Mentioning the phrase "genetically modified organisms" (GMOs) opens up the floor for heated debate, or, at the very least, discussion. The issue is complicated and worldwide, involving large corporations, governments, scientists and consumers. It is about food and starts, literally, near the beginning of the food chain: the DNA of seeds.
Genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds (or other organisms) are created in a laboratory by introducing a new gene into the organism's make-up to achieve a desired trait. In crops a modified gene may make the plant resistant to Monsanto's "Roundup" pesticide or even include pesticides or insecticides, in the case of some modified corn.
Genetic research accelerated in the mid-20th century especially after World War II. The first genetically modified plant approved by the FDA for commercial use was the "Flvr Savr" tomato in 1994, which delayed ripening after picking. This was immediately followed one year later by Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) potatoes, Bt corn and Bt cotton, which all include their own herbicides and pesticides, as well as a modified canola and herbicide-resistant soybeans.
In March, an informational event on GMOs attracted more than 100 people. For information on upcoming events, check out Ohio Valley Farmers Market on Facebook.
Ken Swisher began researching the GMO issue because of concern about what his grandchildren will be eating. He has formed a group called Ohio Right to Know that is hosting a rally at the Belmont County Courthouse in St. Clairsville today.
Buyers can check PLUs, or price look-up codes, in the produce department to find out if a fruit or vegetable is organic, genetically modified or non-qualified. Organic produce has five digits prefixed by a “9” as seen above. GM produce may have an “8” prefix, while most commercially grown produce has simply four digits or a “0” prefix.
In 1998 patented "Terminator" cotton seeds were put on the market. Genetically altered to resist a second germination, it forced farmers to purchase all new seeds for the next season instead of utilizing salvaged, harvested seeds.
Also at this time, grocery stores in the United Kingdom were banning foods using GMOs, and in 2003 ten European regions declared that they would be GMO-free to support and encourage traditional, sustainable and low-impact farming practices. The next year, the European Commission extended its GM labeling requirements to include food and feed produced with GM ingredients, regardless of the absence or presence of genetically modified ingredients in the end product. Since then, the EU has authorized GM maize GA21 for feed and for food use, but only as an import or for processing. It is still banned from cultivation in the EU. Sixty countries throughout the world have banned GMOs and/or have instituted mandatory labeling of all GMO foods.
What is the United States' official position on GMOs? Since the U.S. is the world's leading producer of GM crops with at least 25 crops approved, the most recent deregulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA,) the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has opened the gates for Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" alfalfa and sugar beets, Syngenta's Enogen corn raised for biofuel with no restriction on cross-contamination, and the possibility of genetically modified salmon. American researchers maintain that genetically modified foods are safe for human and animal consumption and that the GM plants are stronger and yield more product to assist with world hunger efforts.
Ken Swisher of St. Clairsville disagrees. He is a retired journalist, who sells his organically-grown wares as "Mr. Greenjeans" at the Ohio Valley Farmers Market. His research on the subject of GMOs and his personal experience point in the direction of human and animal health problems, increased pesticide and insecticide use and corruption at high levels.
"This is a mess. Eighty percent of our food is made with GMOs," Swisher says. "We're just starting to learn about the impacts of all of this. Look at the increase in obesity, in allergies, in cancer over the last decades."
He says the current controversy started 15 years ago when a Hungarian scientist, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, was researching genetically modified potatoes at the UK's renowned Rowett Institute, similar to the FDA. Dr. Pusztai publically stated that he would avoid eating GM foods because the testing procedures were superficial and did not allow for long-term effects of consumption. He was fired from his position, and the institute began a smear campaign portraying him as a doddering old man who had his experiments mixed up. The same research protocols were then tested by at least 24 other scientists whose conclusions were the same as Dr. Pusztai's. After moving the attention away from the issue of loose regulation and inadequate testing to discrediting a doctor with negative findings, it was discovered that Monsanto Corporation had donated $224,000 to the Rowett Institute.
Swisher notes that there are two issues with GMO products. The first is about consuming the crops or their derivatives directly, for instance corn, corn flour and soy products. The pro-GMO argument is that the ingredients are processed to the point of eliminating any DNA or protein that might retain the modified genes, especially when it comes to vegetable oils, pure starch and refined sugars.
The second issue is about livestock eating GM feed or plants: corn, alfalfa, cotton. There are documentaries that illustrate sickly and dying cattle and pigs after feeding on GM corn feed and Bt cotton fields. GMO opponents say not only are the products destroying the farmers' livelihoods, but humans and pets are eating sub-par meat that in turn makes the one farther up the food chain ill. The pro-GMO contingent maintains that any modified DNA from the plant products is destroyed in the animals' digestive process.
How can consumers ensure that they are purchasing healthy, safe foods for their families and themselves? Swisher's number one suggestion is to buy organic. Certified organic foods are under strict regulations prohibiting pesticides and GMOs. Second, he says, avoid processed foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are better for the body to digest and far healthier than preservative and chemical-laden boxed products. Also, some companies are now labeling their products as "non-GMO," and Swisher and other concerned citizens are beginning a campaign to support labels informing buyers that products have GM ingredients.
He acknowledges that organic foods may cost a bit more, but says that he and others have found that eating organic decreases the appetite, so one eats less. Swisher adds that health care costs can total far more than investing in a healthier lifestyle. He notes that a family member recently began replacing GMO foods with organic and fresh foods and has lost "a significant amount of weight" in two months.
Look for soy, corn and corn products, cotton derivatives and canola on labels. In the United States, 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton and 85 percent of commercial corn crops are genetically modified. Swisher notes that corporations like General Mills, Kelloggs and Kraft do produce non-GMO products, but they are shipped to the countries that ban GMOs. They market their GMO products here.
Information on the GMO issue is everywhere: books by Michael Pollan, a DVD titled "Genetic Roulette" and a 120-page PDF document by earthopensource.org that discusses "GMO Myths and Truths." Googling "GMO information" garners more than 44 million results including www.responsibletechnology.org and www.gmo-compass.org. Last month more than 100 people attended a GMO informational event and farmers market at the Bellaire library. It was sponsored by the Ohio Valley Farmers Market.
Today at 1 p.m. the Ohio Right to Know group, organized by Swisher, will be hosting a rally at the county courthouse in St. Clairsville. It's a free family event where people will be available to answer GMO questions.