You may have noticed a lot of hubbub in the news and social media about GMOs these days. GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms have been around for decades, with mixed reviews from scientists, doctors, and other experts.
The subject is one of great controversy, with more questions than answers. Yet, many people actively worry about what these alterations to nature do to our bodies, especially through the food we ingest.
More recently, GMOs are getting attention as they relate to medical cannabis crops. This is in large part due to the increase1 in the number of U.S states with medical cannabis programs, as well as several other states and Canada2 approving adult recreational use. Increased access equals increased consumption.
As GMO versions of this medicinal plant become more and more widespread, there may be a good reason for patients to be concerned, or at least, aware and on alert. Let’s explore some reasons why. But first…
What Are GMOs?
The term GMOrefers3 to changing the genes or DNA of any living thing to achieve a specific set of results. This includes everything from bacteria, insects, and animals to the numerous plants and herbs that people rely on for nutrition and medicine.
It’s important to understand that this process is not the same as cross-breeding and cloning plants by farmers. Instead, GMOs are altered in a laboratory.
When discussing GMOs, in most cases, experts aren’t discussing the plants. Instead, they’re going back further to the seeds.
Similar to genetically modified organisms, genetically modified seeds4 are altered to only produce desired characteristics such as salt tolerance, higher yields, larger vegetables, or resistance to certain insects.
Specifically, the idea was to increase crop yield while reducing the need for harmful pesticides. However, after years of use, these promises5 have not been kept.
A study done by the New York Times in 20165 found that crop yields have not increased in the U.S. and Canada where GMOs are found, and the use of pesticides has not decreased, either.
The only thing that has increased is the use of pesticides, which in return can have catastrophic results on people and the environment. More on that below.
Are You Aware How Much GMO Foods You Already Consume?
“…70-80 percent of the foods we eat in the United States, both at home and away from home, contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.”
Before we get further into the potential concerns around GMO produced cannabis products, let’s get an idea of how many of the foods you eat are alreadyengineered in a lab.
The USDA reports6:
• 91% of U.S. corn (About 40 percent7 of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for fuel — the remainder feeds livestock and is used for cooking oil)
• 94% of soybeans
• 94% of cotton8 (and cottonseed oil9 used as a healthy cooking oil alternative)
• 94% of sugarbeets10 (comprising 42% of the sugar Americans consume6)
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association11,12, which happens to be pro-GMOs and against labeling products with genetic modification, “70-80 percent of the foods we eat in the United States, both at home and away from home, contain ingredients that have been genetically modified.”
The biggest player in GMOs around the world, is Monsanto.
Who is Monsanto and Why Are They Important?
Monsanto’s history spans over 100 years. The company was founded in 1901 and its first product was saccharine13, which is an artificial sweetener (which has had its own controversy, if you are old enough to remember13).
That would change in the 1940s14 when the company changed its focus to agricultural chemicals. During this time, Monsanto was one of the companies producing “Agent Orange”, which would go on to be used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
“Agent Orange” is a herbicide15 that the military sprayed from 1962 to 1971 in order to quickly remove the trees and dense plants of Vietnam’s jungles, where enemy combatants would hide.
Not only did it destroy the vegetation in the Asian country, but it was later found to also be responsible for numerous16 cancers and other illnesses in anyone who came in contact with the powerful herbicide. The impact of this chemical warfare continues to this day, in many U.S. veterans17.
Next Monsanto15 moved to creating and widely distributing the product, Roundup, which contains the chemical glyphosate.
Roundup in Your Food and on Your Medicine
While there are many concerns about all GMOs, especially when it comes to long-term studies about the effects on humans, animals, and the environment, one of the biggest problems with GMOs is with the pesticide Roundup and the damage it’s already causing.
As stated above, the main ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate. The use of glyphosate began in the mid-1970s and is still in use today, despite increasing evidence18 of it being harmful19 to the food chain.
According to a February 2018 article in The Scientist Magazine14, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world.
In 1996, Monsanto stepped up its game by introducing plant seeds that are immune to glyphosate effects. This means that anyone using “Roundup Ready14” seeds can spray Roundup on their crops and kill weeds without harming the crop. If you’re wondering how this is safe, the technical answer is that scientists are “unsure.”
A 2015 report20 by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated that “The herbicide glyphosate and the insecticides malathion and diazinon were classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.”
This was a roundabout way of saying that the chemicals in Roundup have a high probability of causing cancer in humans.
The biggest hit to Monsanto and the Roundup question came in August 201821after a jury found the company partially responsible for the terminal, Non-Hodgkins lymphoma cancer diagnosis of Dewayne Johnson, 46, a California school groundskeeper.
They’ve been ordered to pay Johnson, $289 million. Mr. Johnson’s medical team testified that they don’t expect the former groundskeeper to live past 2020.
