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Food for Thought

What in the world are we eating?

Genetically modified organisms. In our food. Every day. Now there’s a frightening thought. Or is it? Should we be afraid of what’s happening with our food supply? Very, very afraid? Or is it all hype? And what, exactly are GMOs?

In a nutshell, explains David Egerdahl, Registered and Clinical Dietitian with Memorial Hospital, “Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals that have been genetically altered to take on a characteristic currently not present in the organism. An example would be genetically modifying corn so that it is resistant to insects, producing more yield.” 

Michelle Somers, Registered Dietician and Wellness Coach with Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, says, “GMOs are intended to produce plants that better tolerate such adverse conditions as drought, pests, or cold; improve nutritional content; or resist disease. Ultimately, companies could reduce the costs of production and create products with a longer shelf life.”

So let’s see. Say a multinational corporation like agrichemical giant Monsanto figures out a way to modify a corn seed, the idea being that the plant will be resistant to insects, which could decimate a crop, or to weeds, which could overrun a crop, or to weather, which could flatten a crop. Kind of cool, yes? The corn plant grows, escapes all threats, gets harvested and ends up on our dinner table in any number of products. Truth be told, companies like Monsanto have been genetically modifying seeds since the mid 1990s. So far so good, yes?

Perhaps not. The trouble with this scenario, from the perspective of the naysayers, is that we, the consumers, are not made aware of which foods have been genetically modified because the food labels don’t tell us. In addition, we humans have not been adequately studied to ensure that there is no long-term harm to us from ingesting genetically modified organisms, and finally, plans can go awry, such as insects developing resistance to pesticides, necessitating even more pesticides than before.
There are those—including Seeds of Deception author Jeffrey M. Smith—who would posit that the Monsantos of the world are playing genetic roulette with an untested human population. Others say folks in the U.S. would be well advised to follow the lead of other countries—the European Union, Australia, Japan and Russia, for example—where mandatory labeling has been in place for years. Still others say, aw shucks, so far there’s no proof that genetically modified foods pose any health risk whatsoever, so what’s the big deal?

As defined by the World Health Organization, GMOs are organisms whose DNA has actually been altered in a way that does not occur naturally, allowing certain genes to be transferred from one organism into another, including non-related species.

Many of the DNA-dabbling concerns about GMOs have to do with the potential for serious disease, impaired functioning and food allergies. Somers says, “One risk is introducing a gene into a plant, like a peanut gene, that could be potentially harmful to someone who is allergic to peanuts.”

As Egerdahl says, there is a lot of controversy surrounding GMOs. “Is it ethical? Is it a socially responsible practice? How will it affect agribusiness? Are they safe for consumption? In the short term, GMOs have been shown to be safe. We have no long-term data that tells us if there are harmful long-term consequences to GMO consumption. Some European nations have banned GMOs out of concern for the unknown long-term effects. In the U.S., the FDA and USDA have deemed GMOs safe.”
If we want to avoid GMOs, says Egerdahl, “about 70 percent of our food supply is off the menu. Deciding to avoid GMOs means avoiding crops such as corn, wheat, soy, canola, cotton and potatoes, as well as livestock, as they are typically fed these crops.”

“GMOs are pervasive,” says Somers, “and it is an individual choice to avoid them. They can be largely avoided by choosing organic foods exclusively, and those items with labeling that states ‘Non-GMO Project Verified.’”

This might be one of those times where it’s up to us, the consumer, to be proactive by increasing our knowledge about GMOs on a few levels—impacts on our health, on the environment and on the business of farming—and coming to our own conclusions about whether to consume foods that have been genetically modified.

Perhaps it’s time to put down that bag of corn chips and pick up the laptop. 

Did you know?

In 2012, GMO crops were grown on about 420 million acres of land in 28 countries worldwide

The amount of land devoted to genetically modified crops has increased 100 times since GM crops were first grown in 1996

The U.S is the world’s top GMO growing country, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India

Nearly half of all U.S. farms now have superweeds that can resist Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup

A 2012 study by Washington State University showed that overall, GMOs lead to a net increase in pesticide use

Of the 28 countries growing GMO crops, 48% are industrial countries and 52% are developing countries

Data source: Mother Jones, Feb. 26 2013