Researching the topic of GMOs, I couldn’t help but think of the politics in our country over the last couple years. Each side is steadfastly firm in the belief that their view is right, which makes the other side wrong, even though those firmly held beliefs may or may not be based in fact.
When it comes to GMOs, there are plenty of studies and science on the table,but the average consumer has little interest in pursuing this information.
Although it’s impossible to do justice to a topic that entire books have been written about,my goal in taking on this assignment was to present enough facts about GMOs that readers could make informed decisions about consuming them—or not.
What Is A GMO?
Visit any grocery store and you’ll notice labels proclaiming “non-GMO ingredients” or “No GMOs.” But what are GMOs in the first place?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and, in a nutshell, it’s any organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been changed or altered because of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is done to introduce a desirable trait, such as better flavor, bigger size, more varieties, resistance to damage, less water requirements and more.
Although we constantly hear about the term “GMO,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for regulating food safety for both humans and animals, considers “genetic engineering” (GE) as the more precise description. So, in this article, we’ll be referring to GE foods.
Food from GE plants was first introduced into the U.S. food supply in the 1990s, but interestingly enough, the first GE product approved by the FDA was actually a drug, not a food.
The fact is, genetic modification continues on many fronts—including in medicine. The science of genetically modifying microorganisms has resulted in medications used to treat type 1 diabetes, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, genetic growth disorders, multiple sclerosis, lactose intolerance, heart attack and stroke.
“Genetically engineered insulin was approved in the early 1980s, and the first food was not approved until the early 1990s,” says Brandon R. McFadden, Ph.D., an assistant professor in food and resource economics in the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Living in Florida, it is likely many readers have heard about using genetically engineered mosquitos to combat diseases like Zika,” he adds. “This should highlight that genetic engineering is a technology used in breeding of food and is not a food itself.”
Some opponents are afraid that once we’ve gone down the GE road, there’s no going back. But the truth is, we’ve already gone there. A huge percentage of major crops grown in the United States are GE, including corn (88 percent) and soybeans (93 percent). Among other significant crops with GE varieties are potatoes, squash, apples and papayas.
In the 1990s, Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus, along with Peter Beyer, co-invented Golden Rice, which is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body.
A humanitarian, Potrykus wanted to find a way to help up to half a million malnourished children in developing countries who go blind each year due to vitamin A deficiency. Many of those children die within a year of losing their eyesight.
The goal was that seeds for Golden Rice be made available at no cost to subsistence farmers around the world. Although intensive scientific research made the seeds a reality, opposition has prevented their distribution to the very people who most need them.
“Such opposition is often the result of well-nourished people imposing an ideology on the undernourished,” notes McFadden. “I am not sure how to change this; I wish I did. Recently, 107 Nobel Laureates signed a letter urging Greenpeace to abandon their campaign against Golden Rice. Hopefully, this will help.”
Let’s face it: We’ve been manipulating DNA in various ways for thousands of years. Think about seedless watermelons, chickens who lay more eggs per year and turkeys with unnaturally large breasts, to mention only a few.
“I like the saying, ‘Humans have had a hand in nature since Adam spit the first seed,’” says McFadden.
“For example, the ancestor to the corn we eat was about the size of your thumbnail. This domestication comes from manipulating genes. Although, most of us think of domestication as manipulating phenotypes—a phenotype is the observable, physical characteristics—rather than manipulating genes, which makes sense, as we cannot visually see changes at the gene level.”
Farmers And Breeders
For centuries, livestock breeders have utilized conventional breeding and artificial selection to obtain certain physical characteristics and traits—and to eliminate others. One has only to look at the vast variety in dogs, cattle, horses, etc.
In the world of crops, farmers trying to establish a plant with certain desirable traits will repeatedly cross-pollinate. Just as in breeding livestock, the potential problem is that, although this method introduces genes for the positive traits, it can also include genes that carry less-than-desirable characteristics.
In other words, farmers and breeders have been trying their hand at modifying genes—and thereby changing many species of animals and plants—but without a fraction of the careful control used in genetic engineering in the laboratory, which can isolate a single gene for a desired trait.
