December 2012: The Debate on GMOs

Happy December to Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange Readers! This month we’ll discuss the issues around GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), something I’ve been asked to write about in the aftermath of the defeat of Proposition 37 in California (the Right to Know campaign to label GMO foods). I have tried to present a balanced view, even though you can probably imagine that I’m not a big fan of some of the bigger examples of tampering with our food chain, such as Bt corn (which turns corn into a pesticide). I’ll explain briefly what GMOs are and I’ll list the reasons why we modify organisms. I will report on some of the risks associated with GMOs, but I’ve left out any scary pictures of rats with tumors. I’ll catalog the crops that are most affected by genetic modification, and list out the foods products where these GMOs (from crops) are likely to end up. If you are really wanting to avoid GMOs, I’ll give you some strategies and tools for doing so. Enjoy this month’s newsletter!

Before I jump right in to the GMO content, I take a brief moment to help out any of those readers that are just searching for a gift that they’d like to give children and families in the Wood River Valley.  As you might know, Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange is a sister-organization to Nurture, which is in the process of accepting donations to expand its programming to improve the nutrition and health of families across the nation.  We teach content that often times overlaps with the very same messages provided as a free-service through the monthly Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange newsletter.  Our first readers of Healthy Kids, back in 2008, were actually the folks that provided the seed-funds to start Nurture in Chicago!  I have refrained from asking for donations via this newsletter since that initial drive, but we have expanding needs this year and maybe just maybe you are itching to make a donation this year.  If so, please use the “donate” button on the sidebar of Healthy Kids.  In any case, read on.  Thank you!

So, back to GMOs.  What is a genetically modified organism, anyway?   I like to keep concepts simple and visual, so here is my picture of what GMOs mean:

So we use parts of the DNA code from one organism (often viruses and bacteria) and place them into another organism (like corn or soy).  Why would we do this?

Reasons we Genetically Modify Organisms

The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GMO foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways:

  • Plants that are more drought tolerant
  • Plants that are pest resistant
  • Plants that are herbicide tolerant
  • Plants that can kill bugs
  • Plants that have higher nutritional value
  • Plants that are cold tolerant
  • Plants that are resistant to disease (bacteria and viruses)

Ok, so the above reasons sound pretty reasonable if we want to feed our growing population.  The question is, are GMOs safe?  Here is where I found lots of controversial advice, and I will try my best to share all sides of the story with you.  Then you will have to decide for yourselves (and your families).

Position #1:  GMOs do not have health risks

Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, phrased it last year inScientific American: “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” As Ingo Potrykus, career plant scientist, put it in a review article for the Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, “GE-technology has an unprecedented safety record and it is far more precise and predictable than any other “traditional” and unregulated breeding technology.” GMOs have the potential to dramatically benefit people across the world by providing balanced nutrition and enhancing production in struggling areas. As mentioned above in the reasons why we modify organisms, they have the potential to address many of the very real concerns about our current and future food supply.

Based on the growing body of scientific literature, numerous scientists and scientific organizations have come out in defense of genetic engineering technologies and against labeling initiatives like Proposition 37, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Medical Association, theNational Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization. The AAAS statement put it succinctly: “Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

And what about the FDA? ”The agency is not aware of any information  showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” This is from their statement of Policy on May 29, 1992.

Position #2:  GMOs do have health risks

In 1999 the Lancet reported that when rats were fed genetically modified potatoes, they developed:

  • Potentially pre-cancerous cell growth in the digestive tract
  • Smaller brains, livers and reproductive organs
  • Partial atrophy of the liver, and
  • Immune system damage

GMO potatoes have since been removed from the market.  Other health risks that have been associated with GMO’s, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, include:

  • Allergens
  • Toxins
  • New diseases
  • Nutritional problems


Other voices against GMO’s include that of Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth, who believes that GMOs are behind the dramatic increase in food allergies.  Here is the video of her recent (2011) TedEx talk:

Kate Geagan, MS, RD also shares some interesting points in her October 2012 blog, Why GMOs are the Tipping Point of Taking Back Consumer Power.

Position #3:  It depends

My research led me to conclude that GMOs should not be put into one blanket group–not all GMOs are the same. Every plant created with genetic technology contains a different modification.  Adding Bt toxin to corn is different than adding Vitamin A to rice or vaccines to potatoes or heart-protective peptides to tomatoes.  I DO believe in labeling, but I think more education should come first.  People should know more about what’s in their food. I would have loved to see Proposition 37 pass, but perhaps a “generic GMO label” wouldn’t have told us what we really need to know: what exactly is the modification that this plant has received?  Some modifications might be just fine and other not.  And there definitely needs to be more testing done on the specific types of genetic modification.

Where are GMO’s found?

