Genetically Modified Foods and the Threat to Public Health

Paul L. Reller L.Ac. / Last Updated: August 03, 2017

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A question of genetic drift with genetically modified DNA and RNA

While critics of anti-GMO protesters cite the fact that plant species do not cross-breed, and so the possibility of transferring the genetically modified genes to other plant species, such as weed and other food crops, as well as wild plant species that make up the wonderful genetic diversity of our planet, is impossible. While this criticism does not address the main issues to public health and safety, namely that evolved traits are occurring in the natural plant diversity, such as resistance to glyphosate herbicides, that are causing an imbalance of the natural control of weed species, and wild growth of these evolved weeds, that genetic alterations of genes that encode unnatural proteins present real threats of increased allergic diseases, and that marketing a small group of food species that are genetically modified presents the problems of mono-cropping and the potential for a plant disease to evolve that would destroy food production. These concerns are not trivial. The haughty criticism from some researchers, dependent on the corporate backing to support government and private funding of their research, that all anti-GMO protesters are just misinformed, or stupid, is just not true. In fact, scientists are concerned that even this main criticism, that genes cannot achieve cross-species transfer, is not completely true.

While it is true that genes are passed between species by breeding, or the direct transfer of genetic data, and that generally species do not cross-breed, there is the area of genetic drift, and genetic mutation, that has concerned scientists, especially regarding the use of new genetic technology, and the impossibility of fully predicting how nature will respond to this technology. There is also the real concern that the array of species of our food crops will be changed by genetic modification, as cross-pollinating species of the same family of plants will acquire these genetic modifications, and if they prove to have adverse health effects, the population may not be able to eat this type of staple food without putting themselves at risk. While the potential for genetic changes engineered in crops moving to other families of species has been widely discounted, the unlikely, or rare, occurrence could be devastating if it occurred. We just do not have enough scientific information to rule this out completely, and the change in fundamental genetic information may have profound effects. For instance, in physics and mathematics, we have a branch of science that is called Chaos Theory. This mathematically sound and proven theory finds that small changes are responsible for sudden large shifts in our physical reality. This has been trivialized by calling it the "Butterfly Effect", but the science and math are no joke. What evidence do we have of genetic drift and cross-species genetic change?

We have known for some time that the human organism has depended on changes in our cells ascribed to endosymbionts, or organisms that have achieved a full symbiosis, or merging with our cells. The most dramatic example of this is with the mitochondria, an essential component of our cells that generates much of our energy, and was derived from a symbiont microorganism. In plants too there are such endosymbionts. Important genetic traits for survival have been acquired in plants from other species, such as bacteria that have brought efficient nitrogen-fixing genetic traits to the root nodules of legumes. Bacterial endosymbionts have provided countless advantages to plant and animal species. Viruses are just bits of DNA and RNA that are encapsulated, not living beings, and these viruses are ubiquitous and have been responsible for much of the evolution of genetic code on the planet. The human genetic code is largely made up of viral DNA, and until recently our scientists insisted that this was just "junk DNA". They were wrong. This viral DNA is now part of our genome and is very active in regulation our organism.

A strong debate concerning natural selection versus random genetic drift has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Polymorphism is the occurrence of different phenotypes, or groups with specific sets of genetic traits, existing within a species population. Polymorphism is very common in both animal and plant species, and is related to genetic diversity and adaptation. Polymorphism may occur with sexual dimorphism, or the mating of subsets within a species, or may occur in less explicit ways, such as the genetic mimicry seen in butterflies. There is a question, though, of how much natural selection has determined this polymorphism, or genetic drift. Since our own human genetic code is altered by epigenetic signals, as well as endosymbionts, the question of alteration of genetic code is not a simple one. The consequences of engineered changes in staple food crops is thus a real area of concern, and not easily dismissed by a simplistic explanation that plant species do not pass altered genes to other plant species because they do not interbreed. While this whole subject is complex, the implications are not that complex.