“Asking if genetic engineering is safe is like asking if the internet is good—it creates a false dichotomy,” observes McFadden. “Genetic engineering is simply a type of technology, and each application of the technology should be evaluated independently to ensure safety for consumers, the environment and farmers. And this is exactly what is done.
“Every genetically engineered crop must pass regulation by the FDA, EPA and USDA. There is no food consumed more studied and regulated than genetically engineered food. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance calculated that, on average, it takes 13 years and $136 million to get a new genetically engineered seed through the regulatory process,” he says.
If genetic engineering has resulted in drugs that help mankind and crops that resist pests, why is there such stringent opposition to this technology?
Among the issues voiced by opponents are concerns that:
- Genetic engineering reduces genetic diversity
- DNA from GE crops can transfer into the people eating them
- GMO consumption can increase general and gluten allergies
- Animals fed GMO feeds developed tumors, inflammation
- Testing methods aren’t adequate to ensure safety
- GMOs only benefit big biotech companies and factory farms
Opponents point out specific incidents as basis for their concerns. For example, in 1989, L-Tryptophan, which can be produced by GE bacteria, was linked to 37 deaths associated with eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. Studies into the cases ultimately determined the problem was due to “the omission of an important purification stage from the process, not to the use of GM organisms in its production.”
StarLink corn had been genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide protein and was EPA-approved for use only in “animal feed and other industrial, nonfood uses.” In 1998, however, StarLink corn was found in the human food supply. (The company that owned the U.S. registration for StarLink corn voluntarily withdrew it two years later.)
“The StarLink incident resulted in food recalls,” says McFadden. “After that, the documentary Food, Inc. demonized Monsanto and the ability to patent seed. However, seeds have been patented long before genetic engineering.”
Some detractors have said that the case for GMOs is like smoking was in the 1950s—just because there’s no clear link to cancer, birth defects, tumors, etc. doesn’t mean they’re safe. Depending on what you read on the internet, you can come away certain that GE is the scourge of the earth—or a welcome form of salvation. Moral of the story: Be open minded, and don’t get all your information from one source. Do some research on genetics in general.
McFadden cautions against giving too much weight to any one individual study or scientist. Instead, he advises on collecting as much information as possible from as many credible sources as possible in order to arrive at an informed conclusion.
“More than 2,000 studies have been conducted to assess human and environmental safety and nearly 300 organizations and scientific institutions support the safety of genetically engineered crops,” notes McFadden.
Be A Savvy Consumer
When you head to the grocery store, be an informed shopper. In many cases, you may not be buying a fruit or vegetable from a GE plant itself but a food item that contains ingredients made from GE plants. These can include corn starch, corn syrup and oils found in mayonnaise, salad dressings, breads, snack foods, etc.
And yes, in case you wondered, the FDA requires food from GE plants to meet the same food safety requirements as those from traditionally bred plants.
“Just being ‘Non-GMO’ doesn’t necessarily make a food healthy, so don’t be influenced by that label alone. Even when I see a label that says ‘Non-GMO,’ I look further at the ingredients,” says Debbie Green, a registered dietitian at The Villages Rehab.
“What I tell patients all the time about eating healthy is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, not the middle aisles,” says Green.
“Eat whole foods you prepare yourself. Get as close to the source of food as possible. Go as fresh as you can, and purchase foods with the least amount of ingredients. The fewer the ingredients, the better off you are, and they should be ingredients you recognize, not additives you can’t pronounce,” says Green.
“If you’re concerned about GMOs in produce, go the organic route. There are several stores in our area that accommodate that and provide a wide selection,” says Green.
She also emphasizes avoiding processed foods, up to 90 percent of which are estimated to contained GE corn or soy.
“In our busy schedules, it is difficult to prepare healthy and fast meals without planning ahead and having the proper tools. Invest in a slow cooker and a pressure cooker, and it is possible to put a delicious and healthy meal on your family table in 30 minutes or less,” advises Green.
Sources: fda.gov, ifas.ufl.edu, Journal of Animal Science