You may or may not have heard of the acronym “GMO”, standing for “Genetically Modified Organism(s)” – but whether or not you knew what the term stood for, there have been many developments to the research and overall understanding of the concept of GMOs and what it means to our food supply, environment, sustainability, and most importantly – short and long-term health effects.
Many times when I speak to individuals, they may have heard of the term GMO used in news headlines or denoted on food products, claiming if something is “GMO-Free,” but often, I am asked, “So does it really matter if something is a GMO? Why would it be allowed to be used in our food supply if it was not safe?!” Especially with recent legislative movements occurring across the nation with states like Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia submitting bills to be passed to allow for some form of GMO limitation and/or labelling requirement (California’s bill failed by a margin last year), the issue is becoming more and more popular and people want to know more about lies behind the “GMO curtain.” [To see a complete list of states and current legislative efforts focused around GMOs, please see: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/state-labeling-initiatives#%5D
In all honesty, I could write a novel with all of the heated debates and extremely controversial issues surrounding GMOs – but that is not my purpose for this article, as I simply want to highlight some key features to what GMOs are, what individuals should be concerned about regarding them, and what you can do/look out for concerning GMO issues – from detecting them in foods (even freshly grown produce!) to becoming involved with legislation and movements on a local and national level. I certainly have developed my own opinion regarding GMOs, and it’s not a favorable one, but that has been after years of tracking scientifically-based research that has studied the sourcing of GMO development and what the health and environmental effects have been and can be in the future. While I always support individuals forming their own opinions and following a course of action based on educated understanding, my goal is to help shed some basic knowledge about GMOs and what they mean to the health of the world and its people.
I recall when I was in high school filling out college applications, tapping into my love of science and thinking that I thought it would be so cool to go into genetic engineering so I could conduct experiments on plants and “revolutionize the food supply for the world.” At the time, with my limited knowledge of what this whole proverbial jigsaw puzzle of organics, healthy eating, and sustainability, etc. meant, I was basing my fascination off of articles and “studies” I had read in publications that were ultimately funded and sourced by powerful agribusiness and agrichemical companies (i.e. Monsanto, Cargill, etc. that are the bane of existence for many people around the world today). Through researching and learning more bit by bit, I was able to piece things together to have a clearer picture and understanding of what GMO meant. From something that sounded so cutting-edge and progressive almost two decades ago, my opinion (and those of many other individuals) has completely shifted in the opposite direction (and has even led to sheer anger that our food supply and the innocent natural state of food, agriculture, and the environment, coupled with some government corruption and lobbying, could have been tainted so much all in the essence of profit and power). Has it ever raised an eyebrow to how rates of food allergies, sensitivities, and digestive disorders like Celiac Sprue Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Acid Reflux, and rates of digestive organ cancers have been on a dangerous rise over the past 20 years? While there are critics who will vehemently argue that GMOs have nothing to do with the correlation, millions of people think otherwise and are demanding answers and action, if anything, simply to know and have the choice of being aware of what’s in the food they select and pay for.
Breaking It Down: What Is a GMO? (As stated directly from The Non-GMO Project, The Non GMO Shopping Guide and Stronger Together Co-op)
A GMO is a plant or animal that has been genetically altered by scientists to improve its ability to grow in non-native environments, resist pests, tolerate extreme weather conditions, produce more food (like milk in cows), or show other desired traits. In other words, a GMO is a new version of a food plant or animal created by scientists through genetic engineering (GE) techniques. These experimental combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional cross-breeding.
These techniques are used to insert genes into or delete genes out of plant or animal DNA. Scientists have used GE technology to create plants, animals, and bacteria with biological characteristics that would never occur in the natural world—such as a tomato with an anti-freeze fish gene designed to resist cold temperatures, or corn plants with a bacterial gene that tolerates increased herbicide use.
Genetic engineering differs from what’s known as traditional breeding, which includes techniques such as hybridization and selective breeding. One hybrid plant is the boysenberry, a cross between a raspberry, blackberry, and sometimes loganberry. Examples of selective breeding include mating only the healthiest beef cattle or saving the seeds of only the tastiest, most pest-resistant carrots for next year’s crop. These traditional breeding techniques have been a central part of agriculture for 10,000 years and have been used to domesticate and increase yields of virtually every plant and animal used in agriculture today.
Virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Despite biotech industry promises, none of the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.
Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
The first genetically modified crops were corn, soybeans, and cotton, which were engineered to control the growth of weeds and resist insects. Since corn and soy are two of the most common ingredients in processed food, these genetically modified ingredients are now appearing in more and more places on our market shelves. But because there’s no regulated food label that indicates whether a product contains GMOs, it’s hard to tell what you’re getting.
Are GMOs safe?
Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In more than 60 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the U.S., the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. Increasingly, Americans are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment.
Many consumers are wary of eating genetically engineered products and are concerned that genetically engineered foods are a step in the wrong direction. Basic laws of nature prevent plants from breeding with fish or bacteria, so we have little experience or history with these kinds of combinations. The process of creating GMOs is highly unpredictable and untested; it’s assumed that if the original food was safe, the genetically modified version will be too. As a result, new allergens may be introduced into common foods, and long-term effects of eating GMOs remain unclear.
And it’s not just direct consumption of GMO food that causes concern. The most common use of GE technology in agriculture creates herbicide-resistant plants that allow farmers to use more chemicals without killing the crop. The result has been a substantial increase in the use of herbicides and the rise of approximately 15 herbicide-resistant weeds in the United States. Different or more chemicals are then needed to combat these weeds, leading to what’s called an “herbicide treadmill.“ When one chemical stops working, another is used until it stops working, and then another. For many, this is a major environmental concern.