The biggest contamination concern with genetically modified crops is the pollen drift and insect pollination of same or similar species carrying genetic traits and alterations. With most crops, the wind-carried cross pollination occurs mostly within 180 meters in normal circumstances. In abnormal circumstances, this is of course a broader area. With insect carried pollen, the area of cross contamination is of course much bigger. With such species as wheat, which is a relative of many common prairie grasses that may act as recipients for wheat pollen, horizontal gene transfer may occur. While the industry continues to repeat endlessly the mantra that small buffer zones protect cross pollination and gene transfer, such blatant lies are finally hard to believe, albeit too late for many countries, such as the United States and Canada. This cross contamination in a species has been noted in Mexican corn, where crossbreed of Bt-maize originating in the United States wound up in Mexico. After this scientific proof of genetic drift and cross-pollination appeared in the esteemed journal Nature, a barrage of studies were quickly created and published to discount this finding, claiming that cross-contamination would have to affect 100 percent of the genes of Mexican maize to prove this cross-contamination, and the initial study showed that less than 1 percent of the genes had been affected in maize crops with the Bt modified gene. The tactic of using such outlandish criteria to discount, and simultaneously claiming that the scientists publishing proof of potentially significant harm were claiming radical and outlandish findings is typical of the propaganda campaign being waged. Many farmers around the world are having their organic certification revoked because of cross-contamination, though. In Canada, widespread cultivation of Monsanto Roundup-resistant GMO rapeseed (canola) resulted in up to 5 percent contamination of the conventional seeds by 2013, and some agricultural scientists have stated that it is doubtful now that there is a farm anywhere in Western Canada without this GMO seed in its soil, which may lay dormant for some time in soil. Many scientists around that world have stated that there is an impossible coexistence between transgenic and organic agriculture, so that for the growing part of the population that demands organically certified food, the GMO science is a real threat. Economic harm is also occurring, as the 2006 case in California revealed, where an experimental GMO rice that was not approved for human consumption contaminated commercial rice via cross pollination and it cost the rice industry over $1 billion that year. The contamination came from so-called "controlled" experimental GMO fields.

Understanding the potential dangers of the Bt GMO crops

The second type of hugely promoted GMO crops manufactured and patented by Monsanto concerns the Bt crops, which include corn, sweet corn, cotton and potatoes. Bt refers to the gram-positive bacteria in soil called Bacillus thuringiensis, which are part of the complex Biome that has evolved to regulate microbial growth in the soil, plants and insects. Much like the Biome in the human gut, an evolved and genetically programmed balance is necessary to achieve a healthy outcome. Bacillus thuringiensis is a species of bacteria that occurs naturally in the guts of caterpillars, moths, butterflies and other insects, as well as on leaf surfaces, moist environments, insect-rich environments, animal feces, and soil. It also thrives in environments where it is needed to control excessive insect growth, such as grain storage facilities and flour mills. These bacteria are well known to produce a effective endotoxin proteins that can be deadly to insects. A Japanese biologist named Ishiwata Shigetane discovered this species of bacteria and its insecticide endotoxins in 1901, and later the family of bacteria were found to cause various diseases affecting groups of moth caterpillars, and it was discovered that Bt was a close relative to anthrax bacterium.

These Bt endotoxins were explored for use in pesticides, and were effective, and have been used to achieve mosquito control, and counter specific insect pests in agriculture, as part of an organic method of farming. They do come with quite an array of environmental and human health warnings, though, and a review of their purported low toxicity in 2012, by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), found little sound data to support these claims of low toxicity. This study of 5 Bt endotoxin strains found that, despite Bt endotoxins being used for decades, that: "No information has been provided on the potential transfer of genetic material from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to other organisms. Data or assessment to demonstrate that this transfer does not occur or in case of occurring will not lead to unacceptable effects on human and animal health, and on the environment has to be provided." While the use of Bt endotoxins could potentially be a safe and specific pesticide to use in specific circumstances as needed, we see that even this is still not well studied in 2012. The insertion of genetic material from this bacteria into a majority of essential food crops around the world, generating these endotoxins from the food plant itself, is certainly not then proven safe, even in terms of genetic transfer.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that plant-incorporated Bt endotoxins were registered as far back as 1995, and 5 of these registrations are still in effect. In 2001, the EPA extended the registration for Bt corn for an additional 7 years, and Bt cotton for an additional 5 years, concluding that these crops posed no significant risks to human health or to the environment. Concerns of the EPA were that insects were developing Bt-resistance due to these GMO crops, and a recommendation was issued that insect refuges be planted next to these Bt GMO crops to decrease the risk that a large insect species resistance is genetically acquired and passed on, which could pose significant problems for the natural soil and plant Biome in the future. Of course, this recommendation is not being followed. Another concern investigated by the EPA was that the large decrease in the numbers of Monarch butterflies was due to the Bt GMO crops. A review of industry studies determined that the Bt corn pollen did not present significant risk to the Monarch butterfly. A third concern was that some forms of Bt GMO corn were determined to be potentially hazardous to human health and was approved for use in animal feed only (Aventis StarLink), but that in 2000, organizations outside of the government found traces of this corn in corn products commonly bought in stores, such as taco shells. A voluntary recall was announced, but the issue that some Bt GMO crops were potentially harmful to human health, and that these crops were contaminating other corn crops, or just used unlawfully in human foods, was not seriously addressed. Once again, an attitude that we should just trust these Agribusiness corporations was adopted. Such consistent attitudes are alarming the public, as well as a sizable portion of the scientific community.

