Hearings have been held in both the Washington state Senate (Feb. 14) and the House (March 5) on the initiative to label GMOs in food. It is highly unusual for the legislature to take action on an initiative so it is likely that I-522 will show up on ballots next November. It behooves Washington residents to educate themselves about this important issue.
A majority of Americans favor labeling GMOs
According to a poll taken two weeks ago by the Huffington Post, 82% of Americans think that GMOs should be labeled, 9% believe they don't need to be labeled and 8% aren't sure. The poll also showed that, while most people think that GMOs should be labeled, many people don't really know too much about GMOs.
What is a GMO?
A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is the term commonly used for crops that have been genetically engineered (GE) to produce some desired trait. The first GE crops were tobacco plants modified in 1986 to be resistant to direct application of herbicides. The following year, tobacco plants were engineered to resist insects. There followed a host of field trials to also develop plants resistant to viral and fungal diseases and to modify traits such as ripening, starch content and so on. In 1995 the FDA approved GE corn, soy, cotton, canola, potato, squash and tomato for commercialization and the amount of GE crops since then has been steadily increasing. Most often the genes are altered to render the plant resistant to either insects or herbicides.
How are plants engineered to be insect resistant (IR)?
Sections of the DNA from the bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are isolated and inserted into the plant cells by a process known as genetic transformation. The entire plant is then regenerated from the transgenic plant cells. There are thousands of different Bt strains that produce protein crystals toxic to insect pests. Particular strains are chosen to target specific plant pests. The resulting plant contains the Bt toxin in its cells. When the plant is eaten by the target insect the toxin binds to receptors in the insect's gut, causing the gut wall to break down and allowing toxin spores and normal gut bacteria to enter the body. As spores and bacteria proliferate in the body, the insect dies.
How are plants engineered to be herbicide tolerant (HT)?
Micro-organisms are identified that are tolerant of the active chemical in the herbicide. In the case of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate-resistant enzymes are isolated from a strain of Agrobacterium. These are inserted into the genes of the plant via a multi-step process resulting in a plant that can withstand direct application of the herbicide.
The stance taken by Monsanto, Dow and the other peddlers of both chemicals and genetically engineered seeds is that GMO food is “identical to non-GMO products.” They claim that genetic engineering is no different than plant hybridization, which has been practiced for centuries. It is the reason they gave, and the EPA accepted, for not having to submit GMO food to rigorous testing to obtain EPA approval. It's up to the companies that manufacture GMOs to research and determine the safety of their products.
Not only are the bacteria genes themselves potentially toxic, but the plants can be sprayed directly with herbicides, the herbicide-resistant plants absorb the poisons and we eat them. It's difficult to understand how this can be considered “essentially” the same as plant hybridization.