By Amir H. Shaani, PhD, MS, MWS, ROHP, NANP Professional Member
What is GMO?
A genetically modified organism is a plant, animal, microorganism, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified or altered in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This process generates a combination of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes which are not present in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods and conventionally grown foods. Genetically modified plants like soybean, corn, cottonseed, and canola have had foreign genes derived from the DNA of bacteria and viruses inserted into their DNA, which have never been in the human food supply chain. Americans have been consuming genetically modified ingredients in many processed foods since 1996 (Smith, 2020).
Is it Regulated and Does it Require Labeling?
The fact that transgenic technology can improve our knowledge of natural processes is widely accepted. Consequently, it results in major changes that could affect society at large, including agriculture, industry, and socio-economic conditions, and therefore requires to be regulated. Plant GMOs are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the Plant Protection Act (loc.gov). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for regulating genetically modified plants and approving GM feed for animals in Canada (loc.gov). The tracing and labeling of genetically modified organisms in the food industry has also become increasingly important. Labeling GM crops is mandatory in many countries such as China, the EU, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil. However, in countries like the US, Canada, and South Africa, the labeling of GM crops is voluntary (Kamle, 2017).
The United States does not have any federal legislation that is specific to GMOs. Rather, they are regulated pursuant to health, safety, and environmental legislation governing conventional products. Compared to other countries, the US’ approach to regulating GMOs is premised on the assumption that regulation should focus on the nature of the products, rather than the process in which they were produced, which is favorable to their development (Pew Initiative, n.d.). From an economic perspective, GMOs are an important component of the biotechnology industry, which plays a significant role in the US economy, as it is the world’s leading producer of GM crops (Select USA, n.d.).
Human or Lab GMO?
The reality of considering GMOs as the fasted incorporated commodities in the agribiotech industry worldwide leads to many controversies around it, which have dramatically increased in the past two decades since commercial genetically modified crop production began. Some people have very strong opinions against GMOs. Others, however, believe that for many reasons such as combined herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, drought tolerance or disease resistance, GMOs are beneficial (Kamle, 2017). In fact, there is sometimes confusion around the exact definition of GMOs, and as such, the implementation of effective regulatory measures has become more important.
We need to understand that virtually all plants that we consume have had their genome modified either by humans or in a lab. Farmers select plants with superior, desirable traits to cultivate in a process known as agricultural evolution for thousands of years, during which traditional agricultural breeding has changed plant genomes from those of their original wild ancestors (Prakash, 2001). Broccoli, for instance, is not a naturally occurring plant in nature. There is a distinction between cauliflower and broccoli based on their relative ontogeny at marketable maturity. It has been bred from undomesticated brassica oleracea or wild cabbage (Baggett, 1975). Human intervention has practically resulted in the existence of most crops grown on farms today. Breeding seeds chosen from the best yielding plants for the purpose of having a better plant (which changes the plant genome in a way that does not occur naturally in nature) has been practiced by farmers for numerous years. However, these are not considered plant GMOs (Bent, 2020). The reason that I have elaborated on agricultural evolution and human intervention is because this leads to the fact that not all GMO plants are created equal. It is very crucial to distinguish between the trait and the method of producing GMOs.
Trait or Method?
Molecular biology techniques which have no resemblance to natural breeding are utilized to breed the offspring back with the parent for the purpose of reaching the desired combination of parental traits. These include pest resistance, higher yield, sustainability, improved plant growth and nutritional content, and consequently, increased profitability (Bent, 2020).
In the early 1980s, for the first time, it became possible to insert non-plant genes into plants by using a plasmid derived from the bacteria, agrobacterium tumifaciens. A study done in 2014 reveals eight new methods for altering genes in plants. Through these techniques, different enzymes or nucleic acid molecules (DNA and RNA) are used to make changes to a plant’s genes. These are either altering the sequence of a plant’s DNA or leave the sequence alone but make other epigenetic modifications to the structure of a plant’s DNA. These epigenetic modifications do not alter the order of the DNA or genes. Instead, they change how genes can be expressed (Hartung, 2014).
Epigenetics, Agricultural Practices, and Human Health
Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes to the underlying DNA sequence. These changes can be influenced by a variety of environmental factors, including exposure to chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. In agriculture, these chemicals are commonly used to protect crops from pests and weeds, but they can also have unintended effects on the plants themselves.
Studies have shown that exposure to pesticides can lead to epigenetic changes in crops, altering the expression of genes involved in the plant’s defense mechanisms and potentially making the plant’s tissues more toxic (Rohila, 2018). This can have implications for human health, as people who consume these crops may be exposed to the toxins and other substances produced by the plants as a result of these epigenetic changes.
The relationship between epigenetics, agricultural practices, and human health is complex and not fully understood. However, some studies have suggested that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture may contribute to food sensitivities, allergies, and digestive problems in humans (Chen, 2019; Hernandez-Vargas, 2020; Martin-Biggers, 2018). For example, a study by Hernandez-Vargas et al. (2020) found that exposure to pesticides was associated with a higher risk of developing allergies and digestive problems. However, other studies have not found a significant link between pesticide exposure and digestive problems (Chen, 2019), highlighting the need for further research in this area.
In conclusion, while the links between agricultural practices, epigenetics, and human health are not fully understood, it is clear that exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture can lead to epigenetic changes in crops and potentially impact human health. Further research is needed to fully understand the extent to which these changes may contribute to food sensitivities, allergies, and digestive problems in humans.
I personally believe that it is primarily the matter of how GMOs are made, rather than what new traits the modified plants have, that is important to consider. I do not support lab GMOs if non-plant genes are inserted into them despite the fact that they may offer some advantages such as fewer pesticides, lower cost, and more nutrient intake. I defend my opinion with the following reasons:
- Biodiversity Loss: Genetically modified crops can have negative impacts on non-target organisms and on soil and water ecosystems. For example, the expansion of GM herbicide-tolerant corn and soy, which are twinned with herbicides, has destroyed much of the habitat of the monarch butterfly in North America (cban.ca, 2019).
- Allergic Reactions: Since GMO foods comprise of DNA from other organisms, there is a possibility that the new DNA triggers allergies, causing food allergies and sensitivities in people who normally are not allergic to certain foods (Kennedy, 2020).
- Gene Transfer: GM foods transfer genes to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which are a concern because the transferred genetic material may adversely affect human health (WHO, n.d.).
- Antibiotic Resistance: GMOs often have additional genes inserted, which make the modified cells resistant to antibiotics. The reason is that antibiotics can be used to kill off any plant cells that have not successfully taken in the new DNA. Some experts worry that these genes may be absorbed into harmful bacteria found in our gut, causing serious illnesses like staph infections. This means that the usual antibiotic treatments would be worthless against these new super-bacteria (Bodnar, 2019).
- Outcrossing: The migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or other species in the wild is known as outcrossing. This along with the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with genetically modified crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security (WHO, n.d.).
- Unpredictable Changes: In the genetic engineering process, natural genes can be deleted, or permanently turned on or off, and many may change their behaviour. Furthermore, the inserted genes can be damaged or rearranged, which may trigger allergies or promote disease. Plant biotechnology can create massive collateral damage, causing mutations in hundreds or thousands of locations throughout the plant’s DNA (Latham, 2006).
Baggett, J. R. & Wahlert, W. (1975). “Taxonomy and Evolution of Broccoli ( Brassica Oleracea Var. Italica ).” Economic Botany, Springer-Verlag, link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02862698.
Bent Research Associate, Elizabeth. (2020). “Not All GMO Plants Are Created Equally: It’s the Trait, Not the Method, That’s Important.” The Conversation, theconversation.com/not-all-gmo-plants-are-created-equally-its-the-trait-not-the-method-thats-important-39532.
Bodnar, A. (2019). “GMOs Could Render Important Antibiotics Worthless.” Biology Fortified Inc., biofortified.org/2010/03/gmos-antibiotics/.
CBAN. (2019). “Environmental Impacts.” Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, cban.ca/gmos/issues/environmental-impacts/.
Chen, Y., Wang, L., Guo, Y., & Han, X. (2019). Association between exposure to pesticides and digestive problems: a meta-analysis. Environmental Pollution, 250, 512-519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2019.06.062
Hartung, F. & Joachim, S. (2014). “Precise Plant Breeding Using New Genome Editing Techniques: Opportunities, Safety and Regulation in the EU.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tpj.12413.
Hernandez-Vargas, H., Hernandez-Vargas, E., & De La Riva, G. A. (2020). Pesticides and human health: A review of the association between exposure to pesticides and the incidence of allergies and digestive problems. Frontiers in Public Health, 8, 583815. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.583815
Kamle, M., et al. (2017). “Current Perspectives on Genetically Modified Crops and Detection Methods.” 3 Biotech, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5495694/.
Kennedy, M. & Samantha, C. (2020). “Evidence-Based Pros and Cons of GMO Foods.” Insider, Insider, www.insider.com/gmo-pros-and-cons.
Latham, J. R., et al. (2006). “The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation.” Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Hindawi, www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2006/025376/.
Martin-Biggers, J. T., & Doerner, J. G. (2018). The gut-pesticide axis: a review of the impact of pesticides on the gut microbiome. Frontiers in Microbiology, 9, 3104. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2018.03104
Prakash, C. S. (2001). “The Genetically Modified Crop Debate in the Context of Agricultural Evolution.” Plant Physiology, American Society of Plant Biologists, www.plantphysiol.org/content/126/1/8.
Pew Initiative. (n.d.). “Guide to U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Food and …” Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, ww.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/reports/food_and_biotechnology/hhsbiotech0901pdf.pdf.
Rohila, J. S., & Kumar, S. (2018). Epigenetic changes in crops in response to abiotic stress. Frontiers in Plant Science, 9, 602. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2018.00602
Select USA. (n.d.). “The Biotechnology Industry in the United States.” Select USA, selectusa.commerce.gov/print/industry-snapshots/biotechnology-industry-united-states .
Smith, J. (2020). “Health Risks.” Institute for Responsible Technology, www.responsibletechnology.org/science-guide/health-risks/.
WHO (n.d.). “Food, Genetically Modified.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/food-genetically-modified.
As an Orthomolecular Health Practitioner, Holistic Nutrition Consultant, and Master Water Specialist with over a decade of experience in the health & wellness industry, I strive to encourage a holistic approach to our health and well-being. Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness go hand in hand, making the task of deciphering how our bodies respond to external stimuli a challenging one. What makes me different is that I do not look at symptoms as problems. Rather, I examine the underlying functions in the body, and even deeper, lifestyle in general, to better understand the cause of the symptoms. As the Founder and operator of the Vancouver Bio Boost Clinic, I am an exceptionally seasoned and compassionate nutrition professional with an outstanding record of holding educational seminars and info sessions, committed to continuing education in nutrition and fostering healthy behaviors for patients and in the broader community, around the world. My professional experience include:
- Design and hold customized holistic health & nutrition seminars and info sessions.
- Contribute to public diabetes and obesity awareness education in collaboration with physicians and other medical staff members.
- Design and development of customized staff training in nutrition and wellness issues.
- Performed screening assessments and physical workups for new clients as required on an individual basis.
- Facilitated group workshops on preventive health & wellness awareness