Genetic Splice And Dice

Photo by Maxwell Reide.
Photo by Maxwell Reide.
Photo by Maxwell Reide.

If you believe that you are what you eat, you probably don’t know the full picture.

On Monday, April 7, author and Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology Jeffrey Smith spoke to a crowded and diverse Lecture Center audience on the ecological and societal health dangers of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in food and food production.

Smith, a leading critic of GMO practices in the biotechnology industry, presented findings of multiple GMO studies detailing their detrimental effects on human, animal and plant physiology and discussed the various ways to avoid them on a personal level and inspire policy change surrounding GMOs on a national level.

Smith began by providing background context on the introduction of GMOs in food production and why they dominate the food market today — albeit purposefully obscured from sight. According to Smith, chief-at-fault for the prevalence of gentically-modified (GM) food is Monsanto chemical and agricultural biotechnology company.

Monsanto Company scientists were the first to conduct field tests of GM crops in 1987, which through the use and enforcement of bio-patents — exclusive commercial-rights to a man-made genetic sequence, in this case various crop seeds — helped create a uniform system of agricultural of which Monsanto became the largest seed-producing company by early 2000.

The system, in its summary of plant breeders’ rights, prohibited the customary practices of farmers to save, reuse, share and develop plant varieties with patent-bound seeds. As a result, organic seed farming was phased out as pressure to use GM seeds became industry standard.

Smith said much of this was due to Michael R. Taylor, an attorney formerly of the law firm representing Monsanto in the 1980s, who was employed as Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the H.W. Bush administration while GM food production policy was being drafted in 1992.

According to Smith, Taylor’s influence in the FDA resulted in a policy that did not require labeling of GM food because the FDA, under Taylor, “‘did not see any significant difference’” between GM food and non-GM food.

“The reason why this hands-off policy was created was because of a simple sentence in the policy,” Smith said. “It said, ‘the agency is not aware of any information showing that foods created from these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.’ That was a lie.”

In 1999, a lawsuit brought against the FDA stating that non-mandated labeling of GM food violated the federal statute that first created the agency had the FDA release internal memos dating back to the time of the policy’s writing, Smith said.

According to him, the memos revealed that the agency’s scientists did in fact believe GMOs held dangers that “could lead to allergies, toxins, new diseases, nutritional problems” and needed to be tested carefully — information, the existence of which was officially denied by the FDA during the GM policy creation.

Smith said typical GMO diets — which by extension, include the typical American diet — are associated with a number of physical and mental illnesses, such as gastro-intestinal problems and ADD, that have subsided when individuals switch to non-GMO diets; a claim that many audience members corroborated when asked to share medical symptoms they experienced prior to having GMO-free pantries. Smith said animals, both domestic and livestock, experience similar change upon switching.

According to Smith, scientists have come up with three potential theories as to why consumption of GM food may be the cause of these negative health effects.

First, the process of genetically modifying cells in an organism to yield a specific gene trait can, in turn, create unexpected changes in the DNA composition — mutations that, since they are unaccounted for, may unknowingly be harmful. Cloning the spliced cells for mass production gives way for further mutation, two to four percent difference between cells, Smith said, creating “massive collateral damage” on the genetic scale.

Second, the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, a naturally occurring insecticide in corn and cotton which is harvested as a spray, has since been gene-spliced into other crops. According to Smith, Bt toxin is regarded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as having a history of safe use, yet when used in genetic modification of food there exists evidence of harm. Smith said Bt toxin has shown to survive the digestion process and once in the blood stream, “poke holes” in red blood cells.

“The experts of the EPA advised [their superiors] saying there were problems [with GM Bt toxin],” Smith said. “If you look at the mouse studies and the human studies, it looks like an allergen, tastes like an allergen, could be an allergen — find out. The EPA ignored its own experts and approved [Bt toxin use in GM food] because the bio-tech industry told them to.”

Third, large quantities of herbicide residue washed off crops and absorbed into the soil permeating new seeds roots. Smith said that within the first 16 years of GM agriculture, there was a 527-million-pound increase in the use of herbicides. Monsanto’s own herbicide, Roundup Ready — chemically known as glyphosate — contributes to mineral deficiencies in plants which provides poor nutrition to the livestock that eat them.

“We eat these weak and sick plants, we eat the weak and sick animals — we eat this food that contains the Roundup binds to our minerals making us weak and sick,” Smith said.

Despite all this Smith ended his lecture on a high note. According to him, 2013 sales for food products in America marked as containing no GMOs saw a spike, representing public perception opposing the use of GMOs and an increased knowledge of their effects — even though labeling of GM foods is not FDA-required.

Smith said the European Union has imposed restrictions on GMOs for nearly a decade now. Given the 2013 sales data, he expects a “tipping point” for the non-GMO movement this year or the next.

“Right now is the most important window of opportunity to inspire change,” Smith said. “[This is about] protecting the genetic integrity of humanity and all living beings.”