Should We Be Pro GMO? (Part 1)

GMOs.  Are they good or bad?  They've been a talking point for quite a while now, with vegans and non-vegans everywhere sharing their two cents on the matter.  I've pretty much stayed out of it.  I've heard things, I've watched some videos on the topic, but I'm no expert.  Today, I'm going to lay out my understanding of the available evidence in the hopes that we can determine once and for all if we should be avoiding GMOs or embracing them.

Or just leave even further confused by the conflicting evidence. 

Should We Be Pro GMO? // Plant Based Bride

To start, what are GMOs?

Well, they're genetically modified organisms.  

When did we start modifying the genes of organisms?

We’ve been modifying organisms for the entire history of agriculture with selective breeding of plants and animals.  Current GMOs are more accurately described as “genetically engineered organisms".  This (relatively) new form of modification was first done in labs in the 1920s and involves fusing the genes from one species into another in a process called transgenesis. 

Why do we genetically modify organisms?

One reason we began modifying foods was in hopes of higher yields.

We still do it for this reason.

It is claimed that genetically modified foods allow for more yield per area of land, meaning we can feed more people without further destruction of our planet (such as deforestation in the amazon for agriculture).  But do GMOs really improve yields?  One argument to the contrary claims that it is in fact the opposite, due to the proliferation of glyphosate (the active ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup).  The herbicide depletes the soil of essential nutrients and beneficial organisms, reducing the quality of the soil.  This reduced soil quality leads to slowed crop development and diseases, resulting in lower yields.  

It has also been stated that GMOs are no better at tolerating poor soil or unstable climate conditions than non-engineered crops.  This flies in the face of the common pro-GMO argument of ensuring food security.  Claims that GMOs are the way to feed the hungry and support a growing human population don't seem to be supported by all of the data, which shows that natural breeding methods used to develop flood-tolerant rice, drought-tolerant maize, and pest-resistant chickpeas may in fact be more effective in this arena.  We do know, however, that we already grow enough crops to feed 10-11 billion people if we redistribute these crops to humans, rather than filtering them first through livestock.  This filtering of our food supply through animals leads to an energy yield reduction of 90%.

What foods tend to be genetically modified?

Most GMOs are used as animal feed and in processed foods.  Over 90% of soy, corn, canola, and sugar beets in the US have been genetically engineered. 

What are the impacts of GMOs on human health?

Glyphosate (Roundup) is the most commonly used herbicide for GMO crops.  It was previously determined to be safe for mammals, as the way it kills plants is through the disruption of the shikimate pathway, involved in the synthesis of important amino acids and other components.  It is widely considered safe for animals, as we do not possess this pathway to be disrupted.

However, a recent study casts doubt on its safety.  The study found that glyphosate inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP enzymes) which play important biological roles in the human body.  Exposure to glyphosate 'enhances the damaging effects of other foodborne chemical residues and environmental toxins' with a negative impact on the human body which is both 'insidious and manifests slowly over time...'

Here I will include the full abstract of the recent study for reference:

'Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®, is the most popular herbicide used worldwide. The industry asserts it is minimally toxic to humans, but here we argue otherwise. Residues are found in the main foods of the Western diet, comprised primarily of sugar, corn, soy and wheat. Glyphosate's inhibition of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes is an overlooked component of its toxicity to mammals. CYP enzymes play crucial roles in biology, one of which is to detoxify xenobiotics. Thus, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. We explain the documented effects of glyphosate and its ability to induce disease, and we show that glyphosate is the “textbook example” of exogenous semiotic entropy: the disruption of homeostasis by environmental toxins.' (Read the full study here)

This study seems to indicate that there is, in fact, a negative health impact on humans from the use of GMOs.  If not from the GMO crops themselves, at least from the herbicides used in conjunction with them.

There are claims of the positive health impact potential of GMO crops, as seen with golden rice.  This variety of rice was infused with beta keratin to provide Vitamin A to populations of humans suffering from severe deficiency.  Preventing blindness in children is a noble task, but what negative impacts may be carried along with the good?

We simply don't know how GMOs affect genomes and the full picture of their impact on our health as a whole.  More than 50 countries have restricted GMO crops and passed laws to require labelling of GMOs.

What are the impacts of GMOs on the health of non-human animals

There are both direct and indirect impacts from GMOs.  First let's consider the most direct impacts: GMOs are tested on animals.  Some claim this is a reason to support them, as less opposition will lead to less testing to determine safety.  But seeing how we don't know that they're safe, what should we do?  I'm concerned about the findings of the above study, but I am also vehemently opposed to animal testing.  So how do we proceed?

A positive result of GMOs is the development of synthetic insulin.  Insulin was initially derived from the ground up pancreases of cows and pigs, but now vegans and others opposed to animal suffering can access non-animal derived insulin.

An example of an unintended indirect negative impact of GMOs on non-human animals is the decimation of monarch butterflies that has occurred over the past two decades.  Scientists developed a very effective herbicide called Glyphosate (colloquially known as Roundup) to be used on GMO crops.  So effective, in fact, that it has the ability to kill all plants that don't have a specific gene.  Scientists involved in the development of this herbicide injected the roundup-resistant gene into common crops such as soy beans and corn to effectively protect these crops from a pesticide with the ability to literally kill anything green.  

When the herbicide is sprayed in a field, it kills everything within a certain radius (even outside of the limits of the field) without this injected gene.  In this way it has been able to kill vast quantities of milk weed, a plant that monarch butterflies rely on for their survival.  This unintended consequence of genetic modification has lead to a reduction in monarch butterfly population by as much as 90%.

How many other insects and pollinators are being negatively impacted by extremely powerful herbicides, pesticides, and GMOs?

Additionally, monoculture, made more viable by genetic modification, makes it very difficult for bees as pollinators to do their jobs and has a serious negative impact on the environment.  These are unintended and indirect consequences of GMOs, and we can't know quite how serious of an impact it will turn out to be.

The more I research, the more questions I have.  I want to pause here, and continue next week with a look into the impact of GMOs on the environment, as well as the true cost of corporations patenting living organisms, as Monsanto has.

If you notice errors in this post or have further information on these topics, please let me know in the comments below!

Until next time, 

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