This regulatory end-around has been aided in part by the industry's successful campaign to convince the media and our representatives that genetic engineering is just a super-duper cool version of conventional breeding. That is a lie. Genetic engineering involves inserting a new piece of DNA code into a plant's own DNA -- which sounds straightforward except you have no idea where your piece will end up and what disturbances it might cause in the plant. You just have to grow the thing and find out.
What you might get is what's known as "insertional mutagenesis" and it can result in all sorts of bad things happening. One example might be that you engineer a plant to produce some new substance -- like a herbicide, a vitamin or a even a drug -- but it also produces a potent toxin to go along with it. Oops!
Insertional mutagenesis is why pretty much all of Monsanto's promised innovations are five or ten years away and it's also why GMOs can come with all sorts of nasty surprises. And because these are subtle changes to the genome, it shouldn't be surprising that any health effects it would cause in creatures that eat them might be subtle, too.
All of which brings me to the news (via Tom Philpott) that there is increasing evidence that GMOs can and do cause health problems:
Firstly, let's be clear -- industry scientists got bad results, fudged the analysis and then figured no one would notice. Well, it took almost a decade, but these enterprising French scientists did notice. And that last bit about a toxic effect of genetic modification: That's got "insertional mutagenesis" written all over it, no? Philpott then explains why, though no one's arguing that GMOs cause "illness" per se, this isn't some kind of crank theory:
And now comes this study by three French university researchers. It's a fascinating piece of work. The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.
The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto's flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often "stacked" into the same seed.
The researchers also found "clear negative impact" on their livers of rats fed all three kinds of GMO corn.They added that it's impossible to tell, based on the data, whether the damage was caused by the specific genes introduced to the corn, or -- more troubling still -- if the very process of genetic modification creates a toxic effect.
Nearly our entire corn and soy crops crops are genetically modified -- and have been for nearly a decade. Corn and soy course through the food system like blood in a body. If GMOs caused harm, wouldn't it be obvious by now?
Moreover, most corn and soy goes into animal feed. Last I checked, pigs, chickens, and cows on factory animal farms haven't been dropping dead en masse before their date with the executioner. Again, if GMOs were dangerous, why aren't factory animal farmers rejecting them?
This thinking, I think, represents educated opinion on GMOs. The logic would be persuasive, if scientists were claiming that GMOs caused spectacular, virulent illnesses, the kind associated with, say, E. coli O157 or salmonella. But instead, the evidence I'm referring to suggests that GMOs cause low-level, chronic damage.
And think of the U.S. diet. People here tend to survive on refined sugars and processed food, and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals like BPA. Moreover, we have high and growing levels of chronic ailments. To me, it's highly plausible that yet more low-level toxins could enter the food stream without causing immediately identifiable trouble.
Yes, after the fiasco of bisphenol A -- whose safety had been "proven" by industry-conducted research accepted by a gullible FDA -- I think we can conceive of the possibility that GMOs, which have never even gone through a thorough environmental impact review, much less a full safety review, might, just might come with serious long-term risks attached. Maybe someone should ask the FDA what they think about GMOs now?