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What Is Your Approach to Genetically Modified Foods?

At WHFoods, we discourage consumption as well as development of genetically modified foods. Given the rapid rise of these foods in the marketplace, we would also like to see labeling of all foods (both present and future) that are genetically modified.

Our perspective on genetically modified foods is described in detail in the following article. The reasons behind our opposition to genetically modified—also called genetically engineered (GE) foods—may be somewhat different, however, than many readers might expect. Therefore, our goal in this article is to provide you with comprehensive and reliable information about GE foods and our reasons for discouraging incorporation of GE foods into your meal plan.

The Marketplace Reality

In the United States, 170 million acres of GE crops were planted in 2014, and this number represented about half of all planted acreage. Approximately 90% of all soy, corn, and sugar beet crops grown in the U.S. are currently GE. Canola (rapeseed) plantings are about 60% GE, and some other food-related GE crops include cotton (the origin of cottonseed oil), potato, and tomato. Worldwide, GE crops are planted on approximately 450 million acres of land, making U.S. production roughly 35% of total global GE food production. Partially due to widespread incorporation of corn components (for example, high fructose corn syrup) and soy components (for example, isolate soy protein) into food products, approximately 70% of all prepackaged multi-ingredient food items in U.S. groceries are estimated to contain at least one GE component.

This widespread presence of GE foods in the U.S. marketplace has happened quite quickly. Two decades ago (in 1993), zero acres of commercial GE crops were planted in the U.S., and virtually no GE food components were present in the U.S. food supply. So, within a relatively short 20-year period, virtually all U.S. children and adults have started consuming GE foods in their meal plans. Given the magnitude and abruptness of this change, it seems like special monitoring and evaluation would be important to understand the impact of these foods. However, as you will see in the paragraphs below, no safeguards have been put into place with respect to GE foods.

GE Food Regulation

The widespread and rapid introduction of GE foods into the U.S. food supply is extremely difficult to study from a nutritional or health perspective since there is no labeling requirement for GE foods and pre-market studies on GE foods are strictly voluntary. Beginning in 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began asking producers and marketers of GE foods to submit plans 120 days pre-market. But this regulatory requirement did not include mandatory testing of any kind or mandatory submission of test results, if conducted. Since 1992, the FDA has used a legal standard of "substantial equivalence" to evaluate the safety and desirability of GE food. According to this standard, genetically modified food plants must resemble unmodified plants aesthetically, nutritionally, "anti-nutritively," and in terms of allergic potential. ("Anti-nutritively" in this regulatory language refers to the level of substances like oxalates or phytates that might change levels of nutrient absorption in GE versus non-GE foods. In this "anti-nutritive" category, "substantial equivalence" means that the level of substances like oxalates or phytates in a GE food must be similar to their level in the same food which has not been genetically engineered.)

Yet, determination of "substantial equivalence" is viewed as an industry versus government responsibility, and all safety testing on GE foods is considered voluntary by the FDA. Among the various aspects of "substantial equivalence" listed above, allergic potential is an aspect of GE foods that we find especially important to evaluate. Our reasons for wanting evaluation of allergic potential are described in upcoming sections. However, in order to understand the nature of allergic potential and GE foods, it is first necessary to understand why plant breeding—which is a longstanding and widely adopted practice in agriculture—is categorically different than genetic engineering.

Plant Breeding Versus Genetic Engineering

No issue in GE foods has been more controversial than the difference between plant breeding and genetic engineering. We also believe that this difference has often been overlooked and/or poorly understood in discussions about GE Food.

In the simplest of terms, plant breeding is the practice of selecting specific plants (or their seeds) to serve as parent plants to a next generation of offspring. These specific plants are typically selected from a large population of plants, and they are chosen because they have already demonstrated certain desirable characteristics. For example, they may have survived quite well during a dry spell; or they may have particularly vibrant colors; or they may have shown no symptoms of disease when all of their fellow plants became infected. These specific plants are typically "crossed" with each other to see if the next generation of plants will show the same desirable characteristics. In plant breeding, this practice will be tested over many generations. It is not uncommon, for example, for plant breeders to study the outcome over 10 consecutive generations. If plantings are done on an annual basis, the breeding process can take a full decade. During this period of time, thousands of plants are grown and thousands of observations are gathered and converted into statistical data. In the vast majority of plants, desirable changes may not occur. Some plant breeders have likened the breeding process to "finding a needle in a haystack."

It is not surprising that plant breeders fail to get instant results. But to better understand the dynamics of the plant breeding process, we must turn to the field of genetics. In the cells of every plant are at least one full set of that plant's genes. This unique set of genes is typically referred to as the plant's "genome."

