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GM foods: coming to a supermarket near you…

Reading time: 13 minutes

We’ve all heard the time-honored expression, “You are what you eat.” The saying can be traced back to the famous French lawyer and major foodie Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote the seven-volume The Physiology of Taste in 1826. Fundamentally what he was trying to get across is that the character of a human being—their attitude, morals, health and outlook on life—is determined by the foods they consume.

Keeping this food philosophy in mind, which would you rather eat?

  1. A cabbage genetically spliced with scorpion venom to make it more bug-resistant and compatible with the herbicide Roundup
  2. A button mushroom that will never turn dark and slimy in the fridge
  3. Synthetic milk made from microbes grown in industrial vats filled with genetically modified (GM) corn or soy plus colorants, texturizing agents and other processed ingredients
  4. An organic homegrown heirloom tomato from your garden

If you picked number four, you’re in good company. One survey shows that US consumers are willing to pay 5 to 28 percent more for non-genetically modified products like oils and salmon than for products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).1 And the organic food market is expanding rapidly. In 2020, organic food sales in Germany rose nearly 25 percent and in France rose 12 percent. The UK saw a 30 percent increase between 2017 and 2021.2

The global market for organic foods overall is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 11.8 percent as consumers wise up about the importance of maintaining a strong immune system and become more aware of the debilitating health effects of herbicides, pesticides, preservatives, artificial ingredients, highly processed foods and bioengineered “frankenfoods.”3

Despite this health trend, currently over 90 percent of US corn, soybeans and cotton are produced using genetically engineered (GE) seed varieties, altered to be more resistant to herbicides and insects, as well as more tolerant of drought and various fungi. Other crops often subject to genetic engineering are alfalfa, canola (rapeseed) and sugar beets.4

As far as genetically engineered food is concerned, the US was first to come out with two products in the 1980s: a GE enzyme called recombinant chymosin that’s used in cheese production and better known as rennet, and a growth hormone called recombinant bovine somatotrophin (BST) that was created to extend the lactation cycle in dairy cows. Dairy cows injected with it are up to 45 percent more susceptible to a highly painful condition called mastitis, an inflammation of the udder.5 It also set in motion one of the first big anti-GE food movements in the country.

In 1991, the US corporation DNA Plant Technologies spliced a gene from the arctic flounder fish in an attempt to create a tomato that could withstand heavy frosts and long periods of cold storage. It didn’t work and never made it to market.6 In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato (aka CGN-89564-2), created by Calgene Inc., became the first GE food licensed for consumption in the US. Its release was a technological sensation, but between consumer fears and its price tag (Flavr Savr tomatoes cost twice as much as other tomatoes on the market), it didn’t last very long.

However, engineered foods have slipped in through the back door. An estimated 75 percent of processed foods in the US already contain at least one ingredient made from GE crops.7 Because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require food labels to alert consumers to the presence of genetically engineered ingredients or pre-market safety testing on these sorts of products, millions upon millions of American men, women and children are ingesting these foods with no knowledge and absolutely no choice in the matter.

In the UK, if foods contain GMOs and/or ingredients produced from GMOs, it must be stated on the label. However, surveys show that UK consumers are largely uninformed about GE foods, which most people confuse with GM crops. Genetic engineering, or genome editing, involves tweaking the DNA of an organism, while genetic modification involves introducing foreign genes.8

The EU has been a stronghold against farming of GM crops within its countries’ borders and yet has long permitted the import of approximately 50 million tons of GMO grain annually.9 In August 2021, it authorized the import of seven GMO crops—three species of maize, two kinds of soybeans, and rapeseed for oil and cotton—in countries that wanted to do so. Currently Russia is the largest holdout, banning the import of GMO grains and cultivation of any GMO crops.

Overall, the willingness of consumers in Western nations to ingest modified foods seems to be on a sliding scale based on the level of genetic tampering present. They “get” the usefulness of crops modified for insect and disease resistance, changing weather conditions, improved nutrition profiles, longer shelf life, and better texture and flavor. Most people are also willing to buy and eat food products that are nutritionally enhanced, like breakfast cereals from GMO grains that are fortified with synthetic calcium.

