Frankenfoods: Are GMOs as scary as people think?

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 1, 2015

 Trevor Johnson, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital resident farmer, gathers a bunch of fresh sage at Henry’s Market on Main Street last fall.

Trevor Johnson, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital resident farmer, gathers a bunch of fresh sage at Henry’s Market on Main Street last fall.

File photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — With spring right around the corner, it won’t be long before farmers markets open up, ready to bring shoppers the locally grown produce that may not have all the chemicals that larger grocers might sell.


Now, in addition to organic produce that’s free of pesticides, herbicides and preservatives, many health-conscious customers are in the market for foods that aren’t genetically modified. But what exactly are genetically modified organisms? Why the sudden fear over having a bit of science in our side dishes?


GMOs are basically organisms with added or changed genetic material, according Fred Drogas, an adjunct biology and nutrition professor at Macomb Community College. In order to fully comprehend what a GMO is, you have to first understand how a living cell works.


Drogas explained that most cells have a nucleus that’s somewhat like the cell’s “brain.” In the nucleus is the cell’s DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, and that DNA is grouped into what’s known as genes. An organism’s genes dictate how the cell functions, in turn determining the traits of the organism. Eye color, blood type and even hereditary diseases are all determined by genes.


While DNA sequences and genes are typically passed down from our parents at conception, scientists have worked over time to edit those genes to benefit the organism or consumers, in some cases.


“What scientists will do is start playing around with those genes — modifying them or even adding things — that will change the cell dramatically,” said Drogas.


One example Drogas noted is the use of bacteria to create insulin for diabetic patients. While traditionally insulin was harvested from the organs of cows for human use, Drogas said scientists discovered how to genetically modify bacteria to create human insulin that’s more efficient to harvest and likely less expensive to create.


“A single bacterium can grow to become 1 million in about seven hours. They can modify the genetic makeup of the bacterium to produce insulin, and it’s the exact same insulin humans would produce because it’s the same gene inserted in the bacterium that humans would have,” he said. “They can produce tremendous amounts of this chemical at very low costs, and it wouldn’t need to be purified with all kinds of chemical products like (the insulin from) cows’ blood.”


Genetic modification has been applied to the food industry in a number of ways, and for several years, according to Drogas. He said that most soybeans in the United States are genetically modified to have more protein and better-quality protein.


The problem with those soybeans, he explained, is that some of them have been modified with the addition of genes from the Brazil nut, which causes severe allergic reactions in people with nut allergies.


That’s essentially where the fear of GMOs starts from, Drogas believes — the fear of the unknown. Though genetic food modification has been studied for more than 20 years, it’s still in its infancy, he believes, and many of the bugs are still being worked out.


“I’m always one to preach patience and caution,” he said. “Whatever goes wrong (with a product), that may not show for a while. I always tell my students to wait a year or two, and if it’s still around, it might well be worth trying.”


Brian Penzien might not be as convinced. His family owns Penzien’s Produce in Imlay City, which sells a variety of vegetables at the Oakland County Market each week. His operation is one with an all-natural philosophy, and he’s yet to hear any complaints from customers wanting him to get with the times.


“Most of the feedback on GMOs is they don’t want anything to do with it. Every customer that asks me has been negative on it,” Penzien said. “My personal opinion on it is it’s not something we should get into as people. It’s like playing God, and it’s not up to us to do.”


Efficiency isn’t exactly at the top of the list at Penzien’s Produce. He said he estimates that he and his family members on the farm crawl an average of a mile each week on their hands and knees between weeding and picking produce around the 70-acre property. They try to use as few chemicals as possible, since good old-fashioned grunt work is less expensive than the cost of pesticides and herbicides.


But Drogas said GMO foods could mean more than just convenience for growers and consumers. In some cases it could prove to make nutrition more efficient, like in the case of Golden Rice, a genetically modified grain of rice that contains highly elevated levels of beta carotene, a precursor for vitamin A, which is severely lacking in poverty-stricken areas around the world.


“When 500 million children are going blind because they cannot get enough vitamin A, to tell them to be patient because we have to do a little more research doesn’t work,” he said.


Drogas added that while there’s been a trend in consumers demanding GMO-free foods for fear of side effects, few long-term effects or diseases have been recorded or proven to be linked to the foods.


“I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence for that, but that’s going to take some time to sort out. You have to look at the rates of disease over that period,” he said, citing autism as an example.


“There are a lot of things being blamed right now for autism in children, but that could be more a case of reporting. More and more people are reporting the disorder (as autism) than before.”


Like many things in the Internet-driven world, fear might be largely driven by misinformation.


“If you go to a website labeled ‘.com,’ that means commercial, and they’re probably trying to sell you something,” Drogas explained. “You’ve got to be careful to search websites that end in ‘.gov’ or ‘.edu’ if you’re searching for research in GMO foods. They’re more likely to give you reputable information, often uploaded directly by researchers.”


No matter what the information, Penzien said he’ll likely stick to his farm’s 60-year tradition of growing foods the all-natural way, which is what his customers have said they want.


Drogas isn’t about to open a food science lab tomorrow, but he tells his students not to judge an apple by its skin.


“It’s said that pesticides cause cancer, but if that were true, people who ate the most fruits and vegetables would have the highest rates of cancer. But what we see is people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of cancer, and organic produce costs much more,” he said. “We probably won’t know about GMOs conclusively for many, many years. But I kind of believe that yes, genetic modification could produce good results and potentially save lives.”