• Kristyn Emmer

What’s the deal with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)?

With the rise of industrial agriculture in the world, especially in the United States, came the need to increase profits and decrease inconvenience. It was at this point that chemicals were introduced as standard practice on farms across America. However, in order to use these chemicals to kill the pests, scientists needed to figure out how to make sure it was one the weeds that were impacted, not the actual crop.


This is where the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) was born.


I’ll spare you the hows and move on to the what, why, and action steps to take; but the short story about GMO’s is that the genetic make up of an organism is changed in a laboratory setting in a way that is not found in the natural world.


Dr. Zach Bush defines a GMO as, “an organism whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the generation of desired biological products.”


To some, the ability to isolate single genes out of a stand of complex DNA strands to re-insert them into other species might sound like the most revolutionary, exciting discovery in science. And it sure could have been. But the consequences of this action have resulted in a direct and indirect rewriting of the biology of life on earth. As it has played out, this GMO technology has instead been a vehicle to increase the delivery of harmful chemicals into our food system.


In the US today, there are over 90% of soybean crops and 85% of corn crops genetically modified growing in fields all over America. These crops have been genetically modified to tolerate the direct application of glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Round Up, as well as other (likely) dangerous agrochemicals.


To our farmers, this trajectory has been devastating. Farmers were sold chemical agriculture as a way to increase yields and therefore profits. However, what ends up happening is that farmers are pouring more money into chemical inputs for ever-deteriorating yields and profits on them. In the first 16 years since GMO’s have been widely planted and harvested, herbicide use application rates have increased by 527 million pounds as the need for more chemicals added to spray programs increases. The total increase in herbicide use in the USA has increased by 24%, which is 3x the cost per acre for herbicide application along. This means that 16 years ago, tending to one acre of farmland cost about $25; today that is closer to $75 per acre. As more and more GMO’s come to the market, these costs could be driven up another 50%, bankrupting not only farmers, but eaters of America.


Worse yet, the promise of higher yields and prosperous paychecks has been unrealized. Economic studies between GMO and non-GMO fields have showed there is no difference in crop yield, and in fact, the US growers saw a 21% increase in herbicide use (and therefore expenses) with the introduction of these crops.


Organic farmers have also been impacted by the evolution of GMO’s and increased pesticide use. Agrochemicals, when sprayed, tend to stay airborne and drift to neighboring fields, and that chemical can damage or kill crops that are not generically resistant to it. What this means is that organic and regenerative-focused farmers have their harvests cut into, taking profit losses, as these chemicals drift into unprotected crops. The problem is that a fraction of 1% of pesticides actually touch a weed. Where does the rest of it end up? In our lakes, streams, rainwater, and our food supply.


To the rest of the United States, this history is tragic. Hunger, illness and disease, contamination, and financial ruin mark the era of GMO’s. Today in Kansas, which is 95% agricultural use by acre, 95% of its food produce is imported. One in eight people in Kansas struggle with hunger. Indiana rivers are 60% unusable for drinking or playing and same with 80% of their lakes due to chemical run off, driving down quality of life and housing prices.


In terms of the GMO’s themselves, they have touted them as “safe for consumption”, even though scientists within the FDA have said that GMO foods can be drivers in unpredictable side effects such as allergies, new diseases, and nutritional deficiencies.


Chris Kresser, functional medicine practitioner, said “Genetic modification involves the transfer of genes from one species of plant or animal to another, using techniques that can cause mutations in the genome that may have unintended consequences for the crop’s safety. The imprecise rearrangement of genes can create new proteins in these plants that may trigger allergies or promote disease. Our immune systems often do not recognize these new proteins and may mount an immune attack against them if they enter our bloodstream intact. These unintended gene transfers, along with those that are intended, can lead to significant changes in gut and immune function, and may have long-term consequences that are not yet known to the scientific and medical communities.”


This change in gut and immune function is showing up in significant ways. While correlation does not always mean causation, following the trends of our nation’s health since the introduction of widespread GMO use in 1996, we see a steady increase in ill-health among the population. Then in 2012, when glyphosate came off patent, the use of it exploded, and so did the health of our society. Today, here are the public health figures we are living with:

  • Autism 1:36

  • ADD 1:10

  • Asthma 1:10

  • Allergies 1:4

  • Diabetes 1:4

  • Obesity 1:3

  • Major Depression 1:2

  • Cancer 1:2

  • Dementia 1:1


These are not small numbers. In fact, we are seeing a decline so significant that many in our population are showing memory decline by the age of 28 years old. This should raise the eyebrows of people everywhere.


So what exactly are the chemicals that are being used of our crops and are therefore in our food supply and drinking water?


Glyphosate

A registered antibiotic, we spray 4.5 billion pounds of this chemical on our agricultural lands every year, not to mention it being used in our parks, backyard, and school grounds.


Glyphosate works to inhibit plant growth by blocking enzyme pathways, specifically here those that are along the shikimate pathway. This is important because this is where we get our amino acids from — the building blocks of life. Nine of those amino acids are essential, meaning we need to get them from food sources. However, glyphosate blocks the production of one of these, which means that creating proteins in the body turns into risky business.


Glyphosate is now a known carcinogen. Bayer-Monsanto has paid out billions in lawsuits to cover cancer cases caused by glyphosate application, and yet, the United States government continues to authorize its use.


2,4-D

Developed in the 1940’s chemical is most commonly known as an ingredient in a chemical warfare tool called Agent Orange. 2,4-D kills plants by causing cells in tissues that carry water and nutrients to divide and grow without stopping (sound like anything familiar to you?).