However, plant-to-plant modifications combining genes from different kinds of plants are less appealing. Unsurprisingly, animal-to-plant gene transfer technologies (like the flounder tomato) inspire even less trust and interest.10

Can the body use them?

In addition to GE or GM crops and the animals we eat that are raised on them, many vitamin supplements and vitamins used to enrich foods are made synthetically using GMOs. According to LaShay Canady, nutrition expert and executive director of the International Foundation for Nutrition and Health in Aurora, Colorado, the most important questions concerning GM foods and synthetic vitamins are, how does the body process them, and can the body maintain a balanced chemistry while ingesting such items?

“Our first thought when it comes to synthetics is, how does it function in the body?” says Canady. “The human body has a natural process of selective absorption. If you’re eating natural whole foods, the body automatically selects what it needs from those foods and processes it like it should. But if it’s forced to process something that is foreign—a non-food—you’ll get a response. But is it the response you want? Forced absorption has ramifications.”

Canady uses the example of synthetic vitamins, which have been on the market since the late 1940s and now comprise 90 percent of all vitamins sold globally. She points out the bright yellow urine most people experience when they’re ingesting high levels of synthetic vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin D2.

“You can be taking these vitamins for weeks and weeks and blood tests will still show you’re deficient in those vitamins,” says Canady. “It’s a perfect example of nonselective absorption. The body refuses to process the synthetic products and the result is very costly yellow urine. If you’re getting your vitamins from whole foods, your body will absorb the vitamins and they won’t be so heavily excreted in the urine.”

The big-picture issue with eating synthetic foods, the effects of which are not yet well known, is the relationship between food and the endocrine system. The endocrine system creates hormones that control nearly all body processes—growth and development, metabolism, sex drive, emotions and sleep.

Food nourishes the endocrine organs, like the pituitary gland, the thyroid, the parathyroid, liver and pancreas, which in turn feed the rest of the body and its organs via the bloodstream. If synthetic substances are being flushed out of the body and not properly assimilated, cells may suffer cell starvation and degeneration because they’re not getting the raw material that they need.

“Take, for example, grass-fed beef,” she says. “There’s the animal. There’s this beautiful, rich, fertile soil, and the grass is growing through this fertile soil, and the animal eats that delicious, green, rich grass, and there is photosynthesis happening and nutrients from the soil being absorbed. Your body is receiving nourishment from known and unknown sources when you’re eating it. What you’re getting from something that’s grown in the lab, with no photosynthesis, no soil elements . . . I don’t know what that is.”

In the case of synthetic vitamins, study after study maintains that they are similar to whole-food-based vitamins in terms of bioavailability (never mind the yellow urine). But some studies show that vitamins from whole-food sources are better metabolized and healthier.

Natural B vitamin complexes have a stronger effect on metabolism than synthetics.11 Vitamin D3 supplement-ation from natural sources is more effective than synthetic vitamin D2.12

Lambs fed a natural hay-based diet versus a grain-based diet supplemented with synthetic vitamin E show healthier levels of muscle vitamin E and fatty acids.13 Dairy cows fed grass with naturally high vitamin E produce milk with a higher vitamin E content than cows fed synthetic vitamin E.14 Poultry given feed that is supplemented with natural vitamin E versus synthetic shows lower production of inflammatory cytokines (small proteins involved in cell signaling), and the same is true of horses.15

As far as the issue of safety is concerned, substantial equivalence is an industry term used to mean that a new food, in particular a food that has been genetically modified, is as safe as a similar traditional food that has proven safe over a long period. In a Food Safety Assessment, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced that genetically modified foods are nutritionally similar to conventional varieties of wheat, corn and tomatoes on the market today, citing substantial equivalence.

And yet a paper titled “Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of the Joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology and Food Safety Report” cites “glaring inadequacies” in the assessment, including the fact that substantial equivalence (SE) of an engineered substance does not have to be based in a comparison to the same plant or animal variety in its natural form.

