Friday, January 18, 2013

The Truth About Genetically Modified Corn

There is an increasing amount of hype about genetically modified organisms. And for good reason, without us really knowing it, genetically altered foods have invaded the grocery store. For example, 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically altered. This necessarily means that a huge proportion of corn products within the grocery store are also genetically modified.  Considering corn or corn products are found in seemingly everything, that's a lot of grocery store products that have genetic modification as part of them.  The question is, is genetic modification really a problem I should be concerned about?  To be sure, there really isn't a perfectly straight forward answer.  Mostly, the answer is we simply don't know.  Corn amazingly has 32,000 genes, nearly 12,000 more genes than humans.  That means there are 32,000 genes that could be modified, or added to or subtracted from.  In reality there are potentially millions of ways to genetically modify corn or any other organism.  There is no way we could say that all of these tens of thousands of potential gene modifications are harmful, and there is no way we could say all of them could be helpful.  Its sort of complex.

For example, Bt corn has a gene added to it that produces a pesticide.  This gene was taken from a naturally occurring bacteria that infects insect larva.  Bt corn therefore produces this pesticide and kills potential insects that might eat the crop and therefore decreasing the harvest.  So Bt corn becomes extremely beneficial to corn production but has negative impacts on insect populations.  You may initially think that this is a good thing, who really cares about those annoying insects anyway?  Well, some of those insects are bugs that people love and are very important to the environment such as monarchs and other butterflys.  Bt corn can and is having very negative results on the environments we live in.  Beyond that and into our homes, there is evidence that Bt corn is causing elevated immune responses which means increases in auto immune disorders and allergies.  A number of studies though suggest there is no negative health consequence to Bt corn.

Another common corn genetic modification is round-up ready corn.  This is corn that can resist being killed by the herbicide round-up, so farmers can spray there fields of corn killing only the weeds and not the corn.  Again, corn production is greatly increased but the environmental and health consequences are negative.  It not clear though if the actual genetic modification is actually causing the health problems however.  Residue round-up herbicide is however causing at least some of the health problems though.  These health problems are very serious in lab rats and include kidney and liver damage, and cancer.  It is very likely humans have very similar health problems with round-up ready corn.

Other genetic modifications are likely less harmful to the environment or health and may even be extremely beneficial.  For example, modification of a heat shock protein in corn could allow it to tolerate drought better.  The heat shock protein would likely have no consequence on human health.  Corn could also be modified to have higher levels of vitamins.  Whether these so called 'good' modifications are actually 'good' would be very difficult to actually determine, and may only be in the eye of the beholder.

Currently in the stores, nearly all corn products are genetically modified.  Only corn that is labeled as non-GMO or organic can normally be assumed as being GMO free. 

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