Genetically modified organisms have become a large part of our lives. Cotton, soy, and sugar beets are the highest risk crops, and most food ingredients in the processed category are derived from these crops.
Let’s start with the most obvious question. When regulatory agencies like the US FDA have approved GM foods, there should be no fuss about their safety … right?
This shocking article “The FDA does not test whether GMOs are safe”, tells us something different. It states that the us FDA has made it abundantly clear that “it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the [GMO] food products that it offers for sale are safe…”. In addition, the government doesn’t require the studies to be conducted by independent institutions. Adding to this explosive mix is the fact that whatever studies have been done are short-term, and fail to give any conclusive proof of the long-term safety of GM foods. Well, that makes the situation seriously grim.
In the first part of the GMO series, we discussed how genetically modified plants are created by forcing foreign genes into their DNA. As a quick recap, these foreign genes come from entirely different species to the host organism. So, what does that mean? Genes are transferred by breaking the genetic barriers nature has intended. Some repercussions expected? Possibly. In fact, the entire technology is based on an outdated theory of how genes function. It is only natural that the outcome of this experiment will be different to what was expected.
In this part of our series, we will look at some explicit and some expected health risks associated with GM foods.
GM foods can trigger unpredictable, unknown changes
The recurring argument is: GM technology is based on an inherently flawed, outdated scientific theory. The assumption that one gene encodes for only one protein has been rejected. It is now believed that the genes work in a highly complex labyrinth that scientists haven’t fully solved. Tinkering with an organism’s DNA can, therefore, trigger unknown and unplanned pathways that can cause mutations or lead to the formation of new proteins that are not naturally found in our food supply – triggering allergies and diseases.
GM foods can cause diseases
Several animal and human studies show that GM foods can:
- Increase intestinal permeability and damage the walls of intestines
- Affect immune functions and trigger auto-immune disorders
- Adversely affect foetus 
Genetic material in the GM foods doesn’t disintegrate, it lives on
- Research suggests that the genetically modified DNA gets transferred to the bacteria living in the intestines, which in turn start expressing similar traits as the GM food  . This causes gut dysbiosis. For example, the gut bacteria will also start to produce toxic pesticides just like the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), whose genes have been inserted in crops like corn. (Bt produces its own toxins to kill pests.)
- In 2012, a team of researchers led by Professor Jack Heinemann conducted a genetic research on the wheat developed by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The study found that the double stranded RNA in the genetically modified wheat didn’t disintegrate when digested and further reported that these RNA bits circulate in the body and get transformed into even bigger pieces – taking the shape of entirely different RNAs with the capacity of turning off human genes. 
Does it still look like something we should eat? Well, there is more.
Increased use of pesticides: A pointless point
Pro-GM lobby exhorts that adverse effects of eating GM foods are not based on clear, conclusive scientific studies done on human beings. But doesn’t the same logic apply to the studies proving these foods to be safe, most of which are inaccurate, show only short-term effects, and are based on inconsistent and flawed methodologies? The point is, if we don’t know they are unsafe, we don’t know they are safe either.
What about the toxic effects of pesticides? Bountiful crops and reduced need to spray harsh pesticides were two of the most luring benefits promised when GM crops were launched. But over time, super weeds and insects have now emerged, forcing farmers to use increased amounts of herbicides and insecticides. And as expected, with this, toxins have now infiltrated into our soil, produce, animal feed and surrounding water systems – threatening to harm us through explicit and implicit pathways.
The New York Times article titled, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” extensively examined these so-called benefits and found that genetic modification technique in the United States and Canada has not led to any substantial increase in crop yields. It also notes that herbicide use has increased by 21 percent. It says “weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides.”
Increased resistance to Roundup means that controversial chemicals like 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the main component in a new herbicide manufactured by Dow) are now used to contain the super weeds. What’s wrong with 2,4-D? Nothing much really, except that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified 2,4-D as a possible human carcinogen. An article in The Guardian reported that “IARC reviewed the latest scientific literature and decided to classify 2,4-D as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, a step below the more definitive “probably carcinogenic” category but two steps above the “probably not carcinogenic” category.” .
What does this mean? It simply means that even scientists from WHO believe that 2,4-D could cause cancer. IARC earlier had announced another herbicide – glyphosate (main ingredient in Roundup produced by Monsanto) – as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Studies show that exposure to Roundup can cause:
- Kidney and liver damage 
- Male infertility 
- Breast cancer 
- Disturbance in the hormonal system
- Birth abnormalities 
- Neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism 
Other studies show that herbicide Glufosinate, a Bayer product, acts as a neurotoxin. And Bt crops are found to create toxins that can cause red blood cell damage and even cause cell death  .
