Getting some facts straight on a controversial food topic
You have probably heard about GMOs by now. The subject is in the news, discussed on morning talk shows, reviewed in food magazines, at the ballot box. Perhaps you have been sidestepping the conversations and mostly ignoring the chatter because you don’t really know where you stand on the issue of GMOs. It’s fair. Why jump into a dicey, politically charged debate, especially before your morning cup of “bulletproof” Joe?
You may not even be into politics, although politics is definitely in your food. That’s right: What you eat and how it’s labeled or not is just one of the many heated debates on the complex and nuanced issue regarding GMOs. To dismiss GMOs entirely is one thing, but how do you avoid them, assuming you want to, if you don’t know they are in the food you’re eating? Below are some important questions and answers that will help you weigh in on the topic.
What are GMOs?
According to the World Health Organization, “Genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g., through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.”
(“Genetically Modified,” World Health Organization. Web. 1 April 2015)
GM plants are currently developed to resist disease and insects and to create tolerant, “durable” organisms that withstand harsh chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Papaya, alfalfa, canola, corn, soy, sugar beets, cotton, zucchini and yellow summer squash are GMOs in production today. Research and development is in progress to introduce GM animals into the market.
Is the debate in regard to labeling, or whether GMOs are inherently good or bad?
Both. Big agrochemical business, biotech firms, grocery manufacturer unions, and processed and snack foods associations are just a few that do not support mandatory labeling of GMOs. Prop 37, which supported mandatory GMO labeling, failed in California.
The debate against labeling is that consumers will be confused and food costs will rise. The inability to manage a pro-GMO marketing message may be a factor, as it could be problematic to the bottom line. The debate for GMO labeling is that we as consumers have a right to know what is in our food, and potential problems with GMOs can be easier to identify by clear labeling.
Do proposed benefits of GMOs override the potential risks or unforeseen consequences of GMOs?
At this time nobody knows for certain. While not without controversy, GMOs have benefitted farmers in developing countries and prevented crop decimation. Papayas in Hawaii were genetically modified to resist the devastating ringworm virus. Even The Bill Gates Foundation has funded GM “superfruits” with the stated goal of solving world hunger and malnutrition.
Herbicide tolerance and toxin-producing GMOs are particularly controversial as the goal is to create crops that withstand chemical weed killers and are pest-resistant by including a bacterium into the organism as in Bt Corn. Essentially, the organism is modified to produce a toxic protein in its own cells that kills pests.
The debate is also whether these gene modifications add to ill health in the long term through unintended consequences, such as disrupting gut bacteria, creating chemical-resistant “super weeds and bugs,” being potential allergens (the body fights unknown organisms), causing autoimmune disorders and thus increasing health care costs and eliminating short-term economic gains.
Is there a global standard or practice on GMO usage and labeling?
No. More than 50 countries require some type of mandatory labeling for GMOs. In addition, many countries use a “precautionary principle” whereby they require labeling or reject GMO due to cross seed contamination or negative long-term effects on human and animal health that is not yet known.
The U.S. does not currently require all GMOs to be labeled yet has adopted a practice of voluntary labeling if the product is deemed similar to the conventional counterpart … and mandatory labeling if there is a significant difference.
(“Modern food biotechnology, human health an evidence-based study,” World Health Organization. Pg. 51 Web. 1 April 2015)
Does “non-GMO” and “organic” labeling mean GMO-free?
Not entirely. Foods labeled “non-GMO” are not scientifically or legally proven to be 100% GMO-free; however “Non-GMO Project Verified” seals indicate that they have been rigorously tested for GMO “avoidance.”
“Products bearing the USDA organic label be grown and processed without the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge and irradiation.”
(”Organic Trade Association.” Web 1 April 2015)
Is there a difference between a hybrid plant and a GMO?
Yes. Hybrid plants can occur outside a lab through selective breeding and cross-pollination, although second-generation hybrid organisms may not carry the same desirable traits as first-generation seeds.
(“Food Renegade. Hybrid Seeds VS. GMOS” author Kristen Michaelis Web 1 April 2015)
GMOs are created in a lab. Gene splicing allows for new organisms to be developed with unrelated plants or species. Of particular controversy is a new salmon in R&D often referred to as “Frankenfish.” This genetically modified fish grows faster and much larger than its conventional counterpart.
Who benefits from GMOs?
The short-term answer is the biotech firms that create the chemicals and own the patented seeds and the big food manufacturers and agribusiness that use their products. Profit comes from selling the GMO seeds and the chemicals to protect crops.
Non-GM crops can be cross-contaminated, and farmers can be penalized for seed patent infringement. Gene patent limits are not fully defined for living organisms, thus creating a unique dilemma on ownership of the new living organism and concern regarding effects on biodiversity.
Are GMOs desirable for a growing global community?
The risk-benefit analysis of GMOs has yet to play out. Lack of transparency in labeling and insufficient human and mammal studies that span generations appear to be more of the immediate concern from proponents against GMOs.
The long-term benefits of GMOs for producing durable, nutrient-rich, bio-fortified crops to feed a hungry global community are not to be ignored. However, language such as “generally considered safe” and “not likely to cause harm” invoke suspicion and concern for safety. Although many prescription drugs we consume have equally scary language, they do list potential side effects on the package inserts.
The topic of GMOs is complex. There are many sides to consider and debate. We don’t have all the answers, but with knowledge we can add our voice to the current debate.
Personally I like the idea of feeding the world, and I can support scientific advancement. Yet my mind can’t help wandering to a popular James Bond movie, Moonraker, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As humans we always look for perfection … improvements that might be better. Whether a super race, super seed or super organism, the best answers can always be found in the details.