“…the chemicals in Roundup have a high probability of causing cancer in humans.”
The Big Boys Have Joined Forces
One big cause of concern in the cannabis-GMO connection is because in 2018, Monsanto merged22 with the global pharmaceutical giant, Bayer.
This merger alarms many, citizens and experts alike, as the partnership will undoubtedly further expand genetically modified crops around the world23,24.
According to the non-profit advocacy group, Center for Food Safety, “Bayer has a large suite of weed-killing pesticides (aka herbicides), and is also a world leader in seed treatments – insecticides and fungicides that are applied to seeds, and are taken up into plant tissues of the growing seedling.
Certain seed treatments (neonicotinoids) are highly toxic to pollinators, and have been implicated in the decline of honeybees and wild bee populations.”
So Are They Safe?
One of the big problems for clear, black and white answers as to GMOs, pesticides, and consumer safety is the lack of long-term studies.
David Bellinger, a Harvard University of Public Health professor explained in the 2016 New York Times article5, “These chemicals are largely unknown . . . We do natural experiments on a population (in reference to chemical exposure in agriculture) and wait until it shows up as bad.”
What is the Current Status of GMOs in Cannabis?
“…with the complete merger of the two companies, it’s the world’s largest supplier of seeds and pesticides.”
As of writing this article, there isn’t a lot of data available about genetically modified medical cannabis. However, experts do know25 that many companies are working on using them for a multitude of reasons. This would seem to include Bayer, if the merger is a clue.
While experts don’t have any direct information that Bayer is working on using genetically modified cannabis, they do know that Bayer26 entered into an agreement with GW Pharmaceuticals in 2003 to share research.
GW Pharmaceuticals is one27 of the largest developers of plant-derived cannabinoids (the compounds in the cannabis plant) in the world and the creator of Epidolex, the first cannabis-based product approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA.) Later, in 2007, Bayer Agriculture signed an additional agreement with Monsanto to share technology.
Although Monsanto has denied in the past that they are developing genetically modified variations of the cannabis plant, the concerns are that one28 of their largest shareholders, George Soros26, is a major supporter of cannabis legalization.
Now with the complete merger of the two companies, it’s the world’s largest29supplier of seeds and pesticides. This gives the newly merged Monsanto and Bayer everything they need to jump into the cannabis industry and modify the seeds of this sacred plant before they even make it to the farm or growing facility.
Other Major Cannabis Players Jumping on the Bandwagon
Another red flag for consumers, much more directly connected to GMOs and medical cannabis, surrounds CannTrust Holdings, Inc.30
They areone31 of the largest suppliers of medical cannabis in Canada and with recreational32 legalization, they’re expanding33 into the adult-use industry.
CannTrust Holdings, Inc. is also a U.S., Australia34, and Denmark medical cannabis supplier. Their reach is growing, and they just made it to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)30.
The former president and chief operating officer of CannTrust Holdings Inc., Brad Rogers, recently said in a September 201825BNN Bloomberg interview, “We want to be the Monsanto of pot.”
Though it’s hard to speculate what he meant by that statement, it does raise questions. Do they want to be a multi-billion dollar pot monopoly? Control the GMO world of cannabis?
Some clues: Rogers further explains25 in the interview that CannTrust Holdings Inc is looking to increase their supplies while reducing the cost of cannabis to as little as 20 cents a gram.
The company plans to do this by expanding their growing business, now. Recognizing there’s only so much land for farming, they expect to outsource farming to reduce overhead costs as the overall demand increases.
Although we don’t yet know for sure that CannTrust will use GMOs, Roger’s comments suggest that the company wants to move towards supplying the seeds to the farmers, rather than continuing with their own growing facilities.
So, what does this mean for the future of medical cannabis?
“Patients, especially, need to know what’s in their food, and now their medicines.”
It may be too late to stop the production of genetically modified cannabis and other products,but, it’s never too late to send a message to the companies that are using them.
Be vigilant. Read the labels on all the products you use.
Find out where yourmedical cannabisis grown, what type of seeds the grower uses, and always check thelab report35information that shows when, where, and who did the testing for pesticides and other contaminants in your medicine.
You can even go a step further and contact the lab to verify the information the dispensary provides is accurate.
While there’s no definitive answer about what the future holds forgenetically modified medical cannabis, the direction is clear — At the bare minimum,companies25are looking for ways to useGMOsto increase production to meet demand, lower production costs, and increase revenue.
As stated above, these companies are seeking to make these changes to save money, and we have seen before that they choose what can be harmful and in some cases deadly ways to reach those goals.
While more research is needed, it’s safe to say that consumers need to step up to the plate and start asking for answers to hard questions from the companies mentioned above, and other companies, aboutGMOs.Patients, especially, need to know what’s in their food, and now their medicines.