In an increasingly processed and packaged world, most of us have a decent understanding of what is “real food” and what is not. We avoid the nitrates, the additives, and the mile long list of chemicals that manufacturers try to pass off as ingredients.
When we first begin attending to our health, it can be a victory simply to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store, avoiding the boxed carcinogens that lie deep within the store’s aisles. Unfortunately, even the produce section, where the food looks like food and you gather your own — real — ingredients, can be deceptive and even dangerous. GMOs are to thank for that, and their connection to cancer cannot be understated.
Even more unfortunate is the lobby behind GMOs, carrying untold amounts of cash and a vested interest in protecting their practices. As a result, a good bit of misinformation, shady marketing, and biased lawmaking have ensued, leading to health problems and lawsuits – not to mention the damage that is yet to be seen as an entire generation grows up on Frankenfoods. Arm yourself with information before GMOs become the norm.
Misleading Claims about GMOs
GMOs, genetically modified organisms, really began to come into their own in the last three to four decades. Instantly, agribusiness saw potential in soy and corn crops – two of the most widely used crops in the world. What the original scientists had in mind when pursuing this technology we may never truly know, but it didn’t take long for seeds of GMO plants to make it to industrialized farms, allowing indiscriminate pesticide use without killing the plant.
If we’re looking to the root of the problem, it’s probably there – that we have giant farms who need to spray heavily in order to more easily produce mass amounts of “food”, much of which will be processed into empty calories anyway. Yet, here we are, and until consumers vote with their dollars and refuse to support such practices, they will carry on.
In justifying the use of GMOs, much has been said — and many have been misleading. Without combing research or knowing someone directly impacted, consumers are left with a “he said, she said” situation about many hot-button issues and GMOs are not exempt. Some of the top claims about GMOs that mislead consumers include:
- That GMOs have always been around
- That GMOs increase yield
- That long term human studies aren’t needed
Each of these reasons for justification is flawed in their own way, without addressing or negating very serious concerns with substances to be distributed as food throughout the world.
GMOs have not always been around
To soften the idea of altering seed DNA, proponents like to say that this isn’t a new practice – that, to some extent, farmers have always made modifications to their crops’ gene structure. This is not only an overstatement but completely misleading.
The practice of selective breeding and hybridization has been in place for hundreds of years – if not thousands – this much is true. Farmers would (and do) identify specific plants that resisted disease well, produced a solid harvest, or handled environmental conditions favorable, and use them to create new varieties of plants. If you’ve ever planted a vegetable garden, you know how many varieties are out there and how important it is to select varieties that do well in your region.
Genetic modification, as practiced in labs in our era, is not only different than hybridization, but it’s also very new. The USDA reports that the upswing in use of GMO seeds only began in the late 1990s. In less than a generation, we’ve moved from hardly any GMOs to half of our farmland consumed with genetically altered seeds. (1)
The practice of genetic modification is obviously different from hybridization, but it’s the reason for modification that endangers our health: the USDA report also noted that the primary reason for choosing GMO seeds is overwhelming to resist herbicides and pesticides. In other words, half of our farmland can be doused with even more chemicals thanks to GMOs – chemicals that can poison the air and leave residue on our food.
GMOs do not increase yield
So many of our decisions in this world must boil down to a risk vs benefit analysis. Even when there are risks to a given choice, sometimes the benefits are greater and it’s still worth pursuing. Pro-GMO arguments often include higher crop yields as a benefit meant to outweigh concerns about GMO safety.
Setting aside the fact that higher yields would still not likely improve our outlook on GMOs, this isn’t even an accurate statement at all.
In a summary of a detailed, long-term evaluation of crop production, the Union of Concerned Scientists had this to say:
This report is the first to evaluate in detail the overall, or aggregate, yield effect of GE after more than 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization in the United States. Based on that record, we conclude that [genetic engineering] has done little to increase overall crop yields. (2)
While it may be simpler on paper to produce a similar annual crop with the help of uninhibited sprays for every obstacle, the big picture tells a different story. Crop yields have little to do with GMO justification.
Long-term safety studies are needed
In spite of the heavy and increasing use of GMOs — and the subsequent pervasive use of chemicals that follows — long term evaluations ensuring human safety are nowhere to be found.
The counter to this concern typically points to studies that utilize animals, pointing to results and claiming them as the be all, end all. The pro-GMO Genetic Literacy Project claims this rebuttal in one of their articles on the topic, pointing to long-term studies that were all conducted on animals. Yet they admit that “there have not been human clinical trials on GMOs.” (3)
While researchers have gleaned countless leads and untold knowledge from animal studies, it’s important to remember where they fall in the grand scheme of things. Animal studies tell us a lot about a substance or process, but they don’t tell us exactly how it will translate to the human body.
