Increasing Concern about Genetically Modified Food

Beverly Smaby

Since the mid-1990s, the multi-national chemical giant Monsanto has produced and sold genetically modified seeds and the conglomerate Kraft Foods has used genetically modified food in most of their products – all with the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that contain DNA from other species, antibiotics, and even pesticides.  Jeffrey M. Smith, a leader in the movement against growing and selling genetically modified foods, was in Federal Way and Seattle in October to tell us the alarming ways they can affect us.

According to Smith, even just the “biolistic” process used to make most GMOs (blasting seeds with DNA molecules)can damage cells, destroying, compromising, or activating genes in unpredictable ways.  He says that GMOs can cause allergies, intestinal inflammation, organ damage, and cancer; that pesticide proteins can continue to grow in the intestines of animals and humans who eat genetically modified food; and that GM crops designed to resist sprayings of Roundup or to produce their own insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are creating weeds resistant to Roundup and insects resistant to Bt, forcing farmers to use other, stronger weed and insect killers.  Smith also says that the FDA is not doing its job of regulating GM food.

There have been many efforts to discredit Smith’s credentials and his claims.  One example is a website called Academics Review, created in March 2010 apparently for the sole purpose of discrediting Smith, even though the stated purpose is to review popular views on scientific topics in general.  According to this source, he has no formal training in biotechnology, which is apparently true, since Smith’s own biography makes clear that he is self-educated in the field of GMOs.  

But many sources support his claims.  Generally, scientists (including those at the FDA) agree that the biolistic method of creating GMOs can cause unpredictable mutations with unknown risks.  In their 2006 article on this topic, Jonathan R. Latham and others say that “transgene insertion is infrequently, if ever, a precise event…. [Transgene] insertion sites… of particle bombardment appear invariably to be associated with deletion and extensive scrambling of inserted and chromosomal DNA…. The frequency of transformation-induced mutations and their importance as potential biosafety hazards are poorly understood.”   

According to the documentary film “The Future of Food,” scientists around the world have found evidence of mutations in GMOs that have caused allergies, organ failure in rats, crops with roots too short to survive drought, and accidental transfer of DNA from GMOs to conventional crops and wild plants.  In addition, it is generally recognized that the overuse of genetically modified crops is causing the development of resistant weeds and pests.  An otherwise pro-GMO report of the National Research Council, reports that nine Roundup-resistant weeds and two Bt-resistant insects have so far evolved since farmers began using seeds that are resistant to Roundup and crops that produce Bt.  This means that Roundup and Bt will become less and less effective, and farmers will eventually have to return to stronger pesticides.

The GMO industry claims that many of these studies are not peer reviewed and that they are poorly designed.  According to Marie-Monique Robin, it is the peer-reviewed articles that are suspect, because Monsanto has had a history of influencing and compromising studies that were published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.  Robin spent three years researching and writing her book The World According to Monsanto.  

Supporters of Monsanto say that GMOs are safe because they are tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but from the beginning, the FDA was not doing its job.  A May 1992 FDA policy decision claimed that there was no significant difference between GMOs and non-GMOs, even though internal agency correspondence says otherwise.  Numerous scientists in the FDA and other federal regulatory agencies had expressed concern in early 1992 that GMOs had not been tested enough and that they should be subjected to a premarket review.  Other FDA scientists had urged that the agency also review possible dangers in the process of making GMOs and that risk analysis experts needed to be involved in the review since there was so little solid data for creating a safe policy.  

Curiously, the website that published these documents has expired.  It was last updated in 2003 and was registered at least until October 20th when I visited the site.  I have not yet found another place to access these documents, but I have a hard copy of some of these letters.  The documents had originally been made public as part of a 1998 lawsuit by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity against the 1992 FDA policy.  The Alliance for Bio-Integrity was a coalition of public interest groups, religious leaders, and scientists.

The administrators of the FDA not only ignored the concerns of their own scientists in the 1992 policy decision, but continued to claim that it was not necessary to regulate Monsanto’s new GMOs.  A 1996 letter to Monsanto from Alan M. Rulis (then Director of the Office of Premarket Approval) gave the company another free pass:  “Based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that corn products derived from this new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, and other relevant parameters from corn currently on the market, and that the genetically modified corn does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.”   Actually, Monsanto had developed a regular practice of obtaining patents on their GMOs on the grounds that they are different. 

These hands-off policies were developed under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but Jeffrey Smith says that the FDA is still not doing its job of regulating.  Under President Obama, a former vice president of Monsanto, Michael Taylor, is the Deputy Commissioner for Foods, in other words, the guy in charge of regulating food.

At the very least it appears that testing has not been rigorous enough to prove the safety of GMOs and that we shouldn’t eat them or feed them to our animals until better testing has been done.  Although many genetically modified foods are in the pipeline, Smith says that only nine genetically modified foods – most corn, soy, sugar beet, canola, cotton, and Hawaiian papaya crops and smaller amounts of alfalfa, zucchini, and crookneck squash – are now being grown and sold in the U.S. 

It may seem not too hard to avoid just nine foods, but corn is fed to the animals we eat and made into the corn syrup that sweetens most non-organic food on our grocery shelves.  We eat soy, canola, and cotton products (like soy proteins and canola and cottonseed oils) in snack bars, meat and dairy substitutes, and prepared soups.  Fifty-four percent of our sugar comes from sugar beets.  And when we eat out at restaurants and friends’ houses, we don’t usually ask the cook if their ingredients are non-GMOs.  So, most of us eat much more genetically modified food than we think.

Here is what can we do in Pierce County – use our power as consumers.  Smith predicts that if the sales of Monsanto and Kraft Foods dropped just 5%, they would remove GMOs from their products overnight, just as they did in the European Union when scientists there raised concerns and sales went down.  On their website, Kraft Foods names “consumer acceptance” as one factor in their decision about whether to use genetically modified ingredients: “in the U.S. most people are not concerned about GM foods or ingredients and to we use them in America.  On the other hand, in Europe, we know the general public doesn’t want GM ingredients and so we don’t use them there.”

But we can show Monsanto and Kraft Foods that we Amercians are as concerned as Europeans are.  Pew Research Center polls indicate that 9 out of 10 Americans want to avoid GMOs .  We just need to stop buying food that includes GMOs.  Since food labels do not yet have to say that they include GMOs, we need to buy food labeled “non-GMO” or “organic.”  By law, organic food cannot include GMOs.  We also need to start asking owners of our favorite restaurants if they use non-GMO ingredients.  And we can spread the word to family and friends.  If we all did all that, the impact could be huge. 

Visit for more information on how to avoid GMO when you shop.