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GMO? Just say NO: A Precautionary Tale

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

“Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.” You’ve probably heard this popular expression whispered on spooky Halloween nights. The phrase gained fame in the 1986 horror movie, “The Fly,” and referred to an experiment gone horribly wrong -- basically, scientist (man) is transformed into insect (fly). Blame it on a little genetic mix-up.

While the classic movie falls under the “science fiction” genre, a more chilling, yet truthful story can be told about American agriculture-turned-agribusiness, and the widespread planting of unregulated, inadequately tested bioengineered crops, with yet untold consequences (1,2,3).

In a nutshell, here’s what happened. In 1992, under the powerful influence of the Monsanto Corporation, then Vice President Dan Quayle announced that “no new laws would be passed to regulate biotechnology”(1).

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took the stand that genetically modified (GM) foods, or GMOs, are essentially the same as their natural counterparts, and deemed them “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). This means manufacturers do not have to prove GM foods safe before going to market (1).

In the Dark

Even though 90% of consumers surveyed say they want identifying labels on GM foods (1); and despite the fact that the American Public Health Association supports labeling GM foods, the law does not require such foods to bear an identifying label (4).

The American consumer “would be very shocked” to know how many GM foods line their supermarket shelves, says Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety. While there have been valiant efforts to require GM food labeling, those in favor are battling “institutional power” against it (3). 

With at least 70 percent of processed foods in supermarkets containing GM ingredients, from soy lecithin to high fructose corn syrup and corn starch, you could say our families have been taking part in a nation-wide experiment for over a decade. Scary to think of our kids as guinea pigs, isn’t it?

The Big Three

Since 1996, three GM food crops have entered and now dominate our agricultural and supermarket landscapes: soy, corn and canola.

According to the USDA (5), fully 80 percent of all corn and 90 percent of soy varieties planted in the U.S. are genetically engineered.

Most GM crops are either insect-resistant (Bt corn), herbicide-tolerant (Roundup Ready), or carry multiple, or “stacked” bioengineered traits. Bt corn produces its own insecticide in every plant cell, therefore in theory, would require fewer applications of pesticide. Roundup Ready (RR) crops can survive being sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, which kills surrounding weeds while leaving the desired plant intact.

Newly planted in 2009 was the first crop of genetically modified (RR) sugar beets, accounting for 50 percent of the sugar beet crop.(6). About half of the sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from sugar beets. [Editor's update Sept 29, 2010: A Federal court has ruled that these plantings were illegal, and Monsanto must complete an Environmental Impact assessment is required before this GM seed can be considered for deregulation.]

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Biotech Glossary

Biotechnology, bioengineering, and genetic engineering describe recombinant DNA technology, which allows scientists to cross species barriers. For example: inserting bacterial DNA into a plant to deliver traits such as pest or herbicide resistance.

GMO: Genetically modified organism
GE: Genetically engineered
RR: Roundup Ready
Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis
Roundup: glyphosate

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