I grew up in rural Northwestern Ohio, near the shores of Lake Erie, and lived in a home surrounded by soybean and wheat fields farmed by my father and grandfather. My sisters and I would (carefully) play in the towering rows of soybeans that edged our yard, and we’d lie on the grass, watching the cottony clouds roll by as the breeze rustled through the beans’ swaying branches. It was a great day when we raced around the playground at our elementary school and spotted our dad working the fields alongside us; we’d wildly wave at him as his tractor or combine trudged along in perfectly laid rows. It was an idyllic childhood and we considered ourselves blessed to be daughters of a multi-generational farmer. There was an iconic quality to farming – a profession built on the backs of honest, hardworking men who took pride in knowing the crops they sowed from seed would help feed the world.
Make no mistake, I’m still proud of my dad’s profession; however, I’m afraid it’s now less idyllic than the farming we witnessed in the 1970s and 80s. The difference largely lies in the introduction and proliferation of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and the patenting by biotech giants of seeds – those little life-giving morsels that for centuries were viewed as a gift to the world, as opposed to a commodity. When GM seeds debuted in the 90s, it was easy to understand why farmers – including my father – were on board. They were promised higher yields and less need for pesticides and herbicides because the GM seeds would now be weed resistant. Above all, farmers – and the public – were assured the GM crops were safe to grow and consume.
Biotech companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still contend GM foods pose no threat to human health, but it’s a claim not everyone is buying — including reputable scientists, researchers and medical experts. Research shows widespread cultivation of GM crops that are resistant to glyphosate, the herbicide found in many commercial weed killers. This, in turn, could cause weeds to become resistant to glyphosate, researchers warn.
Data surrounding health implications of glyphosate consumption is somewhat conflicting. The FDA states the herbicide is harmless, and bases that assumption on the original application reports from the manufacturer; however, independent research points to potentially significant problems. Some researchers question whether glyphosate can disrupt normal gut flora that keeps humans healthy. Their rationale is that if glyphosate’s purpose is to kill many micro-organisms, how can it differentiate between bad microbes and good ones in the human body? In some controversial, yet compelling studies, MIT researcher Dr. Stephanie Seneff and Dr. Anthony Samsel found a potential link between glyphosate consumption and depleted amino acid production. Dr. Seneff also reported that the toxic effect on the gut lining can potentially lead to intestinal permeability (allowing toxins and undigested proteins to enter the bloodstream), causing systemic inflammation and even liver and kidney damage. Reports already show that farm workers exposed to high glyphosate levels have died from kidney failure. One February 2015 article published by The Guardian reported that at least 20,000 people have died of chronic kidney disease in Central America in the past two decades – most of them sugar cane workers along the Pacific coast who were exposed to glyphosate. Similar incidents were found in sugar cane farm workers in Sri Lanka. Although no direct link between glyphosate and the illness experienced by these farm workers has been identified (some have blamed harsh work conditions on the deaths), the Sri Lankan government now bans the use of glyphosate for crop production.
Numerous medical professionals and researchers, including Samsel, also question whether the rapid rise in gluten intolerance and celiac disease can be attributed to the increasing use of glyphosate (a study by Samsel revealed that fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease1).
This isn’t the only potential problem with GM crops. GM crops produce a bacterial toxin that was meant to kill insect pests, but at least two insect species have become resistant. As for we humans, there’s no telling of this toxin’s potentially harmful effects because we have never before ingested this toxin in large amounts.
Opt for organic
It’s safe to say that the conflicting messages being spread by biotech companies and independent researchers and medical professionals (and even the general public) will not come to an end any time soon.
At this point, I believe it’s a wise health move to steer clear of any GM foods to limit our needless exposure to herbicides and pesticides (GMOs are prohibited in organic produce/foods). It’s a stance backed by many prominent medical professionals, including integrative medicine physician Dr. Andrew Weil.
While selecting organic produce is important, we shouldn’t overlook animal products, either. Non-organic livestock are typically fed GM feed (corn, alfalfa and the like), which means we, too, will be ingesting GM grains when we consume conventional meat, eggs or dairy. The simple solution: only buy organic meat, dairy products and eggs. Even better: look for grass-fed varieties that eliminate the unnecessary “filler” feed altogether (it’s more nutrient-dense, less fatty and, in my opinion, more flavorful).
1. Seneff S, Samsel A. Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2013 Dec; 6(4): 159–184.