Genetic Engineering: Q & A

“Genetic engineering presents our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution. The results will be essentially new organisms, self-perpetuating and hence permanent. Once created, they cannot be recalled. [Genetic engineering] presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face.” –George Wald, Nobel Laureate in Medicine and former professor of Biology at Harvard University

What is a gene?

Every plant and animal is made of cells, each of which has a center called a nucleus. Inside each nucleus are strands of DNA, half of which is normally inherited from the mother and half from the father. Short sequences of DNA are called genes. A gene carries particular orders for the body through the production of different proteins.

What’s a genetically-engineered organism?

A genetically-engineered organism is the result of a laboratory process of taking genes from one species and forcing them into the DNA of another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. To do this, scientists often use bacteria and/or viruses to “infect” the DNA of one organism with the genes of another organism. The result is an organism that would be impossible to obtain through natural processes like crossbreeding or grafting. This process may be called either Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM); they are one and the same.

How is genetic engineering done?

Because living organisms have natural barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers must force the DNA from one organism into another. Their methods include:

  • Using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
  • Coating DNA which contains the genes onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells, hoping that the newly introduced genes land in the right place on the cells’ DNA.
  • Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.

What are the problems created through genetic engineering of food and crops?

Genetic engineers continually encounter unintended side effects – GE plants create toxins, react to weather differently, contain too much or too little nutrients, become diseased or malfunction and die. When foreign genes are inserted, dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown.

Doesn’t anyone test the safety of genetically-engineered foods?

Because the FDA’s official policy on GE foods states that the agency is not aware of any differences between GE foods and non-GE foods, it does not require safety testing. However, feeding studies done on animals have found reproductive problems, immune problems, gastrointestinal problems, organ damage, accelerated aging, and dysfunction of regulation of cholesterol and insulin. To be more specific, animals have gotten organ lesions, inflamed organs, smaller or larger organs, potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, five-fold increase in infant mortality, sterile babies, smaller babies, damage to the reproductive organs, and changes in the hormonal system. The only human feeding study ever done showed that genes from GE soybeans transferred to the DNA in human gut bacteria and continued to function.

Where are they?

In your food! First introduced into the food supply in the mid-1990s, GMOs are now present in the vast majority of processed foods in the US. While they are banned as food ingredients in Europe and elsewhere, the FDA does not require the labeling of GMOs in food ingredient lists.

Which foods are genetically modified?

Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (over 50%), sugar beets (95%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres), and tobacco (Quest® brand).

What are other sources of GMOs?

Products derived from the above (including oils from soy, cotton, canola and corn), soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. One of the more insidious ways GMOs make it into our food is through food additives which are ubiquitous in processed foods: citric acid, xanthan gum, modified food starch, maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, malt syrup, whey, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and the list goes on…

Also:

  • Meat, eggs and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed (The majority of the GM corn and soy is used for feed)
  • Dairy products from cows injected with the GM hormone rBGH
  • Enzymes, flavorings, and the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet®)
  • Rennet used to make hard cheeses
  • Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen

(See a full list at www.nongmoshoppingguide.com/brands/invisible-gm-ingredients.html)

How can I avoid GM foods?

  • Buy organic – GMOs are not allowed in organic production.
  • Look for products labeled “GM-free,” “Non-GMO,” or “No GMOs.”
  • Avoid at-risk ingredients: unless it is labeled USDA organic or as GM-free, avoid processed food products ingredients made with these GM crops: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton seed and beet sugar, and their derivatives – corn flour, meal, oil, starch, gluten, and syrups; sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose, and glucose; modified food starch; soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate, and isoflavone; vegetable oil and vegetable protein; and the other additives listed above.
  • Avoid anything not listed as 100% cane sugar since GM beet sugar has entered the food supply. To avoid it, look for organic and non-GMO sweeteners, candy and chocolate made with 100% cane sugar, evaporated cane juice or organic sugar.

 

What is Natural Grocers policy on genetically-engineered foods?

We strive to offer the absolute safest and highest-quality natural products available. However, the truth is that because GM ingredients are so ubiquitous in our food supply, some of the natural products on the market, including some sold at our stores, contain GMOs. Because the FDA does not require manufacturers to label food products that contain genetically-modified ingredients, it is hard to know which products contain GMOs, unless they are labeled as USDA organic or “non-GMO.” We make it a priority to stock many organic items (which do not allow GMOs) and look for new products that state “non-GM corn,” “non-GM soy” or “no GMOs” on the label. That said, we do have a number of very popular, longtime brands on our shelves that are not USDA organic or do not make the statement “no GMOs” in which case you can assume that there is the potential for the product to contain genetically-modified ingredients. Additionally, because of the prevalence of GE crops and the issue of cross-contamination, there is also the possibility that even organic and non-GM sources have been contaminated.

 

Some consumer advocacy groups are pushing retailers to take on the responsibility of labeling the products they sell as GM or non-GM. This is not realistic. Unless we tested each and every one of the products sold in our stores, it is impossible to tell which have GM ingredients and which do not – logistically and financially, we cannot do this; retail stores simply do not have the means to test every one of the products sold for GM ingredients. The ultimate responsibility for requiring labeling lies with the government, but since the government is doing nothing, the responsibility for labeling products then falls to the manufacturers, who should know exactly what is in their products and should truthfully label them. Together, retailers and consumers must lobby the government to pass legislation requiring mandatory labeling of GM foods and manufacturers to avoid using GM ingredients and to truthfully label the products they make.

Resources

 

Visit these websites for more information on genetically-modified foods and ways to get involved: