Genetically-Modified Organisms or GMOs: What Are You <i>Really</i> Eating?

There is an interesting aspect of the argument over labeling GM products that is centered upon our individual right to guide our own lives and make our own choices. When it comes to the most basic of human needs, the food that we eat should be our choice, and ours alone. There is no place for "Big Ag" at my dinner table.
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A picture taken on August 22, 2012 in Godewaersvelde, northern France shows a corn field. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/GettyImages)
A picture taken on August 22, 2012 in Godewaersvelde, northern France shows a corn field. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/GettyImages)

As a medical professional, my life's work has been devoted to improving the lives of others by helping them improve their diets, lose weight and correct their metabolism. I have been appalled in the past weeks as I have watched what I will call "Big Ag" crank up their political machine and throw millions of dollars into attack ads and propaganda against California's Proposition 37.

The proposed law, which would require mandatory labeling of genetically-engineered food, has come under increasing fire as of late. In the past weeks alone, a coalition of the biggest stakeholders in the agricultural industry has raised more than $34.6 million dollars to defeat the proposition. The question that all Americans, not just Californians, must ask is: "Why?"

Who Wants to Know About GMO?

You might be shocked to learn that a national CBS News poll around that 87 percent of Americans favor labeling GM ingredients in their food. You might also be intrigued to learn that no less than 61 nations have some form of GM food labeling requirements on the books. The entire EU has required such labeling since 1997.

This begs the question: What could be so terrible about telling the American people whether the product they are about to purchase contains genetically-modified organisms? How on earth, as the Anti-Prop 37 folks claim, could the simple act of labeling these GM products result in higher food costs? There is a simple answer to this question: People may stop buying products made with GMOs.

"But wait! How can you support a measure that would raise food prices?" they say. Again, the answer is relatively simple. The scare tactics being employed by the Anti-Prop 37 crowd assume that California would be going it alone in the effort to label GM foods. While the context of Prop 37 includes only California, 20 more state legislatures across the nation have taken up the issue and currently have pending GM labeling legislation. While the opponents of this movement would like you to think it's just the crazy Californians that are "up to it again," this is simply not the case.

While Prop 37 is a California issue, labeling the GMOs present in our food supply is not. This is an issue that deserves national attention. It's time to take this movement out of California, and all other states, for that matter, and take decisive action at the federal level.

What Are GMOs Anyway?

As a medical doctor, I'd like to take a moment to provide you with some background on GMOs and why they really do matter. To do this, let me first properly define exactly what genetically-modified organisms actually are. At least one of the most common GMOs -- corn, soybeans, rice, and tomatoes -- are found in nearly every food that most of us eat these days.

Many people with whom I have "the GMO conversation" are unfortunately completely unaware of the methods used to modify formerly naturally-occurring organisms into something entirely different and hardly natural. The World Health Organization defines GMOs as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally." Excerpts from the American Association of Environmental Medicine's website provide a startling glimpse into the creation of today's Frankenstein GM crops:

"This technology is also referred to as 'genetic engineering,' 'biotechnology,' or 'recombinant DNA technology' and consists of randomly inserting genetic fragments of DNA from one organism to another, usually from a different species. For example, an artificial combination of genes that includes a gene to produce the pesticide Cry1Ab protein (commonly known as Bt toxin), originally found in Bacillus thuringiensis, is inserted in to the DNA of corn randomly."

I am not sure about you, but I am not at all comfortable with the notion of bacterial DNA being inserted into my food without my knowledge or consent -- not as a medical professional or a mother.

Are They Safe?

An often-dismissed argument in the battle over labeling GM products is the simple, yet extremely consequential, question of whether or not these modified "Frankenfoods" are safe for human consumption. The powerful agricultural lobby will tell you that these foods are safe because of their "substantial equivalence" to the original, natural, version.

But just how equivalent are they? A recent peer-reviewed study published in the respected Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal titled "Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize" studied the effects of a particular GM seed and the pesticide it has been engineered to withstand when introduced into the food supply of laboratory rats. The findings, though controversial, should be enough to require mandatory labeling of GM products until further long-term studies can be conducted.

Essentially, the scientists in charge of the study found that the rats whose diet consisted of the GM corn and its companion pesticide suffered much higher rates of tumors and early death than those in the control group who received a normal rat diet. To be fair, the study has come under scrutiny for its methodology. However, the findings are extremely troubling. With even the tiniest shred of evidence that animals whose diets consist of GMOs have a higher rate of cancer and premature death rates higher than that of their regularly-fed peers, action must be taken.

Lack of Long-Term Human Study

After reading the paragraph above, you might dismiss some of the findings discussed due to the backlash the study has received from the scientific community. While the strictest measures of scientific methodology and precision may write this study off as flawed, I see the underlying value that it holds, flawed or otherwise. This is not the only animal study to show similar high rates of cancer and early death linked to GM feed. In truth, it is just one of quite a few.

What detractors from this study and the labeling of GMOs fail to grasp is that these studies show an increased risk of harmful complications from consuming genetically-modified food. Yes, the complications are in animals, and as everyone knows, these animals are not humans. This fact, however, is not enough to write them off as inconsequential. In fact, their findings point to yet another flaw in the "trust us" mentality that "Big Ag" expects the American consumer to willingly follow: the lack of credible, non-biased studies showing the effects of the consumption of GM products on a person's health over time.

These "Frankenfoods" have only become a major part of our food supply in the past decade. That's 16 years that Americans have been unknowingly consuming foods that may be detrimental to their overall health and well-being. While "Big Ag" asks the mothers of America to simply "trust us, everything will be okay," this answer is not okay with me. You see, as a board-certified bariatric physician and expert in metabolism, I understand the details of how foods interact with the body. As a mother of four, I also understand that my example will shape the future that I leave for my children.

The Responsible Path Forward

Finally, there is an interesting aspect of the argument over labeling GM products that is centered upon our individual right to guide our own lives and make our own choices. When it comes to the most basic of human needs, the food that we eat should be our choice, and ours alone. Simply put, there is no place for "Big Ag" at my dinner table.

At present, I know of no laws that allow a company to mandate what people must eat. Yet, in not labeling GM products, manufacturers using GM ingredients are essentially doing just that. Without the knowledge that a particular item contains GM ingredients, a consumer cannot reasonably be expected to be able to differentiate on their own. Further, since I've seen data showing that 88 percent of all corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, the choices of non-GMO are becoming increasingly restricted. It should be noted, again, that corn is found in nearly every processed food found at your local grocery store.

In sum, I would like to pose the following question: How does obscuring the truth from consumers promote the right to choose what we put in our bodies or our ability to control the food that we consume? As is often the case in the argument over GM labeling, it does no such thing. In fact, the deliberate attempt to hide crucial information pertaining to the integrity and wholesomeness of our food supply is something that should provoke outrage from medical professionals and mothers nationwide.

Do you truly believe that the controversy over labeling GMOs is about your best interests as a consumer, or the bottom line of the companies most invested in the business of tampering with your food?

For more by Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D., click here.

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