The big four crops that have been genetically modified include:

  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Cotton and
  • Canola

What does that mean for GMOs in our food chain?  Here is how GMOs find their way into the food chain:

It is estimated that GMOs find their way into 70% of our foods.  If you are eating processed foods, you are most definitely eating GMOS.   Here’s why:

How can you avoid GMOs?

Here are some simple strategies that you can use to reduce your intake of GMOs:

  • Buy organic
  • Buy products that are labeled non-GMO
  • Avoid at-risk ingredients (processed ingredients, as mentioned above)
  • Buy products listed on a Non-GMO Shopping Guide

Have a great month and a happy, healthy holiday season!



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This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. I just read this in a newsletter from Nutritional Concepts… some informaiton about how genetic engineering coudl be used as an energy source (for cars, not humans!). Now this might be interesting!

    Exciting Bacterial Energy Source.
    A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They’ve tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel — specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline.

    A research scientist in MIT’s biology department who has been working to develop this bioengineered bacterium, is currently trying to get the organism to use a stream of carbon dioxide as its source of carbon, so that it could be used to make fuel out of emissions.

    According to the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, while focusing on getting the microbe to use CO2 as a carbon source, with slightly different modifications the same microbe could also potentially turn almost any source of carbon, including agricultural waste or municipal waste, into useful fuel.

    Unlike some proposed biofuels, isobutanol can be used in current engines with little or no modification, and has already been used in some racing cars. The work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

  2. Here is an interesting article from the New York Times about food companies (including Walmart) and their position on GMO labeling:

  3. Thank you to Bonnie and Steve from Nutritional Concepts for this update on GMOs now affecting Stevia:
    First it was Cargill. Now PepsiCo is getting into the act. As we reported last month, the destruction of stevia as a tolerable, natural, non-caloric sweetener has begun.

    PepsiCo has patented Rebaudioside D (Reb-D), a sweetness molecule from the stevia plant. PepsiCo envisions Reb-D not only as the future sweetener of its diet beverage line, but a valuable commodity for other food and beverage manufacturers wishing to use it for their products.

    PepsiCo could not be hassled with harvesting mass amounts of stevia in its current state. By genetically modifying it to produce extremely high amounts of Reb-D, the sweetness yield and profitability increases. The proprietary plant technology will also bring in lucrative royalties.

    There is no way of knowing if Reb-D is safe. There are no safety studies. PepsiCo has submitted Reb-D for GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) approval with the FDA. Unfortunately, it does not take much for GRAS approval, so I guess we will have to take the wait and see approach.

    For the same reason we were reticent of its cousin, Reb-A, when you start to see Reb-D on ingredient labels, it should give you pause. As we reiterated in the Cargill piece below, the only stevia brand we recommend with confidence is Sweet Leaf.

    Cargill is Going to Ruin Stevia (published in March)
    It’s not enough that Cargill has taken stevia and blended it with erythritol, a genetically modified corn sweetener (the product Truvia). Now they want to make a stevia product where they would not even have to grow the stevia plant.

    Cargill is developing and commercializing stevia extracts derived from a fermentation process, rather than through traditional extraction from the stevia plant. The intent is to produce sweeteners that are molecularly identical to stevia extracts, but without relying on the cultivation, processing and refining of stevia plants.

    Cargill claims that the process will allow it to select and produce specific components responsible for stevia’s sweet taste. The process adapts fermentation technology to produce steviol glycosides through low-cost, sustainable carbohydrate feedstocks that can be sourced from anywhere around the globe. The feedstock is most likely corn.

    Because steviol glycosides were approved for use in foods and beverages in the US and Europe, Cargill will only have to prove substantial equivalence to bring its sweetness components to market.

    This development is yet another reason to stick with the only stevia brand we endorse, Sweet Leaf.

  4. FYI: On produce, if you see a five digit number that begins with the number 8, the item was genetically modified

  5. kathryn says:

    Steve and Bonnie Minsky from Nutritional Concepts report this interesting news:
    The Agriculture Department has approved a label for meat and liquid egg products that includes a claim about the absence of genetically engineered products. It is the first time that the department, which regulates meat and poultry processing, has approved a non-G.M.O. label claim, which attests that meat certified by the Non-GMO Project came from animals that never ate feed containing genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy and alfalfa.

    More and more companies, however, are voluntarily labeling their products, including most recently Chipotle, the thriving restaurant chain, which now points out items containing genetically engineered ingredients on its online menu. Meat from animals that eat non-G.M.O. feed, like certified organic meats, is highly prized consumers, but claims made by meat labels must be approved by the U.S.D.A.

    The U.S.D.A. vetted the Non-GMO Project’s standards, requirements and auditing processes before giving its approval. It has to approve every single label that goes out into commerce, but this sets a precedent for other meat and poultry companies that want to label this way.

  6. kathryn says:

    I recently attended a talk with Mariel Hemingway, and there were some questions from the audience about GMOs. She brought up the film “Genetic Roulette”:
    Check it out:

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