Frequently Asked Questions
What’s a GMO?
A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process of either taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic (transgenic organisms), or altering the sequence of genes within the same species (gene editing). This process may be called either Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM); they are one and the same.
But haven’t growers been grafting trees, breeding animals, and hybridizing seeds for years?
Genetic engineering is completely different from traditional breeding and carries unique risks.
In traditional breeding it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile. A horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.
With genetic engineering, scientists can breach species barriers set up by nature. For example, they have spliced fish genes into tomatoes. The results are plants (or animals) with traits that would be virtually impossible to obtain with natural processes, such as crossbreeding or grafting.
(Note: some people use a wider definition of genetic modification to include natural techniques. This is often done as an attempt by biotech advocates to blur the distinction and claim that genetic engineering is just an extension of natural breeding–that we have done for centuries.
How does genetic engineering transfer genes between organisms?
Because living organisms have natural barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers have to find ways to force the DNA from one organism into another. These methods include:
- Using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
- Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells.
- Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.
- Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes.
What is gene editing?
Genome editing or gene editing is a method that lets scientists change the DNA of many organisms, including plants, bacteria, and animals. Editing DNA can lead to changes in physical traits, like eye color, and disease risk. Scientists use different technologies to do this. Example is the Crispr technology which produced the non- browning apple.
The biotech industry has initiated a global campaign to convince regulators and the public that gene editing is so safe and predictable, no regulation or government oversight is needed. Nonetheless, there is now overwhelming evidence that the technology does consistently create unpredictable side effects that can be dangerous to health and the environment.
Is genetic engineering precise?
Current understanding of the way in which DNA works is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point can have side effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value.
The process also typically results in multiple mutations, sometimes hundreds or thousands. Some are created by the genetic engineering technique and some are created by the tissue culture and cloning process that accompanies the procedure.
Does the biotech industry hold any promise?
Genetic modification of plants is not the only biotechnology. The study of DNA does hold promise for many potential applications, including medicine. However, the current technology of GM foods is based on obsolete information and theory, and is prone to dangerous side effects. Economic interests have pushed GMOs onto the market without adequate safety or understanding.
Moreover, molecular marker technologies, also called Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), used with conventional breeding shows much promise for developing improved crop varieties, without the potentially dangerous side effects of direct genetic modification.
GMOs in Foods:
What kinds of traits have been added to food crops?
Although there are attempts to increase nutritional benefits or productivity, the two main traits that have been added to date are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. These results have no health benefit, only economic benefit.
Herbicide tolerance lets the farmer spray weed-killer directly on the crop without killing it. The most common are Roundup Ready crops, which allow Roundup herbicide to be sprayed directly on the crop field. Herbicide tolerant crops include soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa.
Crops such as Bt cotton, corn and soybeans produce pesticides inside the plant. This kills or deters insects, saving the farmer from having to spray pesticides. The plants themselves are toxic, and not just to insects. Farmers in India, who let their sheep graze on Bt cotton plants after the harvest, saw thousands of sheep die!
Why do genetically engineered foods have antibiotic resistant genes in them?
The techniques used to transfer genes have a very low success rate, so the genetic engineers attach “marker genes” that are resistant to antibiotics to help them to find out which cells have taken up the new DNA. They add antibiotics to the plate of cells to see which survive. Those that do have incorporated the antibiotic resistant gene into their DNA. Those that haven’t, die.
These marker genes are resistant to antibiotics that are commonly used in human and veterinary medicine. There is widespread concern that these genes might result in the transfer of resistance to pathogenic bacteria, which will become untreatable with those antibiotics.
What are the problems created through genetic engineering of food and crops?
Genetic engineers continually encounter unintended side effects and massive collateral damage within the DNA, including mutations, additions and deletions. GM plants can create new or higher levels of toxins, allergens and carcinogens. GMOs can react to weather differently, contain too much or too little nutrients, become diseased or malfunction and die. Dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown.
What foods are GM?
In the U.S., three major commodity crops are raised predominantly from GMO seed: field corn (92%*), soybeans (94%*), and cotton (98%*).
Almost 95% of Canadian grown Canola is genetically engineered for herbicide resistance.U.S. sugar beet production is estimated to be over 95% genetically modified for herbicide resistance.
GMO sweet corn, papaya, zucchini, and yellow summer squash are also for sale in grocery stores, but in far lesser amounts.
Genetically modified alfalfa is grown for use as hay and forage for animals.
Currently, the GMO potato is being marketed under the Simplot Innate brand. It was introduced to grocery stores in 2015. Genetically engineered non-browning ‘Arctic’ apples have been deregulated by the USDA and have been on the market since 2016. Learn more about GMOs in foods here.
What are other sources of GMOs?
