Ms. Bhattacharyya

Food & Beverage

GMO Risks and How to Avoid Them

By Rani Bhattacharyya, Community Economics Extension Educator , University of Minnesota Extension- Center for Community Vitality

With genetically modified foods entering consumer markets again this summer, the hospitality and food service industries need to decide how much liability they are willing accept concerning the risks that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) pose to the public. To explore this issue, this article is divided into three sections: 1) what GMOs are and how they are regulated, 2) a listing of health risks that GMOs pose to your guests, and 3) strategies that hotels can use to avoid liability for these risks.

Definitions and Regulation

Silence concerning GMOs in the US is due, in part to a failure of federal regulators to establish a definition for GMOs that aligns with those used by the rest of the world. According to the USDA, FDA and EPA a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) refers to organisms that have been altered by traditional breeding techniques or by molecular Genetic Engineering Methods (GEM). The EU and other countries however use the term GMO to refer specifically to products created from molecular genetic engineering (or bioengineering) methods developed since the 1970s. In this article, will use the international concept of GMOs. Anger over GMOs has also arisen since there is very little if any independent scientific information concerning the long-term effects on both humans and the environment resulting from production and consumption of newly engineered products. In the absence of providing farmers, biotech companies and the public a common language with which to develop a regulatory framework to "protect and promote our health", the FDA and other agencies are essentially refusing the American public the right to know what they are eating.

For a GMO crop to enter into production and the US marketplace, each of these agencies does have procedures for evaluating the risks posed by each product. In practice however, many of the trial GMO studies required by the USDA have failed to "contain" modified genetic material within trial plots, resulting in contamination of adjacent fields owned by farmers not participating in the studies. The farmers, in turn, are then being sued by biotech firms for infringing on intellectual property rights of the firms. The EPA also now lists proprietary GMO corn, cotton and potato varieties as (toxins) since they now contain chemicals used as herbicides and insecticides.

The FDA encourages voluntary consultations with companies developing GMOs, but law does not require formal product reports before they are cleared for industrial applications or sale.

Within this patchwork, three phases of genetic engineering have already been initiated since the 1990s. The first phase included crops now on the market and focused on increasing crop resistance to insecticides, herbicides and fungal/viral infections. The second phase is focused on ramping up plant resistance to extreme temperature and soil conditions and improving nutrient content. The third phase is working to develop crops that contain pharmaceutical additives like hormones and vaccines. While these scientific efforts have the potential to alleviate many of the worlds health issues and food shortages, the proprietary nature of the research and patenting being done by biotech companies leads many to believe their true aim is to monopolize both the world's agricultural resources and food supply.

Human Health Risks

Increased levels of toxins and novel genes (used to develop GMOs) are now appearing in human cells. At the same time, GMOs have failed to deliver their promised increases in crop yield and reductions pesticide use. Below I highlight three of the most direct biological effects GMOs have already been found to have on mammals that guests would also be exposed to by consuming GM food.

GMOs are Genotoxic

In addition to co-opting genes from other organisms for desired traits, genetic engineering also requires that healthy cells be "infected" with desired genes. While desired DNA sequences develop into crop characteristics "substantial or equivalent " to conventional crops, the lack of comprehensive precautionary methods for evaluating GMOs provides a ethical loophole that also allows "undesired" genes to enter the food supply. In other words, GE foods may look and taste the same as conventional products, but are also loaded with mutagens, enzymes, cytokines, and proteins whose effects are known to degrade mammalian genomes and inhibit normal DNA replication and other cellular biological functions.

GMOs Carry Known Human Toxins

The herbicide Glufosinate ammonium has been linked to cardiovascular, neurological, reproductive, developmental disorders in mammals including epileptic seizures, dose related decreases in heart rate, decreased white blood cell counts, cleft lips, fetal reabsorption, and retardation of skeletal hardening in newborns. When combined with other chemicals in formulation, Glufosinate ammonium has also been found to atrophy testes and trigger their withdrawal into the body cavity in mammalian test subjects. (PAN ANZ 2008). The herbicide Glyphosate, originally patented as Roundup, has been linked to several endocrine, neurological, reproductive disorders in humans at doses lower than those used in agriculture. Some of its chronic toxicity effects include hormonal and genetic problems that are indicative of various cancers, Parkinson's disease, and ADHD. On its own, this chemical also interferes with testosterone production in mammal cells. (PAN ANZ 2009).

