The SUNY New Paltz branch of New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) is combating GMOs — genetically modified organisms — found in processed foods.
Program coordinator of NYPIRG, Eric Wood, organizes the group of students.
“Genetically modified organisms are biotechnology used to create transgenic species of plants and animals that exhibit traits found in completely unrelated species, such as bacteria and viruses,” Wood said.
Wood gives the example of corn. Some plants have been genetically modified to produce a bacterial toxin (Bt toxin) that makes them poisonous to the corn borer, a pest that attacks corn plants, Wood said.
“GMO genomes have interspecies DNA combinations that are never found in nature and could never come into existence through conventional breeding techniques,” Wood said. “It is impossible for bacteria to breed with corn plants.”
According to Wood, this process to protect the crop does not come without questionable side effects.
The Bt toxin – a bacterial insecticide produced in some GMO corn – has been found in the bloodstream of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses, according to Wood.
“This indicates that Bt toxin can survive digestion and enter the bloodstream despite industry claims to the contrary,” he said.
GMO crops were introduced commercially in the United States in 1996. Since then, GMOs have dominated the agricultural landscape, Wood said. USDA data from 2011 shows that GMO varieties are being grown on 88 percent of corn acres, 90 percent of cotton and sugar beet acres and 94 percent of soybean acres.
Foods with GMOs have become commonplace in the country with 80 percent of all bagged, bottled, boxed, or canned foods estimated to contain GMO ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and xanthan gum, according to Wood.
Brian Obach, chair of the sociology department has similar concerns about GMOs, and said there are dangers to not knowing what exactly they do to the human body.
“Genetic engineering is one of those technologies that has been broadly implemented without a full understanding of health or environmental impacts,” Obach said. “Some studies suggest that there could be detrimental consequences, but the fact is that we just don’t know, which is why this should not be allowed at this time.”
Obach said that GMOs have negative effects for small and mid-sized farmers by essentially placing even more control of the food system in the hands of agribusiness corporations.
“We can meet all of the world’s food needs using safe, sustainable, low tech farming practices,” Obach said. “GMO technology places human health and that of the environment at risk while undermining the economic well being of those who grow our food.”
Second-year sociology major Annie Courtens said she has worked closely with NYPIRG and is passionate about GMO awareness.
“We are not only unaware of what is in our food today — since there is no requirement for labeling GMOs in the U.S.— but of the implications growing GMOs has on biodiversity in the environment and on people,” Courtens said.
“Yet we do see an increase in the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, decrease in seed, crop, animal diversity and overall polluted environments all over the world from industrial agriculture practices,” Courtens said.
On campus, NYPIRG is spearheading a campaign demanding that manufacturers label their packaging.
“We are advocating a bill in the New York State Senate and Assembly that would require any GM food to be adequately labeled to inform consumers, so we have a choice on whether we want to purchase GM food or take alternative routes,” Wood said. “We will educate the student body on the issue through class presentations, tabling efforts, one on one conversations with students, collaboration with other campus clubs like the Students for Sustainable Agriculture, and on-campus events.”
Wood said that advocating the public to put pressure on their state representatives is the main goal of the campaign.