One of the biggest controversies surrounding food in recent years is the entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into our food system. If you don’t know about GMOs by now, here’s the concept in a nutshell: Genetically modified foods have had their DNA changed through genetic engineering, using advanced techniques to insert foreign genes (from such varied sources as bacteria and viruses) in order to enhance or change certain characteristics of the organism. The most common modified foods are derived from plants such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton, but the list of GMOs also includes hormones given to dairy cattle (rbGH). Now even the animals themselves are being genetically engineered.
Supporters of genetic engineering say that modification of organisms on a genetic level is safe, and is similar to how conventional plant breeding has taken place for thousands of years. They also state that in order to gain efficiency in food production to feed the world, GM foods are necessary. The producers of these GMOs maintain that they are as safe as any other food, and have no negative effect on the people consuming them or the environment.
Critics of GMOs (including me) point out that no true trials or testing have been undertaken in order to prove the safety of these foods. In fact, adverse effects from consuming GMOs have been recorded, and because it’s such a new practice, the full results of releasing these unnatural organisms into the environment still remain to be seen. Since science can measure only what it targets, and the sheer number of variables in our natural environment is enormous, the possibility is great that many unintended consequences will occur through the use and consumption of GMOs.
Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of GMOs and the intermingling of foods in our food system during harvest, storage, and processing, most U.S. consumers have been eating genetically modified foods for years. Even those of us who focus on eating all organic probably have been ingesting these foods if we eat out or dine at someone’s house who isn’t as strict as we are with their food purchases. Some 60 to 70% of the products in a grocery store contain some type of genetically engineered ingredient, with the biggest offenders being soy, corn, canola oil, and cottonseed oil.
So why do companies like Monsanto (the world leader in genetic modification) pursue genetic engineering?
One claimed benefit is that using GM seeds increases crop yields and decreases the use of pesticides and herbicides for food production (hence the claim that GMOs will help feed the world). However, contrary to the information coming from the supporters of genetic engineering, studies have shown that just as many pesticides and herbicides are being applied to GM crops as non-GM crops, and in some cases at even higher quantities. For crops modified to be resistant to herbicides, farmers can spray even heavier without damaging the plants, leading to increased use of herbicides worldwide. These herbicides end up in our groundwater, and may also be present in food even after harvest and processing. A recent study sponsored by the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), published in Chemical Research in Toxicology journal, found that Roundup (glyphosate) diluted 105 times was toxic to three different human cell types. This level is significantly lower than the currently accepted residue levels. What this means is that every bite of GM food (modified to be tolerant of glyphosate application) will also have toxic residues which may be detrimental to your health.
Another reason given is the possible increase in nutrition from genetic modification (a higher vitamin content, such as vitamin A in so-called Golden Rice). Yet another is the production of pharmaceuticals from GM crops, which is touted as being able to increase the global availability of medicines and vaccines. Still another reason is the production of substances like spider silk in mass quantities (from genetically modified goats that can produce the silk protein in their Pesticides and GMOs milk).
The four major GM crops – soy, corn, canola, and cotton – are engineered to survive the applications of herbicides at levels which would otherwise kill the plants. Almost 70% of GM crops are engineered to be herbicide tolerant. Another trait of GM crops is a pesticide produced within the plant itself (Bt, or Bacillus thuringienses) in GM corn and cotton. Proponents claim that Bt is harmless, and is a natural bacteria, but some studies have shown an allergic reaction, a high immune response, and even damaged intestines.
If you aren’t OK with all of that, then you need to learn how to avoid GMOs in the food you buy. The best way to avoid them is to buy 100% certified organic food always (check the PLU number on the produce). Organic produce has a 5 digit PLU number, beginning with 9. Conventionally grown produce has a 4 digit PLU number. In theory, all GM produce has a 5 digit PLU number beginning with 8, but the critics say that because labeling is optional, not all GM produce will be labeled as such. If you eat meat, buy 100% grass-fed (pastured) beef and go for the certified organic meats. If you read labels carefully, you will find foods that have been labeled non-GMO or GMO-free. If it isn’t labeled as such, and the product contains non-organic soybeans, corn, canola, cottonseed oil, or dairy, you’re probably getting GM varieties in there.
For more info, be sure to bookmark Seeds of Deception and the Organic Consumers Association GM page.
I avoid GM food, and I wouldn’t feed it to my friends or family either. I highly recommend you become a careful label reader and keep it out of your diet as well.