GMO DNA Does Not Breakdown

In tandem with the development of agriculture, the human digestive system has cultured a very unique and diverse set of bacteria that aid us in breaking down and recycling nutrients, minerals, and proteins from the food we eat. These symbiotic bacteria species have developed over thousands of years, but they are now being inundated with radically engineered bacterial "cousins" carrying designer genes less than 20 years old. Research is also revealing how engineered DNA is now able to survive human digestion and use our gastrointestinal bacterial species to colonize cells in other parts of the human body. The healthcare industry has also raised concerns about biotech firms using pharmaceutical compounds to tag and track proprietary GMOs in the market; thus exposing livestock, crops, and people to unnecessarily higher levels of antibiotics. By increasing the concentrations of alien genetic and pharmaceutical material present in our food supply, the agricultural industry is endangering not only the health of individual consumers, but also the general populations ability to adapt to and survive against pathogenic outbreaks.

Strategies to Minimize GMO Exposure

The best way to avoid exposing your guests to the risks mentioned above is to periodically update your property's purchasing policies using the following strategies:

Help your staff learn about the crop types undergoing experimentation. Key crop and food products to pay attention to include:

  • Soybeans have been engineered for increased resistance to both of the herbicides Glufosinate ammonium and Glyphosate and to increase oleic acid content using bacterial and viral cultures. It is now one of the eight most common foods that trigger allergic reactions among children. Many non-food personal care products are also now derived from soybeans as an alternative to traditional petroleum products.

  • Corn has been engineered to resist both herbicides and a insecticide. It is used to manufacture high fructose corn syrup and glucose/fructose additives. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in gum and diet food products requires the amino acid phenylalanine that is genetically engineered in the US using E. Coli.

  • Rapeseed, Canola, and Sugar Beets have all been engineered to build resistance to herbicides. Papaya has been engineered to resist viral strains common to a variety of melons and curbits.

  • Rice has been engineered to build resistance to herbicides and produce higher levels of beta-carotene. None of these varieties have been cleared yet for human consumption, but accidental genetic drift during transport has been documented in the US.

  • Cotton has been engineered with resistance to the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Cotton oil is used to make vegetable oil and margarine.

  • Dairy Cows are injected with the rBGH/rBST hormone to increase milk production but it has also been found to decrease cow fertility and immunity.

  • Farm Raised Salmon are fed GM canola oil, corn meal and soy.

  • In addition to crops out on the market, applications have been filed with the USDA for GMO varieties of apple, eucalyptus, melon, and wheat (USDA, BRS 2012; UCS, 2006).

Track purchasing trends concerning GMO and GM food products and replace these purchases with 100% Organic or locally raised alternatives:

  • Be critical in selecting your food products, especially those making generalized organic, or natural claims since they can still contain upto 30% GMOs. Encourage your vendors to provide PLC stickers and codes on their produce since 5 digit codes starting with 9 ID organically grown products.

  • Cattle and Sheep in the US are all raised on grass, but also spend part of their lives in feedlots where they receive feed with GM content. A better alternative is to find local sources that raise 100% grass fed or pasture fed animals. For poultry and pigs that are not grass fed, look for 100% Organic.

  • GMOs generally come from large industrial farms, so subscribing to a local CSA or food co-op can help minimize exposure to GMOs and also shave off product transportation costs from your food-purchasing budget.

Rani Bhattacharyya serves as the Community Economics Educator in northwest Minnesota by supporting communities located in the counties of Beltrami, Clearwater, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, and Roseau in the discovery and implementation of development opportunities. Through her work Ms. Bhattacharyya is also studying how company and community performance benchmarking can be integrated into long-term city, and community development planning processes. Ms. Bhattacharyya can be contacted at 218-275-3444 or rani.a.bhattacharyya@gmail.com Extended Bio...

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