Humanity has made incredible technological advances in the not-so-distant past. From transportation and communication, to health care and education, science has been the driving force behind the improvements in all facets of human life. Arguably the most controversial advances have stemmed from the field of agriscience in the form of genetically modified (GM) foods. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are engineered to withstand an array of conditions, perhaps most notably the spraying of chemical herbicides and pesticides. These transgenic plants have foreign genes artificially inserted into their genome, thus creating new, hardier varieties of crops for consumption. With the increasing destruction of fertile lands, and a seemingly ever-expanding human population, the GM crops prove promising for struggling farmers (and Big Agro businesses) worldwide.
While this technology continues to develop, as does the debate on their safety for human consumption. In the United States, federal policy dismisses GMOs and GM food products from being labeled. Some states, like Vermont, however, have taken the matter into their own hands by enforcing GMO labeling on all food products. Some may argue that this transparency is helpful to the consumer, allowing them to truly make informed choices. Others, like Bruce W. Krupke, executive vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, think otherwise. Krupke wrote to the New York Times (NYT) in March of 2016, stating Vermont’s bill passing “jeopardizes the livelihoods of Vermont’s small business, dairy farmers, food manufacturers, and retailers” (1).
Krupke (2016) also stated that GMOs are “… very safe for both humans and animals, and have proven benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.” While there is no question that GMOs provide higher crop yields, enhance resistance to the elements, and maintain a longer shelf life, other factors must be considered in order to deem these products as safe for ingestion.
In the NYT opinion piece, Krupke claims that humanity has “been safely consuming G.M.O corn for over two decades.” However, a large-scale epidemiological study by Swanson and colleagues suggests otherwise. The research team obtained data from the USDA and CDC regarding glyphosate application, occurrence of genetically engineered corn and soy crops, and incidence of death. Glyphosate is the main herbicidal compound in Roundup, the chemical herbicide sprayed on many GM crops produced by Big Ago super power, Monsanto. Research from Swanson et al. revealed profound significant positive correlations between glyphosate application, GM crop occurrence, and death from 22 different diseases, all with correlational coefficients ranging between 0.841 and 0.994. These chronic diseases range from diabetes, obesity, hypertension, stroke, various types of cancer, and many more (2). Although correlation cannot necessarily imply causation, it would be both irresponsible and ignorant to blame this striking increase in deaths simply due to chance.
To be clear, it must be recognized that despite Krupke’s claim, there is truly no scientific consensus on the safety of GM food. There is dissent among the scientific community, especially between independent versus industry influenced research and opinion (3). As an executive in the dairy industry, Bruce W. Krupke is no exception. His article illuminates this point when explaining how there is “no science-based reason to single out G.M.O. foods… for mandatory labeling,” as reported by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (1). In fact, it is commonplace to find stakeholders discrediting scientific research to defend their profits. One independent study demonstrating this discrepancy is a statistical analysis of the raw data obtained from Monsanto-funded studies. The original study examined in vivo effects of three GM corn varieties. Test rats were fed GM corn for 90 days, and their blood was monitored for chemical markers. De Vendômois et al. reanalyzed the data, and contrary to the original results, the team revealed numerous new side effects connected to increased GM corn consumption. Their research also found several shortcomings from the initial experimentation upon inspection of their methodology. Firstly, the sample sizes in Monsanto’s research were very small: out of 400 rats, only 80 were fed GM corn varieties, and 40 were biochemically analyzed. Secondly, the experiments were too short to determine long-term effects of GMO consumption (4). It should be noted that the raw data produced by Monsanto was originally kept confidential, until released by the European government by court order for further research and discussion (5).
With Vermont being the first state to take action on GMO labeling, it is crucial for the rest of America to follow suit. As Krupke explains, “… regulation should be set on a national level, not by a patchwork of states” (1). With only a few states on board, the lack of consistency could make it difficult for large-scale food manufacturers to adhere. Nation-wide GMO labeling, however, could set a new manufacturing transparency standard in the United States, giving consumers the opportunity to make informed decisions, and allow the people to truly express consumer values through purchasing power.
1. Krupke, B. W. (2016, March 2). No Need for G.M.O. Labels. New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/opinion/no-need-for-gmo-labels.html?_r=0.
2. Swanson, N. L., Leu, A., Abrahamson, J.,& Wallet, B. (2014). Genetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of health in the United States of America. Journal of Organic Systems, 9, 6-37.
3. Hillbeck, A., Binimelis, R., Defarge, N., Steinbrecher, R., Szekacs, A.,… Wynne, B. (2015). No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe, 27, 1-6. DOI. 10.1186/s12302-014-0034-1.
4. De Vendômois, J. S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., & Séralini, G. E. (2009). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. Int J Biol Sci, 5(7), 706-726. http://sciencescitoyennes.org/IMG/pdf/Annexe-support-Seralini_etal_2010.pdf.
5. De Vendômois, J. S., Cellier, D., Vélot, C., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., & Séralini, G. E. (2010). Debate on GMOs health risks after statistical findings in regulatory tests. Int J Biol Sci, 6(6), 590-8. doi: 10.7150/ijbs.6.590.