GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms, Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant Powered Living, California Committee for your right to know

Plant Powered Living had the pleasure of interviewing C. Tara Peterson, dedicated yogi, scientist, and passionate citizen volunteering her time for the California Committee for “Your Right To Know”.

“Vote YES on Prop 37 November 6, 2012 in California and you can go to for more information” ~ Tara

“Because of the rules for a CA Ballot Initiative, we need in-person, physical signatures. We cannot gather signatures online, and only have a short time to gather the rest of the qualifying signatures. Please check the website for a list of places to visit and sign (registered voters only please, as required by rules).”

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal contribution with the California Committee for Your Right to Know.
I am a PhD candidate in Biomedical Science and have been doing genetic engineering in bacteria and working in the field of biotechnology for over a decade. I became alarmed when I learned that the technology was being quietly released into the environment and used as food for our citizens without sufficient testing.

Clearly, the US population and our environments are being subjected to experimentation without our consent.

After moving to California, I was excited to find out that I could volunteer for and help generate awareness and solutions to this problem. After a short training, I began collecting signatures for the California Ballot Initiative to Label GMOs outside of Jimbo’s Naturally in Carlsbad.

Why is labeling GMOs something that’s important to you on a personal level?
I did all my coursework in a medical school building where I attended both medical and biomedical classes. Nutrition was not a focus, but I learned that Hippocrates was in favor of food as medicine (“Let thy food be thy medicine.”) I remembered feeling healthier as a child growing up on a large, mostly subsistence farm in West Virginia and compared that to how I felt when eating undergraduate dining hall food and later in graduate school eating conventional food that didn’t taste as good or make me feel as healthy as our organically-grown West Virginia produce. These experiences got me thinking a lot, and I began a journey towards eating organic and later vegan with amazing mind, body, spirit results. I was inspired to share the information with others. I also believe that we have a right to know what is in our food and to make informed choices for ourselves and our family.

Since I understand the technology well, having done gene isolation and so-called “splicing” (gene insertion) with my own hands, I feel that I am an objective person that can explain the technology and risks in simple terms to laypeople that may have questions about the information they have been given.

What made you choose to volunteer your time for this cause?
If this initiative passes in California, it will have positive consequences throughout the country. Companies may not want to make special packaging for one state, so this initiative could indirectly help labeling efforts nationwide. It also inspires other states to create their own initiatives, which we see is already happening in WA, CT, CO, and VT. Similar efforts in the EU helped force GMOs out, so this is an established model for positive change.

What is so important about labeling GMO products and produce?
Polls have indicated that over 85% of citizens are in favor of GMO labeling. Also, much of what is being sold in most grocery stores is processed/packaged food (usually shelved in the interior aisles of supermarkets).

Over 80% of all packaged food contains GMOs.

Most people are not aware that common ingredients in packaged/processed food are GMO crops. For example, 85% of corn, 91% of soy, 88% of canola, and 90% of sugar beets, which are common ingredients/fillers in processed/packaged foods, are genetically modified! If more people were aware of the GMO content of their processed food, less people would purchase it and we would see a reduction in the incidence of many chronic conditions (obesity, diabetes, allergy, etc.).

Share something scientific regarding GMOs
The genetic modification of food uses special lab techniques to insert foreign, often synthetic or artificial, genes from disparate organisms into the DNA blueprint of a plant (usually plants, but now animals such as salmon are also being genetically engineered). This process does not occur in nature. The artificial gene units are created by splicing (joining) DNA fragments from viruses, bacteria, plants and animals. For example, the gene inserted into a common GM soya bean crop was derived from a plant virus, a soil bacterium, and the Petunia plant.

This process is often performed in a crude way that causes other unintended mutations and alters the plant’s functioning in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways (e.g. toxic effects, allergic reactions, etc).

Unlike drugs, genetically modified foods are not tested for human safety before being released, and their release is done quietly without much public disclosure. In fact, the only published study that directly tested the safety of GM food on humans found potential problems and was not followed up. Not only did the scientists publish data showing that the artificial gene in GM soya survived in the stomach, but also survived passage through the small intestine. In addition, they found that the artificial gene was able to “jump” or transpose itself into the DNA of the beneficial bacteria that are naturally living in the small intestines of all humans (1). Moreover, in a farm animal study of sheep given Bt (contains Bacillus thuringiensis toxin) insecticide producing corn, the artificial toxin gene was found in the digestive tract of the animals (2). This process, confirmed in both human and animal studies, is called “horizontal gene transfer” and occurs in nature when bacteria “trade” genes or genes “jump” from one bacteria to another. This is one way nature increases its rate of evolution. In the case of a genetically modified food, however, there is a possibility that the antibiotic resistance genes or toxin genes inserted into GM foods could move into the DNA of our own bacterial residents.

This could lead to antibiotic resistant pathogenic bacteria (“superbugs”), antibiotic resistant gut bacteria, or production of an insecticide/toxin in your gut.

This is a huge potential problem demonstrated by both human and animal studies. Moreover, studies have also demonstrated that the artificial DNA from GM food makes its way into animals’ tissues and secretions, such as milk (3, 4, 5). Numerous studies on laboratory and farm animals have shown many problematic effects, such as ulceration, toxicity, and functional disturbances arising in almost every major organ as a result of GM feeding. Additional research assessing the effects on the health of the animals and the humans that eat them is needed.

C. Tara Peterson in the Lab

The powerful biotech giant, Montsanto, disagrees so it is difficult to know when such studies will be conducted.
“There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans. So long as the introduced protein is determined safe, food from GM crops determined to be substantially equivalent is not expected to pose any health risks. Further, it is impossible to design a long-term safety test in humans, which would require, for example, intake of large amounts of a particular GM product over a very large portion of the human life span. There is simply no practical way to learn anything via human studies of whole foods.” – from Monsanto’s website (6)
Since there have been long-term studies conducted on drugs, I do not understand their logic. The hope is that independent scientific researchers will be able to procure funding to do such work.

(1) Assessing the survival of transgenic plant DNA in the human gastrointestinal tract. Netherwood T. et al. Nat Biotech., 22: 204-209, 2004.

(2) Fate of genetically modified maize DNA in the oral cavity and rumen of sheep. Duggan P.S. et al. Br J Nutr., 89: 159-166, 2003.

(3) Detection of genetically modified DNA sequences in milk from the Italian market. Agodi A. et al. Int J Hyg Environ Health, 209: 81-88, 2006.

(4) Assessing the transfer of genetically modified DNA from feed to animal tissues. Mazza R. et al. Transgenic Res., 14: 775-784, 2005.

(5) Detection of Transgenic and Endogenous Plant DNA in Digesta and Tissues of Sheep and Pigs Fed Roundup Ready Canola Meal. Mazza R. et al. J Agric Food Chem. 54: 1699-1709, 2006


Where do you shop and how do you ensure your food doesn’t contain GMOs?
I mostly shop at local Farmer’s Markets and Health Food Stores. I only buy organic if the item is also available as a GMO crop (eg. corn, soy, canola, cotton, sugar (made from sugar beets). I avoid processed, store prepared and restaurant food as much as possible and choose to cook most of my meals at home with plant-based ingredients.

What can a concerned community member do to get involved and make a difference?
Volunteer to help ongoing labeling initiatives in CA, WA, CT, CO, and VT. Educate yourself and be sure to tell others. Perhaps start a labeling initiative in your state, too.

Did you have to have any special training in order to volunteer?
No, just a willingness to help and talk to others.