“The GE food could be compared to any and all varieties within the species,” the authors write. “It could have the worst characteristics of all the varieties and still be considered SE. A GE product could even be compared to a product from a totally unrelated species. Worse still, there are no defined tests that products have to go through to establish SE.”16

A literature review exploring safety assessments of genetically modified plants is not reassuring. The study reveals that most safety studies of GMOs have been funded and conducted by the same biotechnology companies that are trying to take them to market.17

Systems biology predicts significant accumulation of formaldehyde and a significant depletion of the antioxidant glutathione in GMOs.18 High levels of kidney and liver toxicity have been found in rats eating GMO maize.19 Heated GMO oils, such as canola and soybean oil, contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress.20 Consumption of GMO canola oil is linked to weight gain, neuropathology and amyloid plaques in mice,21 as well as to cardiac lesions in rats.22

Adverse reactions to chemicals used on GM crops are a concern as well. Studies have shown glyphosate residues in engineered “Roundup Ready” crops are likely to be passed on to consumers.23

One of the major issues with synthetic foods cultured from genetically engineered microbes, yeasts and bacteria in labs is their inherent lack of nutritional value. This means that nutrients in the form of vitamins, enzymes and fatty acids have to be added back into the final product. And yet the process of enriching and fortifying regular processed foods stripped of nutrients in their manufacture has already shown itself to be problematic. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report showing that some regular fortified foods contain levels of vitamins that are much too high for children and that almost half of children between ages 2 and 8 consume zinc and vitamin A at levels that could be dangerous.24

Another study shows that children may be ingesting too much zinc, retinol, folic acid, selenium and copper and adults may be getting too much calcium and iron from fortified foods.25 Excess folic acid plus vitamin B12, a combination often found in enriched/fortified foods, has been linked with cancer and increased all-cause mortality.26

And then there are the environmental dangers involved in introducing genetically modified substances into the food chain. In general, current industry studies are considered insufficient as a basis for adequate regulation.23 And the studies that have been done on the hazardous impacts of GM food and feed on plant and animal life are conflicting.27 Aside from the unknown impact on ecosystems, a major concern is the potential that GM crops might cross-breed with wild species to create new weeds that resist herbicides.

The recent engineering of oilseed crops, genetically splicing in long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from cold-water fish in order to nutritionally enhance the oil so that rapeseed/canola crops can compete with commercial wild-caught fish oils, is a perfect example of how genetically modifying existing crops can be environmentally problematic.

Introducing an ocean-based compound into a land plant that insects have never been exposed to has led to malformation of the bodies and wings of certain butterflies.28 The potential side effects on other pollinators, such as non-pest butterflies and bees, is unknown.

All in all, it is clear that the health and environmental issues surrounding the development of genetically modified synthetic foods have yet to be properly assessed and understood.

“We’ve made the whole issue of food way more complicated than it really is,” says Jenifer Daruty, a holistic health practitioner in Wailuku, Hawaii. “Food is fuel to give you life and energy. It’s literally fuel from the standpoint of nutrition. But food can also fuel you in an emotional way that can be really fun and playful and awesome. For example, if you’re sitting around with friends and you’re eating a meal of local organic produce that’s been prepared in a really loving way, that is fueling your body with connections and emotions.

“There are so many different reasons why I would suggest people stay away from synthetic foods versus whole foods. One of the biggest things is intention. This will probably sound really hokey, but when you are eating foods coming closest from their natural state, there’s love behind them. The farmer is planting the seeds and tending the crops, putting love into the food, which is very different than something grown in a lab. If we look at food as love and energy and life force, there’s a disconnection when we eat foods that come from a lab versus eating foods that are grown in their purest natural state.”

The latest frankenfoods

Synbio dairy proteins: Microbes are genetically engineered to produce dairy proteins inside industrial vats, where they are fed GMO corn or soy-based sugars to produce dairy proteins. These proteins are combined with other proteins and artificial flavorings, colorants and texturizers to produce dairy substitutes like milk, cream, cheese and cheese spreads, salad dressings, desserts and ice cream.

