Did you know that in 2017 the first genetically modified apples that don’t turn brown when cut open were available? CNN was proud to report the story on its website under the headline, “New Frontier in Apples: Red or Golden but Never Brown.” CNN was not the only media outlet to report the story.
Regulatory approval took almost five years for these genetically modified apples. According to Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits—the Canadian company that engineered the apples—“Now we can get down to business planting trees and selling Arctic apples. We’re stoked.”
But what about us as consumers? Should we be stoked? Yes, an apple that does not brown may be appealing and convenient if you slice apples before eating them, but that’s not the way I eat them. I enjoy biting into a nice, crisp, whole apple with the juice running down my chin.
The genetically modified organism (GMO) issue is not only about apples. From the outset, the argument supporting genetically modified crops may seem reasonable: They are resistant to pesticides, grow better in harsh climates, and may provide higher yields. But the issue runs much deeper.
So what are GMOs? The World Health Organization defines GMOs as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.” This terminology can also be referred to as genetic engineering (GE) or biotechnology, and the process is designed to modify organisms to produce a particular desired trait. In the late ’80s, tobacco plants became the first GE crops. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved many more GE crops in the following decade, including corn, soy, cotton, canola, potato, squash, and tomato, which were to be used for commercialization. Since FDA approval, GE crops have steadily increased, primarily being modified to make plants resistant to either insects or herbicides. As of August 2012, the FDA had approved a total of 144 crops.
If GMOs are safe, why are food companies opposed to labeling their products that contain GMOs? The fact is, we don’t really know if these foods are safe. Most of the world has taken a wait-and-see approach. According to the Non-GMO Project, more than 60 countries (including the entire European Union, Japan, and Australia) have significant restrictions or outright bans on producing and selling GMOs. In the United States, the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. The crops’ status as patented intellectual property means that these corporations can (and do) prevent truly independent studies by third parties from being conducted. Further, the Environmental Working Group has said the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) action “underscores the need for a transparent and consistent national labeling standard.”
However, some GMO supporters argue that GE has been occurring for centuries through crosspollination of plants. What these supporters fail to recognize is that GE is not a simple process of cross-breeding; GE is a new, unnatural type of genetic modification. It requires the deliberate addition of a foreign gene or genes to the chosen organism’s genome. An organism’s gene carries information that will give the organism a trait, and GE is not limited to traditional plant breeding. In fact, GE physically removes the DNA from one organism and transfers the gene(s) for one or multiple traits into another organism.
In the GE process, parts of DNA from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis are removed and put into the plant cells through genetic transformation. Then, the entire plant becomes rejuvenated from the transgenic plant cells. Many known strains of Bacillus thuringiensis produce the protein crystals that are toxic to insects. Specific strains are used to address specific pests. The newly formed plant will play host to the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin in its cells—all of its cells, the root, the stem, the leaves, the flower, and the fruit. When the desired insect eats the plant, the toxin will bind to the insides of the insect’s body and cause its gut wall to break down, which will allow the toxin and normal internal gut bacteria to penetrate its body. As these spores and bacteria multiply in the body, the insect will die.
Another common GE process is to make crops herbicide tolerant. Microorganisms tolerant to the active chemical in the herbicide are identified. For the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, glyphosate, glyphosate-resistant enzymes are taken from bacteria known as agrobacterium. These enzymes are placed into the genes of the plant, which ultimately results in an end product that can prevail against the exposure from the herbicide.
GE sounds like a winning situation for all: Insects and pests that devour plants are killed, and weeds can’t grow, but the plant survives. But the chemicals that the plant absorbs remain in the plant—and we consume them.
Did you know glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world? It is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, meaning that it spreads throughout the plant, from the leaves to the roots or from soil into the leaves. The half-life of glyphosate is between 2 and 197 days in soil and between a few days to 91 days in water, according to the National Pesticide Information Center’s Technical fact sheet on glyphosate. Residues of glyphosate are found in key foods of the Western diet—mainly in sugar, corn, soy, canola, alfalfa, and wheat.
If you enter glyphosate as the key word in a PubMed search, you’ll find more than 4,400 published studies on health issues and glyphosate. However, because GE has only existed for about 20 years, there are limited studies concerning glyphosate’s health effects. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has issued a position statement on GMO food stating, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen, and gastrointestinal system.” The AAEM believes more than a casual association exists between GM foods and adverse health effects.
Beyond health effects, GE crops affect our entire farming system. In the past few years, farmers in the Midwest have faced Roundup-resistant weeds. In addition, farmers opting to use organic farming methods may experience crop damage when tainted runoff rainwater enters their fields (because Mother Nature can’t differentiate between crops). Further, bees and monarch butterflies (whose primary food supply is milkweed, a target of glyphosate) have seen significant drops in population in the past several years. Many experts relate this alarming trend to increased glyphosate use.
So, back to the apple. You’ll recall from Carter’s statement that the USDA has determined Arctic apple trees are safe for other crops. This is true even though the USDA cannot assess if GMOs are safe for us to eat. That’s a job left to the FDA. Further, you won’t find any label on the apple indicating it has been genetically modified. Even members of the apple industry were not jumping for joy regarding the GMO labeling issue. The Northwest Horticultural Council, which is a body that represents apple farmers in areas of the Pacific Northwest, fears consumers who are opposed to GE will write off buying apples completely, and the industry will suffer because of higher costs and more time-consuming measures to keep GMO crops isolated from their naturally grown counterparts.
I encourage you to do your own research to determine whether you believe GMOs are safe. Do you need to focus on eating organic food? A good starting point is the Non-GMO Project. Please visit nongmoproject.org, where you can find a complete list of products certified as non-GMO.
By Dick Benson