I started this series, to help readers make the connection between personal health and sustainable food (read the first two posts here). Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have many perceived health issues and aren’t allowed in organic foods, so they must be problematic, right? Let’s dive in and see.
To start at the beginning – what are Genetically Modified Organisms? GMOs have had their DNA altered in a way that doesn’t happen naturally. Individual genes are transferred from one organism to another to obtain a desired trait or characteristic, including transfer between non-related species (such as placing jellyfish genes in pig embryos to create glowing pigs). The process is referred to as “modern biotechnology,” “gene technology,” “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering.” For a more detailed and scientific description, read here. GM Food is usually created for a perceived benefit for the consumer or producer, such as a nutritional benefit, or a production benefit such as insect resistance or durability. The first commercial GM crops were released in the early 1990s.
Where do you find GMOs? Despite the very short amount of time that GMOs have been on the market, they have already infiltrated 60–75% of food products in the United States! As of 2003, most of the GM crops in the world were concentrated in the United States (63%) – and just a few other countries – Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), China (4%), and South Africa (1%). By 2006, staple crops that had become dominated by GMOs in the United States were soybeans (91% GM), cotton (88% GM), and corn (85% GM). In addition to GM crops, cattle operations often inject the genetically modified hormone rBGH, into their dairy cows and other hormones into beef cattle, and most cattle feed is also made from GM crops.
You can find GMOs in most processed food items that are non-organic and not labeled “non-GMO.” The most common GMO ingredients include:
From corn: corn oil, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal
From canola: canola oil
From cotton: cottonseed oil
From soy beans: soy protein, soy oil, soy sauce
In fact, while soy products are touted as health food, if you aren’t getting organic soy products (or products labeled non-GMO), there is a good chance that you are eating GM soy! Any of these soy products could easily be GM: soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tamari, tempeh, and soy supplements.
Many other ingredients in processed foods (usually the ones you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce) are also often made up of corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed – so watch out. The True Food Network has a helpful pamphlet that you can download with about 75 “Invisible GM Ingredients” to look out for.
Why are GMOs a problem? First of all, they have only been around for 20ish years. That’s not much time to find out what they will do. Second, testing hasn’t been extensive or rigorous due to a revolving door of personnel between government regulatory agencies and companies like Monsanto that are heavily invested in GMOs (read here for more details on this problem). These huge and powerful agribusinesses successfully lobbied for the introduction of GM foods before proper testing had been completed. Because of this, we don’t know what will happen to human health and the environment in the long run. Many countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all the countries in the European Union, have banned GMOs because they have not been proven safe. The book, “Seeds of Deception” details the many studies and effects that have raised serious concerns about GMOs. Here’s my condensed version of a few health risks discussed on the Seeds of Deception website:
- Animals fed several different GM crops have had intestinal damage, liver cell and pancreatic problems, infertility, and even died. Multiple allergic reactions have been noted in humans.
- Gene insertion disrupts the host DNA and can create unpredictable health problems. Gene insertion may accidentally switch on harmful genes and dormant viruses, create genetic instability and mutations, increase toxins and reduce beneficial phytonutrients in food.
- The protein produced by the inserted gene may create allergies, kidney damage and illness-causing viruses.
- Transfer of GM genes to a human may create antibiotic-resistant diseases.
- The risks, in general, are higher for children and newborns.
How do GMOs relate to sustainable food? Oh, let me count the ways (a few at least) that GMOs are damaging to sustainable farming and the healthy food it produces:
- A scary fact – GM contamination is hard to avoid. Natural pollen movement, weather, seed contamination, and human error can all spread GMOs to fields that are supposed to be non-GM, contaminating them.
- The natural cycle that sustainable farming relies on can be disrupted, often permanently. An example from the Action Bioscience website: “In Britain, a native farm bird, the Skylark, was indirectly affected by the introduction of GM sugar beets designed to resist herbicides. In planting this crop, the weeds were reduced substantially. However, since the birds rely on the seeds of this weed in autumn and winter, researchers expect that up to 80% of the Skylark population would have to find other means of finding food.”
- Herbicide tolerant GM crops have created weed resistance, causing pesticide use to increase by 70 million pounds between 1996 and 2003.
- Herbicide tolerant GM crops may pose a health risk to the native animals that eat them, again harming the natural cycle that sustainable farming relies on.
- There is a potentially detrimental effect on beneficial insects – possibly affecting insects that sustainable farms rely on to keep from using more insecticides than necessary.
- GM crops are grown in monocultures, causing damage to the soil, therefore requiring more chemicals to be grown.
How to Avoid GMOs?
- Buy certified organic foods, foods labeled “non-GMO” and talk to farmers about their growing practices. (Find sources for sustainable food near you at the Eat Well Guide.)
- Stay away from processed foods.
- Cook your own meals – this will allow you to have control over the ingredients.
- From the “Non-GMO Shopping Guide” – Avoid at-risk ingredients – corn, soy, canola, cottonseed.
- Download the “Non-GMO Shopping Guide” for additional helpful tips.
I think that people have the idea that our government is testing GM foods for safety before they are released to the public, but this is not true. The FDA has no safety testing requirements, and often the reports they do rely on come from biased studies supported by companies like Monsanto. But we are catching on, and it’s clear by the work being done to keep GMOs labeled (“‘Non-GMO’ Seal Identifies Foods Mostly Biotech-Free” NYTimes) and court cases being brought against the approval of GMO crops (“Victory! Court Finds USDA Violated Federal Law by Allowing Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets on the Market” True Food Now).
Advertisers are scrambling to tell us that their food is “all natural,” but that label does not guarantee in any way that their products are not GMO. So they are hearing us, they are following customer desires for healthy food, but they are also still trying to fool us. We need to do our homework if we are to spend our money on food that nourishes us and stop buying unhealthy, GM food.
It’s important, however, not get overwhelmed with this information. Each step we take to be aware of the industrial food system that has been forced on us leads us one step closer to changing the system to a sustainable and healthy one for ourselves and future generations. Make one change today and see how it goes. Add another next month; they all make a big difference.
A few articles and websites for further reading:
True Food Now – The Center for Food Safety, has a wonderful website that was very helpful in writing this article. Please check them out for further information.
The Seed of Deception website was also very helpful and worth checking out.