Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Understanding GMOs: Part 1

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After dinner a few weeks ago as my husband was getting the kids ready for bed (what a guy, right?), I found myself alone at the table with my parents. My father is a smart guy with a beautifully scientific mind so I took the opportunity to pick his brain on GMOs. They were still fresh on my mind after all the recent 'March against Monsanto' Facebook posts. Our conversation made me realize two things - (1) I could spit out study data all day long, but (2) I couldn't explain the basics of GMOs - WHY they are so bad, HOW they are hurting us at a molecular and biochemical level and WHAT they are doing to us at a cellular level to cause such a backlash of disease and the subsequent political and industrial discourse and fragmentation. Quite frankly, I had kind of "glossed over" those questions and jumped on the "GMO can cause infertility, etc. bandwagon" because of all the studies showing this to be the case, but I hadn't taken the time to understand the "how". Suddenly, I had homework!

And guess what? My work is your gain. I'd like to introduce you to my 6 part series on GMOs. There's so much mind-blowing information that Lauren and I have decided to simplify it into 6 parts. Rest assured... you will walk away understanding the fundamentals of GMOs and their associated risks, as well as they're contribution to just about every disease known to Western Civilization. That’s a powerful statement, right? 

Just wait until I break it down for you!!!

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By the end of this series, you’ll be able to answer the following questions...

*What are GMOs and why should I care? Isn’t this just the latest health-food craze?
*What’s the difference between plant hybridization (natural selection) and Genetic Engineering?
*Am I eating GMOs? And if so, how can I avoid them?
*Are GMOs attributed to any particular disease?
*How are GM (genetically modified) insect resistant crops dangerous for consumption?
*How are GM herbicide (Roundup Readyä) resistant crops dangerous for our health and environment? *What is glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundupä, and how is it damaging to our health and environment?
*How are GM crops regulated for safety?
*What are the health risks of GMOs to my children?
* How do other countries view GMOs? (I heard 52 countries and 436 cities protested Monsanto in March; where does the U.S. stand in all of this?)

Before getting started, I have a disclaimer – this is not a political post. So let’s leave that at the door and dive into what GMOs are, how they are made, and the mechanisms by which they wreak havoc on our health and our environment. 

You might want to sit down for this one...

What are GMOs?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism”. That means the genetic code of the target organism was purposefully altered using high-tech laboratory techniques designed specifically for genetic engineering. The GMO crops I’ll be speaking about in this series had their genetic code altered by infecting it with a virus, a bacteria or using a gene gun to insert new genes into its own DNA in the hopes of obtaining a desired trait. Desired traits would be the crop's (1) resistance to insects, viral infections and fungus, (2) tolerance of external factors like frost or herbicides, or (3) even a more ideal starch content or ripening ability.

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It is critically important to understand that in this method of genetic engineering, you can’t control where the gene is inserted into the host, or how that gene may be read, transcribed, altered or rearranged in the host upon insertion (or over time). Sometimes the genes can truncate or rearrange their sequence, leading to a different protein being created altogether. Examples of this have been seen in Europe where different labs examining the same GM crops discovered different proteins being expressed in each – with both results being completely different from the protein being reported by the biotech company who designed them! 

Wait!... does that mean untested proteins are being introduced into our food supply? 

Why, yes. Yes it does!

The expression of the target gene within the host may not be expressed the way scientists hope. For example, in 2005 a protein in a kidney bean was inserted into peas to kill pea weevils. Mice exposed to the kidney protein had no reaction. Mice exposed to the same protein from the pea had severe allergic reactions. Further analysis showed that while the gene sequence was exact within the two plants, the structure of the protein varied slightly, and this shift was enough to make the protein deadly. The most important part about this study was the fact that this was a first of it’s kind animal study BEFORE marketing a GMO product! Up until then (and maybe even since then) most biotech giants do NOT do these types of allergy testing in animals before marketing the product. They may do 90-day feed studies, but they're not doing an advanced study like this one. Mind boggling, isn’t it? And FYI – 90 days hardly covers a life cycle of consuming GMOs… just sayin’!!

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Natural Selection vs. Genetic Engineering… Aren’t they one and the same?
So you may be thinking: What’s the difference between plant hybridization (cross pollination) and genetic modification? Isn’t it basically the same thing? In the end, aren’t we selecting for certain traits and selecting those crops that survive…. as in “survival of the fittest,” right? Whether we use techniques starting from Mendell or take advantage of cutting edge technology, aren’t we going for the same end result? Technology just gets us there differently, right?

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The answer is simple: No! They are NOT the same! Hybridization occurs when two specimens of compatible varieties of the same species are crossed. They are the product of guided natural selection. GMOs on the other hand have genes spliced from one organism into the species of a different organism! For example, say - a bacteria gene into a plant, or a fish gene into a tomato. They can even include genes from multiple species! GMOs are the product of unnatural, high-tech methods, dependent on the ineffective abilities of viruses or bacteria to get the new genes inside the target specimen, resulting in untested organisms that would never emerge in nature. There is no guarantee how the organism will come out, or that the genes being introduced will be expressed in the way they are intended to. In fact, as I mentioned above, there are studies showing this happening in testing labs all over Europe! This means untested allergens are in our food supply, with unknown immediate and long term effects on the human body. Ouch!

In fact, the answer to this question was summarized in several FDA memos. Here is an excerpt from one:

“The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”  -Linda Kahl, FDA Compliance Officer

“They lead to different risks”…OK, that's enough to convince me to stay away!

So how do we regulate those risks?  Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

References for this series:
2   "Genetically Modified Organisms and the deterioration of health in the United States” N.L. Swanson, 4/24/2013, Seattle
3   A Samsel and S. Senef Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases.
7   V. E. Prescott, et al, “Transgenic Expression of Bean r-Amylase Inhibitor in Peas Results in Altered Structure and Immunogenicity,” Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry (2005): 53

Shanna Wahlquist is a Certified Holistic Health Coach specializing in empowering women to adopt a sustainable and healthy lifestyle without dieting or feeling deprived, and supporting them in balancing their gut-mind-body relationship, which she believes is the foundation of every chronic disease and ailment.  She is the mother of two toddlers, ages 4 and 2.5 years old; her happy place is in the ocean surf, and her guilty pleasure is red wine – especially if it involves a limo with a group of friends! Shanna found her path to holistic healing after discovering the benefits of vegetable juicing in February 2012, a journey inspired by her desperation to discover the cause of the sudden onset of recurrent chronic respiratory illnesses suffered by her children. She used that experience as a launchpad for a career change and ended up discovering her true authentic self and life’s purpose. She’s always had a passion for science, food, healing and stewardship, and has created a business where she can enjoy them all simultaneously while making a difference in the lives of her family, friends, clients and community. You can find her on facebook at “NourishingMySoul”,  her blog at or her website,

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