As our nation becomes savvier in the supermarket, more and more people are questioning the benefits of the food they are putting in their bodies. New on many shoppers’ radars are GMOs. Genetically engineered (GE), or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are any plants or animals that have had their DNA altered in some unnatural way. Over the years, food scientists have made tomatoes stay firmer longer, incorporated insecticides into corn and created herbicide-resistant soy. While these examples seem like beneficial traits for crops, many people wonder if there are long-term negative effects on humans and the environment, and whether GMOs are worth the risk.
It All Began With Peas
Think back to your days in high school biology class; you may recall drawing squares with initials representing genes in them. These grids, called Punnet Squares, showed the possible outcomes of genetic information when two species crossbreed. Gregor Mendel, a scientist in the late 19th century, discovered that he could cross two different types of pea plants and create a completely different-looking daughter plant. His discovery of how plants breed naturally in the wild expanded and grew throughout history, and has more recently inspired the revolutionary era of GMOs.
GMOs were initially created for many well-intentioned purposes. In parts of Africa, many people suffer from preventable blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. Scientists created Golden Rice, a breed of rice that is yellow-orange in color because it contains beta-carotene, a precursor for vitamin A. When people in Africa substituted this rice for their normal dietary rice, it reduced the prevalence of certain
nutrition-related vision problems. In agriculture, farmers have always faced the paradox of fighting off insects and weeds without killing their crops as well. U.S. companies have developed crops that are genetically immune to certain insecticides and herbicides, and therefore they can be sprayed with chemicals and still grow healthy, while their enemies are controlled around them.
So, Why Should I Care?
If some GMO crops can grow better and faster and last longer than conventional crops, why should shoppers be opposed to them? Many people are concerned about consuming GMOs because there is simply not enough long-term evidence surrounding their safety. The developers argue that GMOs are safe and will not harm the body in any way, but in reality, GMOs are simply still too new for any long-term or longitudinal research studies to be performed on them. One of the leading companies in this field created its first GMO plant in 1982, but it was not until over a decade later in 1996, that GMO soybean seeds finally became available to farmers (1). Therefore, many people feel that they are the “guinea pigs” for this new industry, and any potentially negative side effects will not be observed until GMOs have been consumed for many years.
Other people are uneasy with how the crops may react in their bodies right now. By definition, GMOs have had their DNA altered, which means genes from other plants, animals or bacteria can be inserted into their DNA. People are worried that they could possibly be allergic to something that is being transferred into a crop, and they will not know that component is even present until after they eat it and have a bad reaction.
Other concerns stem from an environmental perspective, with the fact that GMOs could possibly develop into “superweeds” and decrease the biodiversity of plant life or even contaminate organic crops. For a food item or crop to be considered organic, it cannot contain any GMO products. Therefore, farmers are concerned that traces of GMO crops could potentially travel naturally by wind or water and contaminate their crops. This could damage organic farming, and also increase the prices of organic products.
Now What Do I Do?
Avoiding GMOs isn’t easy. Because there is no definite evidence showing that GMOs are dangerous or a less healthy product, there are no laws that require items to be labeled if they contain them. However, in November, the state of California voted on Proposition 37, “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” which would be the first U.S. law requiring companies to label products containing GMOs (2). Proposition 37 nearly passed, with 48% of voters, about 5,750,000 California residents, in favor of GMO labeling (4).
Until similar legislation passes, shoppers can still avoid GMOs in a few ways. As said earlier, products with an organic label cannot contain any GMOs. Many foods items are often red-flagged as being more likely to be genetically modified, such as soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa and squash, so these may be good choices for organic purchases. Lastly, products that contain the Non-GMO Project Verified seal are tested and confirmed that they contain less than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients (3). WF
1. Monsanto, www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/monsanto-history.aspx, accessed Nov. 28, 2012.
2. Yes on 37 For Your Right to Know, www.carighttoknow.org/facts, accessed Nov. 28, 2012.
3. Non-GMO Project, www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/gmos-and-your-family, accessed Nov. 28, 2012.
4. California General Election Ballot Results, http://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/ballot-measures, accessed Nov. 28, 2012.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2013