As the saying goes, you are what you eat, but do you know what you’re eating? There is often controversy surrounding food, food ingredients, diet and nutrition in general, but genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seem to really take the cake.
There is a lot of information available regarding GMOs. If you’re interested in the foods you eat and how they affect you and your family, it’s worthwhile to research topics like this in order to stay informed as a consumer. The following information is an overview regarding GMOs and some of the foods you eat.
ABCs of GMOs
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs are organisms that have had their genetic material (DNA) altered in a way that doesn’t happen naturally. This process is also known as modern biotechnology, gene technology or genetic engineering. Individual genes can be transferred from one organism to another or between non-related species. These methods create genetically modified plants used to grow genetically modified (GM) food crops. Sound appetizing?
In the U.S. (the world leader in production of genetically engineered crops), the three main genetically modified crops are varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, in 2004 the percentage of U.S. soybeans planted in genetically engineered varieties accounted for 85% of all soy planted; corn accounted for 45% and cotton accounted for 76%. Other common GM crops include canola, squash and papaya. Some animals are fed GM feed, meaning that if you eat meat that is not 100% organic, you may also be ingesting these same GM foods.
In the U.S., before GMO food crops hit the shelves they were tested and deemed safe for consumption in 1987. Eventually, in 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a GMO crop for commercial use — tomatoes — altered so they would remain firmer longer than average tomatoes. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that GMO foods were not required to have special labels designating them as GMO foods.
Why are GM crops produced?
The original intent for creating plants based on GMOs was to improve crop protection. Today’s GM crops are very resistant to plant diseases caused by insects or viruses and are tolerant of herbicides (this allows farmers to spray for weeds without damaging their crops). Additional reasons include increasing the yield of a crop and creating crops that look more visually appealing (think picture-perfect ears of corn).
The public pushback
Opponents of GM plants and crops have several arguments against this type of farming including the following:
- Some of the GM seeds produced by corporations will not reproduce on their own, which means farmers have to continually purchase the seeds for their particular crops.
- Many say there are too few independent (non-industry) studies of the health effects of GM foods.
- Potential for outcrossing can occur. This term refers to the natural process of one crop (GM) crossing or mixing with another (conventionally-grown) crop.
- Environmental impact — there may be risks to species that are not the intended “target” of the resistant crops. Also, if insects become “super resistant” to the GM crops, farmers may need to use additional chemical sprays on them.
Do you have a choice?
You have some choice when it comes to what you purchase. In order to avoid GMOs, plan to purchase only foods that are certified as 100% organic or look for labels that note the foods’ ingredients are “free of GMOs.” Opponents of GMOs would like for all food products that contain GMOs to state so on the packaging. That way, you truly have a choice in what you eat.
The other choice you have is to remain an informed consumer. Keep abreast of food trends and news as it can impact your decisions and potentially your health.