For centuries, scientists have been cross-breeding plants and animals to create the most desirable traits for our food. For example, the Golden Delicious apple is merged with the Kid's Orange-Red breed of apple to create the particular flavor and heartiness of the Gala apple. For over a century, these practices were limited to combining the traits of organisms only within the same species.
Today, due to advances in biotechnology, that is no longer the case. Scientists can now genetically engineer different species so that they share the same genetic material. They do so by extracting DNA from one species and injecting it into another. These genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are commonly used in the food industry to create plants and seeds that are not only resistant to certain insects and pesticides, but can be grown in less than favorable conditions.
GMOs are highly controversial, but there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate.
Heavily Tested: There have been a great number of studies tracking the effects of GMOs on animals. Overwhelmingly, these studies indicate that GMOs are safe to consume.
Impact on Farming: GMOs allow plants to be modified to grow in environments that would be normally inhospitable.
Cheaper Food: Easier farming means more food which, in turn, means less expensive food. This is not only beneficial for the average consumer, but it can have global implications: less expensive food makes it easier to feed hungry populations around the world.
Increased Nutritional Value: GMOs can be modified to have greater nutritional value than the organism would have naturally. For example, scientists, hoping to eliminate the need for post-harvest processing, have genetically modified rice to contain significantly higher amounts of vitamin A. This “golden rice” is not yet legal in most countries, but experts expect it to be within the next few years.
Health Concerns: There have been no studies tracking the long-term effects GMOs may have on humans. Researchers fear that the health risks may include: Exposure to allergens, antibiotic resistance, endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders and accelerated aging.
Safety Concerns: The FDA does not treat GMOs any differently than conventionally grown crops. Companies can choose to go through a voluntary safety consultation; no additional testing is required.
Ethics: Some feel that GMOs are a violation of nature and an infringement on a natural organism’s intrinsic value.
Need for Labels: In January 2000, an international trade agreement for labeling GMOs was established. It required that international food exporters label all genetically modified foods in order to allow a country to decide if they would receive the food or reject it. More than 130 countries, including the US, signed the agreement. However, it's up to the individual country to decide whether or not to label products made with GMOs after they are imported from abroad.
Countries like Australia, Japan and France all require that foods made with GMOs be labeled. However, the FDA does not require the labeling of GMOs. Without proper labels, however, it is difficult for consumers to make educated choices about the foods they are purchasing. Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association support voluntary labels, while recognizing that “there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.” Read this statement provided by the FDA.
The issue of genetically modified organisms is a complicated one that requires you, the consumer, to make a decision about how you will feed your family. If you feel confident in the safety of GMOs, you can go to the grocery store bolstered by the knowledge that you are purchasing some of the most heavily tested food in history. If, however, you are skeptical about these studies and the safety of GMOs and would prefer to purchase food without them – follow these simple tips:
The simplest way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic. The USDA certifies that organic foods are not bio-engineered in any way.
Foods to Watch Out For
Today, at least 85% of soybeans, corn, sugar beets and canola are grown from GMO seeds. Because of this, it is particularly important to avoid packaged foods with corn and soy if you are trying to cut GMOs out of your family’s diet. If you don’t normally buy organic, be sure to check your food labels to avoid foods that come from these five crops, which are likely to contain genetic modifications:
- Sugar Beets
If you want to use non-genetically modified oil, you can swap your canola or vegetable oil for olive oil or safflower oil as these are less likely to contain genetic modifications.
Look for the Label
A recent study found that over 90% of Americans are in favor of labeling foods that contain GMOs. While the US government does not mandate labeling. However, instead of waiting for government legislation, some stores are taking on the GMO labeling issue themselves. Whole Foods, for example, has decided to require that foods sold in their US and Canada stores have GMO labels because its executives believe that consumers have a right to know how their food was produced. Labels should appear on products in Whole Foods by 2018.
Many companies, like Whole Foods, have partnered with the Non-GMO Project to undergo extensive third-party verification over their non-GMO claims. The Non-GMO Project is the only North American organization offering independent testing and GMO controls; a Non-GMO seal ensures that the best practices have been followed for GMO avoidance.