Products derived from the above, including oils from all four, soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup among others. Also:
- meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed (and the majority of the GM corn and soy is used for feed);
- dairy products from cows injected with rbGH (a GM hormone);
- food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet) and rennet used to make hard cheeses; and
- honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen.
- You can view the list of invisible GM ingredients here.
The Health Dangers:
What are the potential dangers of eating GM foods?
There are a number of dangers that broadly fall into the categories of potential toxins, allergens, carcinogens, new diseases, antibiotic resistant diseases, and nutritional problems.
Hasn’t research shown GM foods to be safe?
No. The only feeding study done with humans showed that GMOs survived inside the stomach of the people eating GMO food. No follow-up studies were done.
Various feeding studies in animals have resulted in potentially precancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies and higher death rates.
But aren’t the plants chemically the same, whether or not they are GM?
Actually no. The altered DNA structure and function can change the components of the organism. Roundup Ready corn, for example, has more than 200 changes in proteins and metabolites, resulting from the unpredictable changes in the DNA. Two compounds in the corn, putrescine and cadaverine, are responsible for the foul odor of rotting dead bodies, and are linked to cancer, allergies, and bad breath.
Is it true that animals sometimes avoid eating GMOs?
Eyewitness reports from all over North American describe how several types of animals, including cows, pigs, geese, elk, deer, squirrels, and rats, when given a choice, have avoided eating GM foods. This is not a hard rule. Most livestock are ONLY fed a diet that is largely GMO, though some farmers notice a difference in the eating patterns and resultant health when they switch to non-GMO feed.
Haven’t people been eating GM foods without any ill effect?
The biotech industry says that millions have been eating GM foods without ill effect. This is misleading. No one monitors human health impacts of GM foods. If the foods were creating health problems in the US population, it might take years or decades before we identified the cause.
What indications are there that GM foods are causing problems?
There are more than 30 diseases that are rising in parallel with the increased use of GMO soy and corn, or the Roundup herbicide sprayed on those acres. While correlation does not prove causation, there are also reports of dramatic health improvements in humans, pets, and livestock that switch to non-GMO foods. Those improvements are in similar categories of the diseases whose rates are linked to GMOs and Roundup. Further, lab animals fed GMOs often display precursors to these same types of diseases. This is a small sampling of the growing body of evidence linking GMOs to health issues. See…
What about GM hormones in milk?
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is injected into cows to increase milk supply.. Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains an increased amount of the hormone IGF-1, which is one of the highest risk factors associated with breast and prostate cancer. rBGH is created from genetically engineered bacteria. It was originally introduced by Monsanto, and was later sold to Ely Lilly’s veterinarian division, Elanco.
In Canada, government scientists complained that they were being pressured to approve the GM hormone. They were concerned about human health impacts. They testified that the drugs maker, Monsanto, offered them a bribe of $1-2 million to approve it. They also reported that documents were stolen from a locked file cabinet in a government office. Canada has not approved its use, but does allow dairy products from the US that are produced from treated cows.
Most American dairies do not use it, and mark packages as No Artificial Hormones, No rBGH, or No rBST.
But is there any documented instance of adverse effects of GMOs on people?
One epidemic was rare, serious, and fast acting, and therefore more easily discovered. Called EMS, it was traced to a GM brand of the food supplement L-tryptophan. In the 1980’s, the contaminated brand killed about 100 Americans and caused sickness or disability in about 5,000-10,000 others.
Why are children particularly susceptible to the effects of GM foods?
Children face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods for the same reasons that they also face the greatest risk from other hazards like pesticides and radiation, these include:
- Young, fast-developing bodies are influenced most.
- Children are more susceptible to allergies.
- Children are more susceptible to problems with milk.
- Children are more susceptible to nutritional problems.
- Children are in danger from antibiotic resistant diseases.
- They don’t have a well-developed blood brain barrier or microbiome.
How dangerous, or potentially dangerous, are GM foods relative to other food dangers, e.g., pesticides, irradiation, additives, preservatives?
Since so little research has been done on the safety of GM foods, it is not possible to rank its risks. Unlike the others, GM crops persist in the environment as they are propagated in the gene pool. They may continue to pose risks to health for centuries.
In addition, transfer of transgenes to gut bacteria may present long-term chronic exposure, since the foreign protein may continue to be produced inside of us after we no longer consume the GM food.
Dangers to the environment and traditional agriculture:
What is the effect of growing GM crops on the environment?
The following is a section taken from Myths vs. Truths. “On-farm and environmental impacts of GM crops are not limited to the effects of the GM crop itself. They also include the effects of the pesticide that the crop is engineered to contain or to tolerate during cultivation. Research shows that negative impacts are occurring from all these sources.” To learn more click here to be redirected to this section of Myths vs. Truths.
Can the growing of GM crops effect nearby crops?