Until we have confirmation, in the human body, that long term effects of GMOs and our current farming practices are safe, the current research is nothing more than a hint. Of course, if we’re being honest, few of us would sign up for a trial like that, since there actually is evidence of harm even in short term and pieced together evidence.
Isn’t that telling? An entire generation of our country, effectively acting as an experiment, giving our consent with every trip to the grocery store.
How GMOs risk our health
From the environment to our dinner tables to the very cells of our bodies, GMOs are invading our lives more and more each year. What exactly are they doing to our bodies? If the mainstream claims about them are untrue, then what actually is true – and how does it relate to cancer?
The risks that GMOs pose are very real and affect us even when we don’t directly consume them. The pesticide-laden farming practices that GMO seeds enable further poison our air and water. GMO seeds are more than a farming practice; they are shaping our entire way of life.
Understanding these risks can help us to be better stewards — even activists — for our land, air, and bodies, helping to create a cleaner world where seeds are simply seeds and cancer isn’t a household term.
We risk genetic transfer
Even before we acknowledge that GMOs do damage our bodies, we can’t deny that their impact reaches far beyond meals or incidental exposure. Researchers are finding that modified seeds change more than growing patterns – their modified produce may change our DNA, as well.
One study, published in 2013, summarizes this risk in disturbing clarity:
Here, based on the analysis of over 1000 human samples from four independent studies, we report evidence that meal-derived DNA fragments which are large enough to carry complete genes can avoid degradation and through an unknown mechanism enter the human circulation system. (4 )
They went on to note that some blood samples actually included more plant DNA than human. What does that mean practically? It means that the practice of genetic modification itself cannot be waived off as only about the way plants grow.
Those altered genes can make it into our bodies. And not just ours – there is also evidence that the toxic residue and altered DNA that GMOs leave behind are transferred from maternal blood to the growing baby. (5)
This is about more than growing plants. It’s about our health, our children, and our very DNA.
We risk internal health
Who hasn’t snidely quipped about the sudden increase in gluten sensitivity, often the butt of jokes about imaginary illness? Chances are, however, that it’s not our paranoia that has driven the gluten-free trend but a generation of young adults raised on gut-damaging GMOs.
This connection is not, as some suppose because wheat is genetically modified. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that wheat itself is not a GMO crop. The wheat we have today has changed over the centuries, but not because of lab technicians.
Instead, the Institute of Responsible Technology proposes that it’s the exposure to all of the other GMO crops in our diet that damages the gut and keeps it from properly processing gluten. (6)
We risk cancer
Here’s where it all culminates: Our circulating DNA affected. Our digestive system broken. Our children beginning their lives in utero exposed to toxins. And cancer around every turn.
The risk factors don’t stand alone, you see. It’s not like you can say it’s okay to pursue and consume GMOs because one or the other may not be so bad – it’s a package deal! Years of chipping away at our internal systems lead to chronic illness. People with chronic illness were found to have “significantly higher” herbicide residue in their urine than healthy individuals, as evaluated by German scientists in 2014. (7)
Perhaps these risks are most poignantly demonstrated in people who have the misfortune of working directly with GMOs and the corresponding herbicide and pesticide loads. In recent years, an uptick in lawsuits against Monsanto shares a common theme: farm workers are using their chemical sprays and then finding that they have cancer.
A write-up in Reuters walks through some of the most prominent lawsuits that are active: bone cancer, leukemia, with the World Health Organization countering the US declaration that glyphosate is non-carcinogenic. (8)
This tempered statement on the common herbicide is disappointing but hardly surprising; it’s no secret that Monsanto has a heavy lobbying wing and is interwoven with the US government. It’s up to consumers, it seems, to stick up for ourselves where our government will not.
The World Health Organization, on the other hand, tells us that popular herbicides and pesticides are “probably carcinogenic,” citing links between glyphosate and animal tumors as well as genetic damage in humans after glyphosate exposure. (9)
The truth about GMOs and cancer is that the further we move away from the original design for creation, the more acutely we will feel the effects of this broken world. Not only are altered genes a departure from nature itself, but the fact that we are doing so in order to douse our food with toxins is telling.
In the US at least, the tide will not begin to turn until consumers make it so. Whether that simply means intentionally choosing non-GMO products (a must) or sharing information with our friends and neighbors (a plus) or activism on a larger scale (a calling), we have a responsibility to do something with the information we have been given.
As researchers continue to detail exactly how GMOs affect our bodies and how increased sprays affect our environment and our health, there’s more than enough evidence for us to know that it’s a dangerous practice, from conception to growth to harvest to table.