Its best absorbed into the blood stream through the gut lining, and things like sunscreen, insect repellant, and drinking alcohol increases how much 2,4-D is absorbed through the skin.


When it comes to the human body, 95% of children tested in Arkansas showed to have 2,4-D in their urine. In our homes, it is found in the highest concentration in carpet dust; and in the environment, Australian scientists reported in 2012 that it was found in more than 90 percent of samples taken from agricultural catchments bordering the Great Barrier Reef.


And it isn’t detoxed regularly from the body. In fact, only 75% left the body within 4 days of exposure, which leaves enough time and exposure to disrupted the eco crime system, causing a severe impact on the thyroid.


This is all shadowed by the fact that by 2021, the US Department of Agruclture estimates that the use of 2,4-D on America's farms could rise between 100 percent and 600 percent now that it has been approved as part of Enlist Duo (Enlist Duo being a 2,4-D and glyphosate combination spray).


Dicamba

Dicamba is sprayed on 54 million acres in the US, which is largely on glyphosate and dicamba tolerant soy crops. This chemical is very volatile, staying the air for a long time and traveling great distances before it settles. The chemical works by speeding up the growth rate of plants it targets. It acts like natural growth hormones in the plant. The plant grows too fast and in uncontrolled ways until it dies prematurely.


In humans, it has been shown to target metabolism as it increases the toxicity in the body. Diabetes, cancer, infertility and obesity are all fall outs of this chemical as it poisons the pathways of the production of energy in the body.


Liberty Link

Called “Glufosinate,” this chemical reduces glutamine production, which is critical to life on earth. Glutamine is responsible for protein synthesis, energy production, kidney regulation, and is highly present in the tissues of our muscles. It also has a role to play in sperm production and estrogen signalling effects. When tissue is being built or repaired, like in the case of growing babies or healing wounds or illness, glutamine becomes critically essenital. This means that Liberty Link could be stopping the very essence of regeneration.


Found largely in cotton, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets, Liberty Link’s synthesis with glyphosate has been shown to impact the gut lining, causing leaky gut. This persistent herbicide has also been found in spinach, radishes, wheat, carrions, potatoes, peas, and beans, that were planted or picked 120 days after treatment of Liberty Link. In frozen food, it can be present for up to two years and steam cooking does not easily destroy this chemical. Currently there is no established upper toxic limit.


Atrazine

Atrazine came on the market in 1959 because of its cost effectiveness; but by the 1980’s it was slated to become a possible carcinogen. In 2001, this herbicide was the most common one found in drinking water in the world.


Thanks to the work of Tyrone B. Haynes, PhD, he studied the effects of atrazine on frogs. Him and his research team found that frogs exposed to atrazine from nearby farm fields were developing sexual abnormalities — some species developed multiple testes and multiple ovaries and males in other studies became hermaphrodites.


The European Union banned all use of atrazine in 2004 because of persistent groundwater contamination and cause of concern on the effects in human populations. In fact, epidemiological and animal studies in 2009 suggest that high levels of atrazine during specific periods of pregnancy could result in more birth defects, more low birth weight babies, menstrual problems, and susceptibility to cancer for humans later in life.


So where do I stand on this issue?

I’m sure it’s clear by now, but my overwhelming suggestion would be to avoid GMO foods outright. Why?

  • There are very few safety studies. No studies have every been done accurately for cancer-causing effects, nor has the use of GMO data in our body been tested long term .

  • Superweeds are common now. More than 61million acres of American farmland are infested with Roundup-resistant weeds. To control these hardy plants, many farmers have resorted to older, more toxic herbicides like dicamba, and 2,4-D. Both dicamba and 2,4-D are known to cause reproductive problems and birth defects and pose increased risks of cancer.

  • Toxic pesticide use is on the rise. Superweed growth caused farmers to use 527 million pounds more herbicide from 1996 onwards than would have been the case if those farmers had planted only non-genetically modified crops.

  • Cross-contamination is a problem. The second best way to support your organic farmer is to vote with your dollar. Organic farmers struggle to prevent cross-contamination of their crops by genetically modified seed or pollen spread by wind, insects, floods and machinery, and we support the decreased use of these chemicals as we vote to eat clean.


How do you actually avoid GMO’s?

More than 75% of our food supply today is genetically modified and the US government has proven that the health of the people is not their priority. So what can you do to protect yourself and your family?

  • Buy Organic (and soon Regenerative Organic)! GMO’s are not allowed to be planted in Certified Organic foods.

  • Look for the “Non-GMO Certified” label — In America, unless you buy certified non-GMO food, there is no way to know if your food contains GMOs or not. Looking out for this label will help guide you.

  • Seek out EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GMOs.

  • Avoid field corn and corn-derived products. Over 90% of corn in the US is genetically modified. Most of the crop turned into animal feed, but about 15% is processed to corn flour, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, masa, corn meal and corn oil that end up in our processed foods.

  • Avoid soybeans and soy-derived products. 93% of soy is GMO, so assuming producted with soy proteins, soybean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soy sauce, tofu or soy lecithin have been made with genetically modified ingredients unless they are certified organic or GMO-free is wise.

  • Avoid sugar, unless it is “pure sugar cane” — About 55 percent of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, 95 percent of which have been genetically modified.

  • Steer clear of vegetable oils.


Genetically modified organisms have not only changed the trajectory of agriculture, but they have drastically altered the terrain of human health as well. We have seen since 1996 the demise of small farms as their financial overhead costs skyrocket. We’ve seen polluted waters become commonplace. And we have seen a drastic explosion in health problems among our population. I believe it’s our duty as consumers to educate ourselves and choose clean food. As we vote with our dollar, we can change the course of human health and planetary health.