There are at least 15,000 protein-coding genes in most plants ("protein-coding" means that the plant can take each unique gene and use it as a blueprint for making a unique protein). The gathering together of these genes is not random or unplanned. The genome of a plant evolves over an extraordinarily long period of time, and the experience of hundreds of millions of plant ancestors contributes to each plant's genome. Most of our WHFoods vegetables, for example, are flowering plants, whose ancestry dates back over 150 million years. When a plant breeder decides to select specific parent plants that did better during a drought or showed no symptoms of disease, that plant breeder is observing real-life outcomes and saying, "Here is a plant that did incredibly well on its own, and it would be great if there were more plants like this one!" In other words, the plant breeder is marveling at the natural accomplishments of the plant and wondering if selective breeding could enable more offspring to achieve the same things. Plant breeders start out by accepting the natural flow of events in the world at large, including the intricate workings of the plant genome. Plant breeders accept the outcome of plant evolution and believe that the real world should decide whether plant offspring have agriculturally desirable traits. If changes take place in the genome of the offspring plants, these changes embody the experience of the plants as they germinate and grow in the same way that their ancestors have grown. If changes do not take place, it means that the real world does not support those changes.

Genetic engineers never start out with a parent plant that did incredible well on its own. They start out with a parent plant that is in need of improvement. They are hoping that with the help of science, the parent plant will end up doing better. The starting point in genetic engineering is a need for improvement on the part of the plant. At least from an agricultural standpoint, the intricate workings of the plant genome are unsatisfactory. By bringing in a novel gene that has never been a part of the plant's evolutionary heritage or real world experience, genetic engineers hope to change the plant's performance in a way that has never been previously observed. Genetic engineers hope to create a plant that will show characteristics never before seen in its ancestors. This approach lies in stark contrast to the approach of a plant breeder, who hopes to make already seen characteristics more abundant, and who views the intricate workings of the plant genome as being fully satisfactory.

Unlike plant breeders, genetic engineers begin by looking outside of the plant's immediate situation, to other plants or organisms that show characteristics they would like to see in their plant. Plant breeders may incorporate advanced genetic analysis into the breeding process. But they never start by looking in unfamiliar places for unfamiliar genes that might help improve the composition of the plant genome. These differences in kind between plant breeding and genetic engineering play an important role in our decision at WHFoods to discourage consumption and development of GE foods.

For persons wanting to follow up on GE foods and their development, it can be helpful to visit the websites of companies most active in this area. Up through the end of 2013, the companies which have dominated GE food research and production in the U.S. include Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer Crop Science, and Seminis.

GE Foods and Allergic Reactions

With this important difference between plant breeding and genetic engineering in mind, let's return to the issue of GE foods and the risk of allergic reaction. Among the best studied of all food allergy reactions are immune-based reactions in which our immune system uses specialized molecules called antibodies to help identify potentially harmful agents in the body (for example, bacteria) and mount a protective response. Antibodies have specialized sites called antigen-binding sites that serve as the basis for identifying potentially harmful agents. In order to "grab hold" of a harmful agent, an antigen-binding site must lock together with an antigen. Antigens are usually defined as substances that trigger antibody production by the immune system. But importantly, many of the most antigenic substances that our immune system encounters are proteins. In immune-based food allergies, the most common reactions involve antibody responses to food proteins (and in particular, very specific spots—called epitopes—in the structure of specific food proteins). Over time, our immune system gets accustomed to seeing a large number of antigenic substances, and it also retains a robust ability to mount antibody responses.

But what our immune system does not get accustomed to seeing is abrupt changes in food protein composition in the absence of environmental input. The immediate goal of genetic engineering is to bring about just such a change in a food's protein composition because a fundamental purpose of the newly transferred gene is to trigger formation of a new protein. (The process of making a protein from a gene is called genetic "expression.") GE procedures are carefully designed to alter the food's genome in such a way that a new protein will become part of that food's protein composition.

Scientists who study the potential allergenicity of GE foods are united in their belief that novel proteins in GE foods may bring along with them increased risk of food allergy. In fact, many international organizations have developed "decision trees" designed for use in assessing the potentially allergenicity of GE foods. Unfortunately, no large-scale studies exist on the allergenicity of GE food consumption in the U.S. Some smaller scale studies&dmash;usually based on skin prick testing&dmash;have been published. Some of these smaller scale studies actually show no increased risk of food allergy.

However, what concerns us here is not the inevitability of increased allergy from GE food consumption but our lack of knowledge about a food supply that gone from 0% GE to 50% GE (in terms of crop acreage) in two decades. And we have not only proceeded in the absence of large-scale research in this area, but in a way that has at least temporarily eliminated the capacity for large-scale research. Without labeling of GE foods, how can individuals identify themselves as GE food consumers? How can a person know how much GE food he or she is consuming? And similarly, how can the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, verify complaints from consumers about GE food consumption when consumers themselves have no way of verifying their consumption of GE foods? We also question whether any practical degree of safety can be determined by a regulatory system that has failed to set any mandatory safety testing requirements—including food allergy testing requirements.

