If you’ve been keeping up with agricultural news, you may have heard about the recent GMO wheat outbreak in Oregon. Or, perhaps you’ve heard about the recent bill in Connecticut that could mandate the labeling of GMO foods? These incidents have focused national attention on the GMO debate, and those who are new to the topic may be wondering what all the commotion is about.
The use of genetic modification in our crops is one of the most pressing issues in food and environmental safety, so we’ve compiled this short introduction to help bring you up to speed.
What is a GMO?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” which refers to any living organism whose DNA has been modified or altered using modern biotechnology. This can involve the mutation or deletion of existing genes, or the insertion of foreign genes into the genetic code of the original organism.
Why genetically modify?
GMOs can and have been made for a wide variety of reasons. Within the crops that are currently on the market, however, genetic modifications have been made to serve only two purposes.
Insecticide Production: In 1995, Monsanto, the chemical engineering megalith responsible for DDT, Agent Orange, and other modern miracles, released a variety of potato genetically engineered to internally produce the same toxins as those produced by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). These Bt bacteria have been used as popular insecticides since the 1920s, but this new plant-generated modification means that farmers no longer need to spray their plants with Bt since the plants themselves are now producing the same insecticide within their own cells. Bt producing crops currently include corn, cotton, and potatoes.
Immunity to Weed Killer: A year later, Monsanto developed a strain of soybeans to be resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup (also made by - guess who? - Monsanto). The idea is that entire crops can be sprayed with glyphosate in order to efficiently kill all weeds while the crops survive. This has expanded into a line of what are known as “Roundup Ready” crops, which include soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, and cotton.
Are GMOs safe?
There are three potential dangers from modified foods that differentiate them from regular crops:
Human reaction to modified DNA: There have been many observed cases of animals and even humans experiencing allergic or inflammatory reactions to GMO foods, but not to their non-GMO counterparts. Also, the introduction of foreign DNA may be responsible for higher rates of food sensitivities, gastrointestinal diseases, and childhood diseases like ADHD and autism. More studies need to be done to understand the role that GMOs play in pathology.
Increase in consumption of Bt toxins: Bt toxins have been shown to resist breaking down during digestion, to remain in human blood streams, including those of pregnant women and their fetuses, and to cause harm to human kidney and liver cells. The FDA has done no studies on the long-term effects this might have on the human body.
More glyphosate in our foods: A recent study from MIT shows that ingesting glyphosate can have harmful long-term effects on human digestion that can contribute to the development of Alzheimer's, diabetes, depression, autism, and a slew of other diseases over a lifetime.
It is true that the FDA has approved the distribution of GMO crops, but their safety procedures are not as thorough as many believe. First, they identify which parts of the GMO crop are different from the original plant. Next, they determine whether these changes result in the creation of any known toxins or allergens. Then they make sure that there are no nutritional differences between the two plants. If it meets these requirements, it is deemed safe.
However, according to the FDA website, it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to provide the research and ascertain the safety of the crop, with the FDA only serving as optional consultants. Additionally, these procedures rarely test actual interactions between GMOs and the human body, meaning that any adverse reaction not seen on a list of known toxins or allergens will not be accounted for.
GMO advocates argue that genetically engineering our foods is harmless and that we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, but modern GMOs are quite literally a whole different animal. The splicing of foreign genes into a DNA sequence is something that could never happen ‘naturally’ outside of a lab.
While the assumption has been that genes in one organism should work the same way in another, we’re learning that different organisms express genes differently. This opens the door to untested and potentially dangerous side effects. There need to be more comprehensive tests before the long-term safety of GMO crops can be assured.
What can I do?
As GMO crops make up the majority of the corn, soy, and canola crops in the US, anything containing those ingredients or their derivatives (e.g., corn syrup, soy lecithin, etc.) is at risk of containing genetically modified material. This means GMOs are pretty hard to avoid, and to many people the challenge may seem insurmountable.
That said, there are many groups, such as the Non-GMO Project, that are fighting to make it easier. True Goods for our part has made the pledge to keep all GMOs out of our grocery products to help our shoppers avoid the risks.
You too can take simple steps to make a stand against GMOs:
- Does overhauling your entire diet seem too daunting? Before each shopping trip, pick one item on your list and research a non-GMO alternative. Use the Non-GMO Shopping Guide for help.
- Get digital. There are multiple apps on the market, including ShopNoGMO and Buycott, which can help you avoid products containing GMOs.
- Read up. For a more comprehensive look at the myths and truths about GMOs, check out this report compiled by the Non-GMO Project.
- Write a letter. Many states are currently considering legislation that would require the labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients. Write to your congressperson and let them know where you stand. While you’re at it, write one to the FDA as well.
- Support businesses that take a stand against GMOs.