GMO’s – What’s the Deal?
Genetically Modified Foods are in the news a lot these days, and there are many points of view on the topic. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I’ve been able to deduce after a little investigation.
For thousands of years farmers have experimented with seeds in an effort to improve crops (extend the growing season, increase yield or enhance flavor, for example). This has generally been achieved through the process of hybridization (cross pollination of two different varieties of the same plant).
Genetic modification (engineering) goes further – it involves injection of DNA from one species to another to achieve a specific result. It’s a relatively new science (commercial sales began in 1994), but it has grown rapidly. Today the preponderance of many commercial crops grown in the US are genetically modified, including canola, corn, cotton, soy and sugar beets (over 90% in the case of most of these) and it’s expanding to other foods.
Perceived or Actual Benefits of GMO’s
There may be many, including
- Increased Pest resistance. Example: Bt genes have been inserted into corn (and other crops) to make them pest resistant.
- Increased Herbicide tolerance. Specific genes inserted allow crops to thrive despite exposure to certain pesticides (particularly Round Up and other glyphosate based herbicides).
- Cold, drought, disease and salinity resistance may be increased by insertion of specific genes.
- The nutrition profile of foods may be enhanced. Consider the Golden Rice Project, underway for many years now. The goal is to insert a gene into rice which switches on beta-carotene production in order to address Vitamin A deficiency in poor, third-world areas. This deficiency creates many health problems, particularly for children and women, and can result in blindness.
- Pharmaceutical proteins in food? Researchers are seeking ways to inject vaccine genes into foods (“pharming“) which may lower the costs of drugs and increase distribution.
- Phytoremediation, or the creation of new plants which may actually aid in the clean up of contaminated soils.
Wow! That seems like a lot of good stuff, but are there any risks associated?
Perceived or Actual Risks Associated with GMO’s
There may be many risks as well!
- Unintended Harm. Toxins (like Bt) are unable to discriminate between potential pests (some think that the reduction in the Monarch butterfly population is at least partially a result of the Bt gene).
- Human Health Risks which may include increased allergenicity (genes introduced to foods produce proteins not previously in the food supply which may result in allergic reaction for some.
- Economic Concerns including, 1) the cost of actual producing the GE seeds, which would most likely be passed on to the farmer, and 2) patent costs, which would also be passed along – and who should own seeds anyway?
- Containment. How do you contain a genetically modified crop when seeds are carried by the wind and birds?
- Increased Toxic Exposure. Many crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides with chemical glyphosate (like Round Up) . We are told that this is non-toxic for both humans and the environment – which seems counterintuitive to me, especially after reading the labels! Many researchers believe it to be harmful to both.
- Superweeds and Super Pests? As pesticide and herbicide use grows, some fear that weeds and pests will become more tolerant and more difficult to control. (Why does that make me think of Kudzu!)
- Testing and Labeling. This is certainly a touchy subject. Many encourage more testing before genetically modified foods are entered into the food supply. Many countries ban them or at least require labeling. Not so in the US. Only two states (Connecticut and Maine) have passed legislation requiring labeling of GMO’s; however it does not go into effect in either state until a coalition of states pass similar legislation. Why? Because companies like Monsanto (that stand to make a lot of money) have already promised to sue states that require labeling so states want financial help to fight promised suits. There are GMO’s in many common processed foods – thing like amino acids, high fructose corn syrup and flavoring (both “natural” and “artificial” – to name a few.
Certainly it’s important to create sustainable crops for a growing population in a world facing increasing environmental challenges. However, I believe that testing should be stringent and conducted by non-biased parties.
I also firmly believe that genetically modified foods should be clearly labeled and regulated so that consumers can make informed decisions about the products they endorse, support and eat! If it’s safe, the producers should be able to show us.
If you’re interested in learning more about foods which do not contain GMO’s click here, where you can learn more about Non-GMO Project, their product verification process and how to find these products.