The Genetic Engineering Impact
It should come as no surprise that the utilization of GMOs is among the most polarized topics in American politics today. This heated debate is absolutely justified as, “Estimates suggest that as much as 80% of U.S. processed food may contain an ingredient from a GE crop, such as corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, soy flour, soy lecithin, or cottonseed oil.” (UC Biotech). The fact is, some of the largest food, farm and biotechnology companies in the US are making efforts to influence regulations set forth by the EPA, FDA, and other governmental bodies regarding genetically engineered ingredients.
One of the main issues surrounding GMO foods in the US is the lack of proper labelling. To put things in perspective, 101.4 million dollars were spent in 2015 by lobbyists to avert GMO labelling alone. “The food companies that spent the most last year for anti-GMO-labeling legislation and other issues were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz Co., Land O’Lakes and General Mills.” (Coleman). When you consider that 9 out of 10 Americans believe GMO foods should require labelling; and that 64 countries around the world DO require labelling, it sheds some light on the need for such highly vested interests (GMO Facts). Even with 90% of the population supporting the label, the actual enforcement of this has been a political nightmare. For starters, these massive corporations are worth so much, they are capable of buying politicians. In July 2015, a major legislative battle was won by anti-labelling groups. Known to many as the Deny Americans the Right to Know – or DARK – act, this legal proposal essentially prevented Vermont from becoming the first state in the nation to require mandatory labelling of GMO foods. Not only did it gut Vermont’s 2014 decision, but it preemptively barred other states from adopting similar legislation. The act passed through the senate with a 69-28 vote in spite of such disapproval from the American public. “According to an analysis by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), senators who voted ‘Yes’ received more than twice as much in contributions from the agriculture lobby than those who voted ‘No’ ($867,518 for the supporters vs. $350,877 for opponents).” (Prupis). The DARK act was signed into law by Obama despite 250,000 petitioners’ requests to veto the proposal (Greenberg). Since then, this petition has grown to 4 million supporters yet the result goes unturned. Clearly, these decisions are not being made on the behalf of the common citizen. Consequently, many criticize the FDA and EPA for their lack of action and leniency on this issue. This is not the first time; however, that these entities have come under fire from anti-GMO groups.
In September of 2000, for the first time in history, a nationwide recall of genetically modified ingredients occurred. Starlink corn is a genetically engineered strain that contains a variety of the Bt protein. It was approved by the EPA solely for livestock feed and industrial purposes such as biofuels (Starlink™). Nonetheless, Starlink corn contamination was discovered by the coalition, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, in Kraft taco shells. “Kraft bought the shells from a factory in Mexicali, Mexico, owned by Sabritas, a subsidiary of PepsiCo.” (Pollack). There were an estimated 2.5 million units on grocery store shelves and inside consumers’ homes that fell under the recall. Multiple lawsuits were filed on behalf of individuals who consumed these contaminated goods and expressed allergenic reactions, but all were settled out of court. The disastrous episode gave fresh ammunition to pro-labelling groups who claimed the entire recall could have been avoided. “But officials of the Food and Drug Administration and in the biotechnology industry said this was a case of food contamination, not a problem with regulations.” (Pollack). It is still unknown how the contamination event occurred, yet there are some simple assumptions that can be made. Pollen from the Starlink corn could have travelled into nearby fields and fertilized non-GMO plants, resulting in contaminated seeds. This situation illustrates the difficulties of containing genetic material once it is active inside a living entity. Alternatively, the GMO corn meal could have been accidently mixed with conventional ingredients at the Sabritas processing facility. This is believed to be the more likely of the two situations, especially considering Starlink corn has no special label to designate it as genetically modified. There has not been a verified positive test in the marketplace since 2003 so, as of 2008, the EPA has recommended that facilities cease testing for Starlink contamination (Starlink™). While this incident was indeed a blemish on the history of genetic engineering, it has since been contained and resolved. There are still fears; however, that a similar contamination incident is inevitable due to the principles of gene escape.
What many people don’t know about modern agriculture is that nearly all of our crop varieties are closely related to pesky weedy species. Although it is rare, these distant relatives are sometimes able to pollinate one another and create fertile offspring. One such example can be found in Sorghum bicolor, a staple food crop for many in Africa. This variety of Sorghum is often found growing alongside Sorghum halepense, an extremely troublesome weedy relative known more commonly as johnsongrass. If a genetically improved strain of Sorghum were to pollinate this johnsongrass, it could give rise to herbicide and insect resistant “superweeds”. One study found that, “wind-carried pollen could create hybrid seeds over 300 feet away from the original crop. These hybrids produced pollen and seeds as viable as the johnsongrass, meaning that they could spread just as aggressively.” (Glausiusz). Horticulturists have also successfully made distant crosses between oilseed rape, wild mustard, and the common cabbage plant; just to name a few. In this way, a GMO crop may release its genes into wild plant populations. This unintended effect could be disastrous and potentially impossible to contain once established. As Michael Pollan once said, “Agriculture changes the landscape more than anything else we do. It alters the composition of species. We don’t realize it when we sit down to eat, but that is our most profound engagement with the rest of nature.” (Pollan).
At the end of the day, the GM crops will remain in the field, the lobbyists will be paid handsomely for their votes, and hindsight will still be overshadowed by profits. Genetic engineering is in many ways still a novel science, prone to unforeseen circumstances and unintended consequences. While this might have you shaking in your boots, it doesn’t even faze those who put the current system in place. For that reason, it is imperative that we as a society do our best to monitor what is happening. Know your food. Know where it comes from, how it is grown, and who grew it. Most of all, know that you have a right to this information.
About: I graduated from the University of Minnesota earning a BS in Applied Plant Science with an emphasis in plant improvement. During my undergrad, I spent 3 years working in a transgenic, small-grains breeding program. The foundation of this experience began with training in effective horticultural principles and plant breeding schemes. From here, I moved up into the laboratory where I worked extensively with tissue sampling, histotechniques, DNA extraction, amplification, isolation and sequencing. Naturally, this work was done in conjunction with the management of various agricultural systems; including transgenic growth chambers, greenhouse, and outdoor growing. I have since worked in pharmaceutical farming management and compliance in the developing cannabis industry.
Coleman, Rob. “Food Lobby Spends $101 Million in 2015 to Avert GMO Labeling.” EWG. EWG, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Glausiusz, Josie. “January/February 2017.” DiscoverMagazine.com. Discover Magazine, 1 May 1998. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
“GMO Facts.” The NonGMO Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Greenberg, Jonathan. “Obama Expands Monsanto Doctrine By Signing DARK Act And Invalidating Vermont GMO Labeling Law.” The Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 9 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
“How Many Foods Are Genetically Engineered?” UC Biotech. N.p., 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Pollack, Andrew. “Kraft Recalls Taco Shells With Bioengineered Corn.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2000. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Prupis, Nadia. “Activists Expose Monsanto’s Senate Lackeys Minutes Before DARK Act Vote.” Common Dreams. Common Dreams, 6 July 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
“Starlink™ Corn Regulatory Information | Pesticides |US EPA.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 16 Oct. 2007. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.