What does all this mean for our health?
- Allergies, asthma and infections
- Infertility, birth defects and stillbirths
- Impaired immune system
- Organ damage
- Impaired gastrointestinal functions, gut dysbiosis
- Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism
- Developmental delays in children
Effect of pesticides on the environment
Overuse of toxic pesticides not only damage health but also leads to negative developments in the eco-system, affecting other species too. It has resulted in:
- Depletion of nutrients from the soil.
- Decline in the population of bees, the nature’s most competent pollinators, and also of monarch butterflies. (glyphosate has led to the elimination of milkweed – a plant upon which the Monarch butterfly feed and lay eggs)
- Livestock diseases
Farmers suffer too!
With Bt crops failing and the costs of buying GM seeds increasing, farmers in India are increasingly resorting to suicide. The same companies, like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dupont, that are creating genetically modified crops are also manufacturing and selling herbicides. These companies bind farmers to buy fresh seeds every year as there is no provision in their contract to clean and save seeds for further use as often practiced in traditional farming. What’s more, these heavy weight companies can even sue farmers whose fields have been inadvertently pollinated with genetically modified organisms.
What can we do? Stay tuned for the part 3 in the GMO series.
- Rachel Pomerance, “GMOs: A Breakthrough or Breakdown in U.S. Agriculture?” U.S. News & World Report, April 25, 2013.
- Aris A, Leblanc S. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reprod Toxicol. 2011
- Carl-Alfred Alpert, Denis D G Mater, Marie-Claude Muller, Marie-France Ouriet, Yvonne Duval-Iflah, Gérard Corthier. Worst-case scenarios for horizontal gene transfer from Lactococcus lactis carrying heterologous genes to Enterococcus faecalis in the digestive tract of gnotobiotic mice.Environment Biosafety Research. 2003 Jul-Sep;2(3):173-80.
- M Gruzza, M Fons, M F Ouriet, Y Duval-Iflah, R Ducluzeau. Study of gene transfer in vitro and in the digestive tract of gnotobiotic mice from Lactococcus lactis strains to various strains belonging to human intestinal flora. Microbial Releases : Virus, bacteria, fungi. 1994 Jul;2(4):183-9.
- Elliott Freeman. Scientists: New GMO wheat may 'silence' vital human genes. Digital Journal. 2012
- Herbicide 2,4-D 'possibly' causes cancer, World Health Organisation study finds. The Guardian. June 2015
- Robin Mesnage, Matthew Arno, Manuela Costanzo, Manuela Malatesta, Gilles-Eric Séralini and Michael N. Antoniou. Transcriptome profile analysis reflects rat liver and kidney damage following chronic ultra-low dose Roundup exposure. Enviornmentral Health
- Mae-Wan Ho. Glyphosate/Roundup & Human Male Infertility. ISIS Report 19/03/14 Institute of Science in Society.
- Thongprakaisang S, Thiantanawat A, Rangkadilok N, Suriyo T, Satayavivad J. Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food and Chemical Toxicology (an international journal publish for the British Industrial Biological Research Association). 2013 Sep;59:129-36. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2013.05.057. Epub 2013 Jun 10.
- Alejandra Paganelli, Victoria Gnazzo, Helena Acosta, Silvia L. López, and Andrés E. Carrasco. Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Produce Teratogenic Effects on Vertebrates by Impairing Retinoic Acid Signaling. Chemical Research in Toxicology.
- Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff. Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy 2013, 15(4), 1416-1463; doi:10.3390/e15041416.
- Bélin Poletto Mezzomo, Ana Luisa Miranda-Vilela, Ingrid de Souza Freire, Lilian Carla Pereira Barbosa, Flávia Arruda Portilho, Zulmira Guerrero Marques Lacava and Cesar Koppe Grisolia. Hematotoxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis as Spore-crystal Strains Cry1Aa, Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2Aa in Swiss Albino Mice. Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases.
- R Mesnage, E Clair, S Gress, C Then, A Székács, G-E Séralini. Cytotoxicity on human cells of Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac Bt insecticidal toxins alone or with a glyphosate-based herbicide. J Appl Toxicol. 2012 Feb 15. Epub 2012 Feb 15.