The threat of GMO contamination of crops is equally unsettling to organic farmers. In nature, plants naturally distribute their pollen near and far, which spreads their genes from one plant to another. In this way, GMO plant pollen can contaminate organic plants. As a result, many organic farmers fear for their livelihood and their ability to fill consumers’ desire for organic products.
Hasn’t research shown GM foods to be safe?
No. The only feeding study done with humans showed that GMOs survived inside the stomach of the people eating GMO food. No follow-up studies were done.
Various feeding studies in animals have resulted in potentially pre-cancerous cell growth, damaged immune systems, smaller brains, livers, and testicles, partial atrophy or increased density of the liver, odd shaped cell nuclei and other unexplained anomalies, false pregnancies and higher death rates.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM)* recently released its position paper on Genetically Modified foods stating that “GM foods pose a serious health risk” and calling for a moratorium on GM foods.
Citing several animal studies, the AAEM concludes “there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects” and that “GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health.”**
The AAEM further called for a moratorium on GM food, with implementation of immediate long-term safety testing and labeling of GM food. They recommended that Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community and the public to avoid GM foods and to consider the role of GM foods in their patients’ disease processes. The AAEM is just one of many organizations worldwide calling for these steps to be taken.
Are GMOs labeled?
“Unfortunately, even though polls consistently show that a significant majority of Americans want to know if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs, the powerful biotech lobby has succeeded in keeping this information from the public. In the absence of mandatory labeling, the Non-GMO Project was created to give consumers the informed choice they deserve.”
Do Americans want non-GMO foods and supplements?
“Polls consistently show that a significant majority of North Americans would like to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs (a 2012 Mellman Group poll found that 91% of American consumers wanted GMOs labeled). And, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 53% of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project’s seal for verified products will, for the first time, give the public an opportunity to make an informed choice when it comes to GMOs.”
How common are GMOs?
“In the U.S., GMOs are in as much as 80% of conventional processed food.”
What are the impacts of GMOs on the environment?
“Over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. GMO crops are also responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs:’ which can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange). GMOs are a direct extension of chemical agriculture, and are developed and sold by the world’s biggest chemical companies. The long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown, and once released into the environment these novel organisms cannot be recalled.”
How do GMOs affect farmers?
“Because GMOs are novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents with which to restrict their use. As a result, the companies that make GMOs now have the power to sue farmers whose fields are contaminated with GMOs, even when it is the result of inevitable drift from neighboring fields. GMOs therefore pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty and to the national food security of any country where they are grown, including the United States.”
Based on the science behind GMOs and the grave concern they pose to our health, the health of our food supply and environment, it’s no surprise why more and more people want to avoid GMOs as much as possible, if not altogether (this is another reason why eating organic is beneficial, as all certified organic foods ban any GMO ingredient). Many individuals are signing petitions against GMOs and also signing petitions in support of GMO labelling. If this is an issue that concerns you, it takes a few seconds to do your part in voicing your concern. Check out:
Here are a few things to consider when wanting to avoid GMOs (SOURCE: Stronger Together Co-op):
Agricultural products are segmented into two groups: (1) those that are high-risk of being GMO because they are currently in commercial production, and (2) those that have a monitored risk because suspected or known incidents of contamination have occurred and/or the crops have genetically modified relatives in commercial production with which cross-pollination (and consequently contamination) is possible. For more information on the Non-GMO Project’s testing and verification of risk ingredients and processed foods, please see the Non-GMO Project Standard.
High-Risk Crops (in commercial production; ingredients derived from these must be tested every time prior to use in Non-GMO Project Verified products (as of December 2011):
• Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
• Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
• Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
• Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
• Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
• Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
• Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
• Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
ALSO high-risk: animal products (milk, meat, eggs, honey, etc.) because of contamination in feed.
Monitored Crops (those for which suspected or known incidents of contamination have occurred, and those crops which have genetically modified relatives in commercial production with which cross-pollination is possible; we test regularly to assess risk, and move to “High-Risk” category for ongoing testing if we see contamination):
• Beta vulgaris (e.g., chard, table beets)
• Brassica napa (e.g., rutabaga, Siberian kale)
• Brassica rapa (e.g., bok choy, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, turnip, rapini, tatsoi)
• Curcubita (acorn squash, delicata squash, patty pan)
Common Ingredients Derived from GMO Risk Crops
Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.
You may also be wondering about…
• Tomatoes: In 1994, genetically modified Flavr Savr tomatoes became the first commercially produced GMOs. They were brought out of production just a few years later, in 1997, due to problems with flavor and ability to hold up in shipping. There are no genetically engineered tomatoes in commercial production, and tomatoes are considered “low-risk” by the Non-GMO Project Standard.
• Potatoes: Genetically modified NewLeaf potatoes were introduced by Monsanto in 1996. Due to consumer rejection by several fast-food chains and chip makers, the product was never successful and was discontinued in the spring of 2001. There are no genetically engineered potatoes in commercial production, and potatoes are considered “low-risk” by the Non-GMO Project Standard.
• Salmon: A company called AquaBounty is currently petitioning the FDA to approve its genetically engineered variety of salmon, which has met with fierce consumer resistance. Find out more here.
• Pigs: A genetically engineered variety of pig, called Enviropig was developed by scientists at the University of Guelph, with research starting in 1995 and government approval sought beginning in 2009. In 2012 the University announced an end to the Enviropig program, and the pigs themselves were euthanized in June 2012.
Here are some great websites that contain excellent info graphs and guides that are easy to read and provide useful information on GMOs:
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Nutrition and Health Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Nutrition & Health Coaching. Megan educates and empowers women, men, and children of all ages to learn the true ins-and-outs of “feeding the brain with knowledge about the best foods and habits for one’s body” in order to reach optimal health and wellness potentials. Visit her website today to learn more: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us or feel free to send her an e-mail at: email@example.com.