Hypoallergenic milk: A cloned dairy calf was genetically engineered in Russia to have its genes for beta-lactoglobulin eliminated, thus creating the first potential dairy cow to produce lactose-free milk.1

Cell-cultured synthetic meat: Lab-grown meat is being marketed as a “humane” and “kill-free” alternative to animal products. Unfortunately, the cell cultures needed for this process still come from animals. Tissue from living cows is mixed with extracted stem cells to produce lab-grown muscle fibers that are then processed, colored, flavored and formed into different meat products.

Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is a substance often used to grow cell-cultured synthetic meats. Blood is harvested from the hearts of living calf fetuses taken from pregnant cows during slaughter without the use of anesthesia. A 3-month-old fetus provides about 150 mL (5 fl oz) of raw FBS. To meet the current market demand for cell-cultured meat, over a million calf fetuses are harvested this way annually, producing around 500,000 L (132,000 gal) of fetal bovine serum.

One animal-free method uses human platelet lysate (hPL) in place of FBS as a supplement for the cell culture medium, taken from expired blood donations.

Plant-based meat alternatives: These products contain no animal-based ingredients. However, they depend heavily on the use of industrial seed oils, like canola (rapeseed) and soybean oil, that are loaded with linoleic acid and linked to inflammatory conditions and oxidative stress.2 Consumption of GMO canola oil is linked to neuropathology in the brain and to amyloid plaques in mice,3 as well as to cardiac lesions in rats.4

Getting the terminology straight

One of the issues surrounding genetically modified foods is the lack of consistency in terminology. Studies show frequent confusion in the UK between terms like genetically modified and genetically engineered, as well as a general lack of awareness about the existence of genetically engineered food.

As far as this relatively new science is concerned, the terms biotechnology, gene technology, recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering all refer to the same gene-altering process. Here is a quick rundown of the most common terms.

CRISPR-Cas9 – The technology developed in the US in 2012 for genetic enhancement of organisms is a precise gene-editing process that uses engineered enzymes to target specific locations on a DNA sequence, cut the DNA strand and “edit out” unwanted genes, like the genes that make mushrooms turn brown. It can also insert other kinds of genes into a DNA sequence as desired.

Fermentation technology – There are three types of fermentation technology: traditional, biomass and precision. Traditional fermentation has been around forever and is how we make beer, wine and cheese products. Biomass fermentation is the use of microorganisms to grow alternative proteins that can then be used for food, such as Quorn, a fibrous single-cell protein that is used as a meat substitute.

Finally, precision fermenting involves engineering microbes to produce a specific product, such as the heme protein Impossible Foods created from engineered yeast to make its “bleeding” synthetic burger. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of these engineered microbes are fed in vast tanks filled with a “growth medium” containing various synthetic sources of carbon, nitrogen, minerals, and growth factors like essential amino acids and vitamins. When the mass matures, it is processed.

GMOs – The WHO defines genetically modified organisms as plants, animals or microorganisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a lab to produce qualities/traits that do not occur naturally through cultivation or by mating or any sort of natural combining. The transfer of genetic material from one organism to another, including the transfer of genetic material from unrelated species, e.g., scorpion venom and cabbage, falls under this heading.

GM (genetically modified) – If an organism is genetically modified, its DNA has been altered as described above.

GE – Genetically engineered is basically a synonym for GM. However, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) goes into further detail, defining genetic engineering as “manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.”

Gene editing / genome editing – In genome editing, scientists typically use tools to make smaller changes to the organism›s own DNA. They can also use genome editing tools to add or remove small sections of DNA.

Genome – The full set of genetic information pertaining to a particular organism, consisting of nucleotide sequences of DNA.

Gene editing – The process of making certain desired changes in a living organism’s DNA sequence, changing its genetic makeup. Gene editing is performed via CRISPR-Cas9.

