In a bold move on Friday, Whole Foods Market announced that it will require all genetically modified (GM) products sold in its stores be labeled as GM products by 2018. While I tip my hat to the multinational corporation for essentially accomplishing what our defunct too-big-to-do-anything-right FDA couldn’t – namely protecting the public health – I must say Whole Foods could’ve done better and just banned distribution of GM foods altogether.
Before delving into the why, some background information is helpful for understanding how GM foods are on our shelves in the first place. Under the auspices of the FDA, genetically modified plants are regulated in the same manner as non-genetically modified plants. Essentially, if the end result of a GM food is “substantially equivalent” to the characteristics and composition of its non-GM counterpart, then the agency doesn’t require safety tests (or labeling) before the GM plant is introduced into the food system.
There are two problems with this methodology. First, it focuses on the end result and not the process of genetic modification, which negatively affects not just the human body, but also plant diversity and the ecosystem as a whole. Secondly, this method is reactive as opposed to proactive, meaning that only if a GM plant is tested (independently) and found to be so dissimilar to its non-GM counterpart will the FDA require a more comprehensive evaluation.
Genetically modified crops were first introduced to the U.S. food system nearly two decades ago. Today, more than 80% of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the processed foods sold in grocery stores contain GM ingredients. The biotech industry has repeatedly assured the agency that GM crops are no different than non-GM crops and, moreover, they enhance nutrition and increase crop yield by virtue of being more resistant to herbicides, insecticides, and drought.
But independent studies have shown that genetic modification alters the DNA, proteins and nutrients of the plant, which can lead to unexpected changes, such as elevated toxins or allergenic effects. One meta-analysis on mammals fed GM soy and maize indicated liver and kidney toxicity and a disturbance in their immune system cells. And in the few studies conducted on human volunteers, one found that GM soy reacted with the antibodies of people known to have Brazil nut allergies, suggesting GM foods may be allergenic while the other study found a significant level of an insecticidal protein in the blood supply of non-pregnant women and in the fetuses of pregnant women as well.
Not only do GM foods pose a danger to our health, they have also considerably disrupted crop diversity, which is rapidly disappearing as a result of genetic modification. Low genetic diversity makes more crops susceptible to diseases and pests. And the application of herbicides and insecticides does not necessarily protect plants because the increased resistance that is bred into plants is also bred into weeds, insects, and diseases. The short-term solution thus far has been to keep increasing the application of herbicides and pesticides, which is only creating super weeds and super bugs (in fact, there are at least ten species of weeds that are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup Ready). What’s more, the over-application of pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers is poisoning the soil and water, which are vital to a healthy ecosystem.
If we continue to plant GM crops and continue to buy GM foods, we will perpetuate the harmful effects of genetic modification onto ourselves and onto the planet. So, while the decision by Whole Foods to require labeling of GM foods is a step in the right direction, the corporation could’ve done us all a favor and just altogether banned the sale of GM foods in its stores.
For a more in-depth analysis on genetically modified plants and their effects, visit the Center for Food Safety.