Humans have been cross-breeding species of domesticated plants and animals ever since the rise of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. The simple practice of selecting for desirable traits and breeding together individuals that possessed those traits got us a really long way in terms of creating docile cattle, wool-bearing sheep and super-productive grain crops.
In the 20th century, research geneticists entered the nucleus of the cell itself, planting in it the DNA of other living organisms. The results of their labors are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
California's Proposition 37 would require labeling foods containing these manipulated life forms.
Longterm health studies are in the process of being conducted on humans, albeit without their knowledge or consent: While GMOs are labeled or banned in Europe and other nations, Americans are already eating genetically modified foods—and a lot of them, if you eat much processed foods. 2012 statistics for GMO crops grown in the US are: 93% of all soybeans; 88% of all corn; and more than 90% of sugar beet acreage. Unless it's labeled organic, food products containing corn starch, corn syrup, corn oil, soy lecithin, soy protein, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed soy protein, mono- and di-glycerides and a variety of stabilizers and thickeners are overwhelmingly likely to be GMO.
Proposition 37 would not outlaw GMOs, but simply require food products containing them to be labeled. This proposal has provoked Monsanto and other big-ag corporations into spending some $41 million—in a state with a population of fewer than 38 million people—on a media campaign to oppose the measure.
If you choose to avoid GMOs, shopping at organic stores will not alone solve the situation. Whole Foods Market's CEO John Mackey stated in a September 27 blog: "Some products in our stores do contain GMOs—just like any other food store in the country, due to the pervasiveness of GMOs." But labeling is not required, and so you would not know that, even at Whole Foods.
California is the first state to put GMOs on trial. Where California goes, there goes the rest of the nation, in matters such as these.
Here's what you should know about GMOs
Since a September release of a controversial study in France claiming GMO corn causes tumors in rats, there's been a lot more discussion about GMOs. While the jury is out on that one, the main concern with genetic engineering is over two specific kinds of crops: first, herbicide-resistant crops which can tolerate large quantities of herbicide (usually glyphosate, aka Roundup—see "Roundup Unready," CATALYST, May 2012); second, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops, which control for pests by producing a kind of insecticide within each cell of the plant. Farmers who plant herbicide-resistant crops have been shown to use a lot more herbicide, and that herbicide apparently persists to some extent as a residue in the crop after it's been harvested.
Glyphosate-resistant "super-weeds" have already evolved in response to heavy application of glyphosate, and are on the march in fields across America, limiting the effectiveness of herbicide-resistant GMO agriculture systems. This is where the real meat of the French study resides, and it seems to be something that few people are talking about.
It may not be so much about the GMO nature of the corn that was fed to the rats, but the tumor-causing properties of the glyphosate residue on that corn—which was enabled by GMO agricultural systems.
Bt crops have also run into issues. The cotton boll weevil has also started to show some signs of evolving resistance to Bt cotton, with the first wild populations of Bt-resistant weevils appearing in studies in 2008. The pesticide is produced as part of the flesh of the crop and cannot possibly be washed off.
There have been no long-term studies of the results of eating GMO foods. Apart from the recent French study, most studies have been only 90 days—long enough to test for acute toxicity, but not long enough to gather data about possible cumulative effects.
So how were GMO foods approved in the first place?
GMOs in foods have been approved using the concept of substantial equivalence. This means that if a new food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety. GMO opponents argue that this substantial equivalence has not been shown in the case of GMO foods. Bugs and weeds and viral and fungal blights are all quickly evolving species. Engaging in this kind of chemical combat with them, whether using simple pesticides or genetically modified pesticides, ultimately gets us to the same place. We are supporting an unsustainable kind of agriculture where the fallout lands on our dinner plates.
Not all GMO practices are so insidious. For example, the papaya industry in Hawaii, responsible for something like an $11 million share of the Hawaiian economy every year, was saved by a transgenic papaya developed by researchers at the University of Hawaii. In the mid-1990s, the papaya ringspot virus was ravaging papaya fields throughout the island state, and all traditional measures taken to prevent its spread had failed. Desperate for a solution, farmers turned to transgenesis, and in 1998 the Rainbow hybrid papaya was introduced and proved to be successfully resistant to the Hawaiian strain of the ringspot virus. Resistance was created by inserting DNA from the ringspot virus itself into the papaya genome, creating a kind of transgenic vaccination. Rainbow papayas grown in Hawaii do not die from the Hawaiian version of the virus, but they are still susceptible to versions of ringspot virus from other areas such as Thailand and Guam.
Other concerns have also arisen, regarding new allergens created by transgenesis, and regarding cross-sensitivity in people who are allergic. Labeling of GMOs is already required throughout Europe, and in Japan and Australia. Labeling of GMO foods in the US makes sense as well.
Radiation, viral vectors, mutation-inducing chemicals and ballistic DNA
In the early 20th century, as the process of genetic mutation became better understood, scientists began to attempt to develop new kinds of agricultural crops using mutagenesis—that is, they would expose plant germ matter to either radiation or mutagenic chemicals to speed up the rate of random mutation.
In 1946, scientists discovered that transgenesis (the insertion of genes taken from a wholly different organism) was possible. Genes can be spliced using a variety of processes, ranging from viral vector injection (using a virus to stitch the foreign DNA into the host DNA) to ballistic DNA injection (basically, coating a small specially made bullet with foreign DNA, and firing it at a target made of host cells which will then be cultured). Transgenesis can move genes between any two organisms. Glowing tobacco plants containing cells derived from transplanted firefly DNA were one of the first proofs of concept.
More recently, some researchers have been using transgenesis techniques to achieve a less extreme version of genetic engineering. Cisgenesis involves moving genes between organisms that could otherwise conventionally breed. It's useful in combining traits from strains in plants that are difficult to crossbreed, such as potatoes or bananas.