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Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:36 pm

Are genetically modified foods harmful?

Springfield hears both sides of the GMO debate

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Genetically modified soy is one of eight genetically engineered crops in the nation. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the five major crops – soy, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets – are genetically engineered to withstand othe

Your favorite fruits and vegetables could be hazardous to your health, says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology.

Smith, a leading spokesperson on the health dangers of genetically modified foods, brought his message to Springfield last weekend, as the keynote speaker for the Earth Day celebration. Smith also visited the Capitol April 23, urging legislators to enact statewide laws banning products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are engineered by scientists, who take genes from one species and insert them into another, in order to achieve desired traits, like herbicide resistance or the ability for a plant to produce its own pesticides.

Many commercial crops are genetically modified, such as corn, soy and zucchini, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology. Meat, dairy and eggs may also contain GMOs, if they’re from animals that have eaten feed containing genetically modified corn and soy.

Consumers need to be aware of the dangers of genetically modified foods, Smith says. He believes the industry is on the verge of a “tipping point,” which will push genetically modified foods out of the market. It’s simply a matter of education, he says.

“As consumers learn about the health risks associated with genetically modified foods, they immediately change their buying habits and purchase only non-GMO products,” Smith says. “Food companies and farmers in Illinois need to prepare, and lawmakers need to know the details so they can respond appropriately as leaders.”

Playing so-called “genetic roulette” can lead to many potential health problems, Smith says. Studies observing the effects of GMOs on mice and rats linked genetically modified products to allergic reactions, liver problems, sterility, disease, reproductive problems, infant mortality and excessive cell growth, which can lead to cancer.

Smith cited a study set for publication this July from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Association for Gene Security. In this study, which Smith previewed in a recent Huffington Post article, hamsters that ate genetically modified soy for three generations were unable to produce offspring.

The only study on humans revealed that GMOs linger in the body. According to the Institute, the material inside genetically modified foods transfers into bacteria living in the intestines, where the material could continue to produce proteins inside the body long after consumption.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration approved GMOs for use, and has not changed its official stance. Currently, creators of GMOs must attend a consultation with the FDA and submit scientific documentation that the food is safe.

The same biotech companies that engineered GMOs are in charge of determining whether these foods are safe, Smith says. He also noted that the FDA official who was originally in charge of the GMO-friendly policy, Michael Taylor, was the former attorney and later the vice president of Monsanto, a large biotech company.

Representatives from the Sangamon County Farm Bureau say they’ve been responsible in their use of genetically modified products. While Smith claims there are no benefits to growing genetically modified crops, Tim Seifert, legislative committee chair and board director at the Farm Bureau, says that over the last 10 years, he’s seen a two percent increase in production each year at his farm near Auburn.

Seifert sees GMOs as a safety feature for himself and his fellow farmers. Because many genetically modified crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides, it cuts back on the amount farmers must apply to their fields.

“In actual farm use, we’ve seen a downturn in the amount of herbicide,” Seifert says. “It’s a safety feature. Before, we’ve had to use other protectants that we’ve had to handle ourselves. With the product being in the genes, it’s a safety factor for us as farmers.”

Genetically modified crops are one alternative to chemicals like atrazine, an agricultural weed-killer that some scientific studies have linked to breast and prostate cancer, low birth weight, declining testosterone levels, low sperm count and other health problems in rats, frogs, fish, birds and humans. Thanks to GMOs, Seifert says, atrazine levels have gone down in Lake Springfield over the last 10 years, saving consumers about $35,000 a month in water treatment costs.

To learn more about Smith’s work and the studies mentioned, visit www.responsibletechnology.org.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com.

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