We would like to add one final note about the labeling of GE foods. Since December of 2013, when the state of Connecticut passed the first labeling law for GE foods in the United States, there has been an increasing amount of controversy and activity in relationship to the labeling of GE foods. While the Connecticut law was written in a way that did not bring GE labeling into effect until four neighboring states had passed similar legislation, a 2014 law passed in the state of Vermont was more freestanding in structure and was scheduled to take effect in July 2016 for all foods sold in that state. By June 2016, several major U.S. food companies—including Campbell's, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg's, and Mars—announced their intention to begin GE labeling, not only in Vermont but in all 50 states. Alongside of these developments has been increased activity in the U.S. Congress related to potential new legislation involving GE labeling. At present, this complicated set of activities involving state governments, the federal government, and U.S. food companies has not reached resolution.

Genetic Modification and the World's Healthiest Foods

On a much less technical and heartfelt level are the joys and pleasures that we experience from the World's Healthiest Foods. We just cannot find anything wrong with the magnificent bounty of nature—from the intricate textures of broccoli to the pungent flavors of garlic to the fresh citrus scent of lemon. With all 100 of our WHFoods, we believe that the world has "gotten it right." All of the limitations on growing season, time of planting, time of harvest, temperature exposure—these natural restrictions imposed by the world on food seem to have resulted in something unparalleled and indescribably wonderful. We cannot imagine anything better than the World's Healthiest Foods! They are too nutrient rich, too health promoting, too exciting, too time-tested, and too much fun to consider altering at a genetic level in a lab. The world that produced them seems to be doing things just right! So, in addition to our more technical concerns about GE food, we also have concerns that are based on our non-technical, human experience. The idea of genetically modifying a food does not make sense to us in the wake of our everyday experience with the wonders of food and 150 million years of plant evolution on earth that made these wonders possible.

References

  • Batista R, Nunes B, Carmo M et al. Lack of detectable allergenicity of transgenic maize and soya samples. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 116, Issue 2, August 2005, Pages 403-410.
  • Bonnin I, Bonneuil C, Goffaux R et al. Explaining the decrease in the genetic diversity of wheat in France over the 20th century Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 195, 1 October 2014, Pages 183-192.
  • Ewen SWB and Pusztai A. (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet, Volume 354, Number 9187, 16 October.
  • Feldman M and Levy AA. Genome evolution in allopolyploid wheat—a revolutionary reprogramming followed by gradual changes. Journal of Genetics and Genomics, Volume 36, Issue 9, September 2009, Pages 511-518.
  • Fernandez-Cornejo J, Wechsler S, Livingston M et al. Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, ERR-162 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, February 2014.
  • Fernandez-Cornejo J and McBride WD. (2012). Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Agricultural Economic Report No. (AER-810). Originally published May 2002. Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington, D.C.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Decision Tree Approach to the Evaluation of the Allergenicity of Genetically Modified Foods. (2000). 2000 Joint FAO/WHO Consultation on Safety Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods of Plant Origin, Agriculture and Human Protection Department, Rome, Italy.
  • Hakki EE, Uygan S, Babaoglu M et al. Determination of wild wheat genetic resources that can contribute best to boron toxicity tolerance in cultivars. Journal of Biotechnology, Volume 131, Issue 2, Supplement, September 2007, Pages S33-S34.
  • James C. (2016). Brief 51, 20th Anniversary (1996 to 2015) of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crops Highlights in 2015. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Ithica, NY.
  • Konig A, Cockburn RWR, Debruyne CE et al. Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 42, Issue 7, July 2004, Pages 1047-1088.
  • Sanghera GS, Wani SH, Hussain W, et al. Engineering Cold Stress Tolerance in Crop Plants. Genomics. 2011 March; 12(1): 30–43.
  • Shultz JL, Kurunam D, Shopinski K, et al. The Soybean Genome Database (SoyGD): a browser for display of duplicated, polyploid, regions and sequence tagged sites on the integrated physical and genetic maps of Glycine max. Nucleic Acids Res. Jan 1, 2006; 34(Database issue): D758–D765.
  • Stevenson SE, Woods CA, Hong B et al. Environmental effects on allergen levels in commercially grown non-genetically modified soybeans: assessing variation across North America. Front Plant Sci. 2012;3:196. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2012.00196.
  • Tulipani S, Marzban G, Herndl A, et al. Influence of environmental and genetic factors on health-related compounds in strawberry. Food Chemistry 2011, Volume 124, Issue 3: pages 906-913.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2015). How FDA Regulates Food from Genetically Engineered Plants. Washington, D.C. Available online at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/ucm461831.htm

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