Pollen from GM crops can contaminate nearby crops of the same type, except for soy, which does not readily cross-pollinate. Canola and cotton also cross-pollinate.
Why is there an effort to create GM-free agricultural zones?
Using identity preservation (IP), farmers keep crop varieties separate from others to meet purity requirements of their buyers. Contamination is a key challenge to IP growers. Unwanted varieties may cross-pollinate or get mixed up in the seed, harvest equipment, or during storage and transport.
Some farm regions create entire zones that exclude unwanted varieties, where all the farms, and if possible all collection and distribution points, only handle approved grain.
Have any local efforts in the US been successful?
There are local efforts throughout the U.S. that are raising public awareness, changing laws, and creating commitments to non-GM ingredients. Most notably, voters in Mendocino and Marin Counties in California passed a ballot initiative to ban GM crops.
Officials in Trinity County and Arcata, California have passed ordinances banning the outdoor cultivation of GM crops as well. But since then, a California law was passed prohibiting this type of local initiative.
To view a complete list of GM-free zones, click here.
Is it possible that organically grown crops can be infected by GM genes?
Yes. Organic standards do not allow the use of GM seeds and therefore steps are taken to try to prevent contamination. Tests are not required, although some vigilant organic companies require them. According to the organic standards, contamination by cross-pollination is not disallowed, but some companies reject contaminated product above some small amount such as 0.1%.
Organic canola farmers in Canada unsuccessfully sued biotech companies, since cross-pollination has made it impossible for them to grow organic, non-GM canola.
Is the Natural Foods Industry doing something to ensure the purity of its products?
Right now there are efforts underway for an industry wide clean up of foods labeled organic and non-GMO. A handful of noble companies took it upon themselves to ensure that consumers could rest assured that their organic and non-GMO foods are truly free of modified genes. They established The Non-GMO Project, which has created an industry-wide consensus-based set of standards and a third-party verification process with testing for GMO content.
Companies began to enroll their products in the spring of 2008.
US Government Regulation:
Hasn’t the FDA said that GM foods are safe?
The biotech industry claims that the FDA has thoroughly evaluated GM foods and found them safe. This is untrue. The FDA does not require safety studies. Instead, if the makers of the GM foods claim that they are safe, the agency has no further questions.
Didn’t the scientists at the FDA study GM foods themselves?
No. The FDA relies solely on information supplied by the biotech companies.
What kind of information did the companies provide?
Calgene, the makers of the first GM crop, the FlavrSavr tomato, was the only company to submit detailed raw data from animal feeding studies to the FDA. The rest provide only summaries and conclusions. Industry research can be rigged; data often is omitted or distorted.
In the FlavrSavr tests, lab rats refused to eat the tomatoes and had to be force-fed. Several developed stomach lesions, and seven of forty died within two weeks. Still, the tomato was approved, but has since been taken off the market.
Based on the information that was supplied, did the FDA scientist have concerns?
Agency scientists did warn that GM foods might create toxins, allergies, nutritional problems, and new diseases that might be difficult to identify. Internal FDA memos reveal that the scientists urged their superiors to require long-term safety testing to catch these hard-to-detect side effects.
What did the FDA do about these concerns?
Nothing was done that would protect consumers. In fact, in the case of genetically modified bovine growth hormone, some FDA scientists who expressed concerns were harassed, stripped of responsibilities, or fired. The remaining whistleblowers had to write an anonymous letter to Congress complaining of fraud and conflict of interest at the agency
How could the government approve dangerous foods?
A close examination reveals that industry manipulation and political collusion – not sound science – was the driving force.
The FDA official in charge ignored all warnings of the FDA staff scientists. The official,Michael Taylor, a former outside attorney for Monsanto, was a political appointee specifically to a new FDA post on GM policy, and left shortly after to become vice president at Monsanto.
What are the labeling laws on GMOs in the US and around the world?
Unlike most other developed countries the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of genetically modified foods. Click here for a full list of countries that require labeling around the world.
What is the Role of IRT?
IRT’s mission is to protect the genetic integrity and nature’s biological evolution by preventing the outdoor release of genetically modified organisms, and to protect human and animal health by preventing the use of GMOs in the food and feed supply.
In addition, we seek to stop the use of toxic agricultural chemicals associated with GMOs, such as Roundup.
IRT is a world leader in educating the public and change-makers about the health risks and environmental dangers of GMOs and associated pesticides. We empower consumers to lead an organic lifestyle and shape the changing marketplace to reject GMOs from the food supply and environment.
How? We investigate and report their risks and impact on health, environment, the economy, and agriculture, as well as the problems associated with current research, regulation, corporate practices, and reporting.
To learn more about how we meet our mission and how we operate, please go HERE .
To learn more about our history, background and impact, please go HERE.