Nutritionally enhanced – Nutritionally enhanced GM crops already available include tomatoes and other vegetables with a higher vitamin E content, button mushrooms that won’t go brown, varieties of wheat that are free of gluten, and “golden rice” genetically enhanced with vitamin A and iron to combat nutritional deficiencies common in developing nations.

Synbio / Synthetic biology – Synthetic biology involves the modification of microorganisms such as algae, yeast and bacteria to produce a variety of products. For example, an engineered microbe has been produced from a strain of bacteria called Burkholderia cepacia to quickly degrade Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War. However, B. cepacia is also a common pharmaceutical contaminant that causes disease in humans.1 Similar microbes have been engineered to help clean up oil spills in salt and fresh waters. Synthetic biology researchers “stitch” together sections of existing and/or novel DNA and insert them into another organism’s genome.

Synthetic genome – It is possible to synthesize an organism’s entire genome. In 2002, scientists artificially created the first viral genome for the first time: the polio virus. This raised concerns about the use of synbio to create bioweapons.

 

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References

Main Article References

1 

Hsin-Yi Chen and Wen Chern, Consumer Acceptance of Genetically Modified Foods, 2002, doi: 10.1079/9780851997476.0117

2 

Statista, “Organic Food Market in the UK—Statistics & Facts,” March 17, 2022, statista.com

3 

Organic Food Market by Food Type and Regional Analysis: Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2022–2030, April 2022, ResearchDive.com

4 

USDA Economic Research Service, “Recent Trends in GE Adoption,” Sept 14, 2022, ers.usda.gov

5 

Livest Prod Sci, 1993; 36(1): 55–66

6 

Ronald Bailey, “Bovine Romaine with Ranch Dressing,” Dec 5, 2002, AGBioWorld.org

7 

Center for Food Safety, “About Genetically Engineered Foods,” 2022, centerforfoodsafety.org

8 

 Oliver Morrison, “UK Government Survey Points to Acceptance of GE Foods among Consumers,” Aug 3, 2021, FoodNavigator.com

9 

USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, EU-28: Agricultural Biotechnology Annual 2018, GAIN Report No. FR1827, apps.fas.usda.gov

10

J Agric Resour Econ, 2004; 29(3): 567–83

11 

MMW Fortschr Med, 2020; 162(Suppl 4): 17–27

12

Am J Clin Nutr, 2012; 95(6): 1357–64

13

Meat Sci, 2019; 148: 105–12

14

Food Chem, 2020; 310: 125931

15

Can J Anim Sci, 2017; 98(1): 187–93; J Equine Vet Sci, 2020; 91: 103103

16

Mae-Wan Ho and Ricarda A Steinbrecher, Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of the Joint FAO/WHO Biotechnology and Food Safety Report, Feb 20, 2004, biosafety-info.net

17

Environ Int, 2011; 37(4): 734–42

18

Agric Sci, 2015; 6(7): 630–62

19

Int J Biol Sci, 2010; 6(6): 590–8

20

20. J Agric Food Chem, 2018; 66(27): 7172–80

21

Sci Rep, 2017; 7: 17134

22

Can J Comp Med, 1975; 39(3): 261–9

23

Environ Sci Eur, 2015; 27: 20

24

Environmental Working Group, How Much Is Too Much? Excess Vitamins and Minerals in Food Can Harm Kids’ Health, June 2014, static.ewg.org

25

Eur J Clin Nutr, 2013; 67(6): 592–7

26

JAMA, 2009; 302(19): 2119–26

27

Food Chem Toxicol, 2017; 107(Pt A): 108–21

28

PLoS One, 2016; 11(3): e0152264

 

The latest frankenfoods

References

1 

Dokl Biochem Biophys, 2021; 496: 48–51

2 

J Agric Food Chem, 2018; 66(27): 7172–80

3 

Sci Rep, 2017; 7: 17134

4 

Can J Comp Med, 1975; 39(3): 261–9

 

Getting the terminology straight

References

1 

PDA J Pharm Sci and Tech, 2011; 65(5): 535–43

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