By 2014, an Iowa State University entomologist, Aaron Gassman, found that indeed, Bt resistant corn root worms had emerged in 3 states due to the widespread use of Bt GMO Monsanto corn, threatening the future corn crops, which now are largely Bt GMO Monsanto corn, and requiring that the farmers now do what Monsanto said that they would never have to do, resort to large amounts of chemical pesticides on top of the Bt GMO crops. The advice of the U.S. EPA to plant 50 percent of corn crops as non-Bt GMO was largely ignored, as farmers believed the Monsanto company over the government. Now, the consumer will pay the price. A host of factors resulted in this disastrous situation. Not only failure to plant non-Bt GMO corn to insure that the resistant trait was not quickly acquired by the whole corn rootworm species, and eventually other pest species, but the failure to rotate crops, caused by the use of Roundup-Ready GMO corn and heavy use of glyphosate herbicide, which eventually depleted the soil and made crop rotation unprofitable, led to the quick development of the Bt-GMO resistance. Entomologist Elson Shields, of Cornell University, stated in an article in Wire magazine, that scientists such as himself, at major University agricultural departments, were legally prevented from studying Monsanto Bt GMO crops until 2010. Once they were allowed to study these crops, they found the rootworm resistance trait in less than a year. If they had been allowed to study the patented Monsanto Bt GMO crops earlier, they could have prevented disaster. The disaster will be for farmers and consumers, as well as the environment, though, and Monsanto and Dow will reap even bigger fortunes selling not only their GMO crops, but added pesticides and herbicides as well.

Bacterial endotoxins, mainly lipopolysaccharides on the membranes of bacteria, are now well studied, and are found to be adaptive to evade immune systems. When we engineer such bacterial endotoxins, such as the Bt toxin, it is certain that these genes that express this endotoxin may adapt and change. Nature is much more complex that we humans can conceive of, or keep up with in our scientific creation. We are not God, or even gods. By inserting such bacterial genes in foods that we eat, we open up a can of worms, and these worms may eventually crawl out and create problems. Scientists hired by Monsant, Dow and Dupont will most assuredly tell us that they are able to anticipate the adaptations of nature, and most of us will assuredly believe them, but intelligent and thoughtful individuals will not. It is likely that such genes will react in complex ways that we will not be able to anticipate.

An Issue With the Spread of Marker Genes in GMO Crops That Confer Antibiotic Resistance and Pesticide Resistance

Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes (ARMG) are routinely inserted into the genes of GMO crops, as well as Pesticide Resistance Marker Genes, to protect the GMO crops from chemicals that could reduce yield. Antibiotics represent a broad class of chemicals that work by affecting numerous biological pathways, and many of the modified genes that are engineered are bacterial genes, especially genetic markers that act as a sort of identifying barcode on engineered genes to insure that crops with these patented genes can be identified and the farmers using the GMO crops charged for their use. To insure that a large variety of common chemicals that can be used as antibiotics are not capable of destroying these genetic markers, the use of ARMGs are ubiquitous in GMO crops. Once again, experts generated in both direct and indirect ways by Monsanto, Dow and Dupont assured the world that these antibiotic resistance genes could not survive in the environment and could not be passed on to other organisms, and once again we see that this was an elaborate lie.

In 2015, the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) and the University of Tromse in Norway, released a study that showed that 2 of these antibiotic resistance gene markers (ARMG) had accumulated in the soil to an alarming degree, and in the bacteria in the soil, presenting a clear and defined public health threat. The genes studied inferred antibiotic resistance to aminoglycoside antibiotics, one of the most useful classes of antibiotics against gram negative pathogenic bacterial infections, with streptomycin an early example. This Austrian study found that soil bacteria in a wide array of samples showed that these specific antibiotic resistant genes were found in an average of 6 percent and 85 percent of soil samples, and nearly 2 percent of bacterial samples. With this information, is was finally legal to confirm that these marker genes were environmental pollutants and regulate them. Consequently, the industry switched to other marker genes, obviously planning for this event. Also unfortunate, though, is the long-term consequences of the years of use of the marker genes conferring genetic traits of antibiotic resistance to species of bacteria that can cause disease, and probably pesticide resistance to organisms that we may need to eradicate in the environment, another type of 'superweed'. Clearly, the widespread proof with many studies that showed that this was 'impossible' was another lie that was elaborately generated by the industry. To see this Austrian study, just click here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26232739 . Of course, there will be no sufficient legal recourse to punish the industry for these lies, or the numerous institutions and scientists that participated, and already, the big 3 chemical companies, Monsanto, Dow and Dupont have changed the names of the subsidiary companies that produce this GMO technology to evade public outrage.