crops post-harvest, and it does end up in our food. Earlier this year, the grass-roots environmental network Friends of the Earth commissioned a series of urine tests on random people in 18 countries across Europe to find out whether any glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) would show up in their urine. On average, 44 percent of people had the herbicide in their bodies. An April 2013 report compiled at MIT found that glyphosate could be linked to a number of adverse health effects — and that the damage manifests slowly, affecting cellular systems throughout the body over time. (For more, go to The Dangers of Glyphosate Herbicide.)
The glyphosate issue is one more example in a pattern we’ve seen with other toxic pesticides: After four decades of Monsanto assuring us Roundup (and glyphosate) is safe, independent evidence to the contrary has finally emerged. But profits are so great that companies can basically buy science to support their point of view. This cycle isn’t just dangerous — it’s flat-out unethical.
The concerns surrounding GM foods and the chemicals used to produce GM crops are growing. As more independent research is done, the troubling GMO news will keep filtering down to consumers. Let’s stay aware of this issue and keep the momentum going! Tell your elected officials that you expect better.
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Google+.