Just about every site I’ve seen in the last week has Whole Foods in their headlines. Recently, Whole Foods would require labeling of GMO foods by 2018. So, what are GMOs? They are genetically modified organisms (GMO) that has been genetically altered using a laboratory process, also called biotechnology or genetic engineering (GE), in which genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially placed into the genes of another organism to produce a desired trait in the plant. Genes may come from other plants, bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.
Which Foods Contain GMOs?
Primary sources of GMO foods are in industrial crops (transformed into food ingredients used in processed foods):
- rapeseed (canola oil)
- sugar beets
The low-cost of production, many of these crops are also used as animal feed for agricultural animals in feed lots raised for meat.
In the supermarket you may find GMOs such as Hawaiian-grown papaya and some varieties of zucchini and summer squash.
What are the Benefits of GMOs?
Traditional cross-breeding to create desirable traits in a plant, a form of agricultural technology that has been used by farmers for centuries, is considered “natural.” In fact, many of the plant foods that you find in the produce department of your local grocery store are a product of traditional plant breeding. Just consider the multitude of apples on the market today, each variety having its own desired characteristics for a multitude of use and taste preferences. However, scientists using traditional cross-breeding, could take years to create such desired characteristics in plants.
Modern agricultural advances have led scientists to develop more time-efficient techniques, including genetic engineering, which can offer greater precision in isolating specific genes for important traits that have the potential to offer benefits. Historically, agricultural biotechnology has been driven by the demand to improve agricultural efficiency, including increasing production yields by protecting plants from natural pests, reducing water and maximizing land usage.
More recently, attention has focused on improving nutritional quality, food production functionality (appearance and durability), and environmental sustainability. Some plants have been genetically modified to help them survive—in the mid-1990s, genetic engineering saved the Hawaiian papaya from extinction. The papaya ring-spot virus had previously wiped out crops in the 60s and 70s and when traditional plant-breeding failed, researchers turned to genetic engineering and successfully saved the papaya.
What are the Risks to the Environment?
Many experts raise concerns about the potential effects of GMOs on the environment:
-Plants have been genetically engineered to have built-in herbicide resistance, so that herbicides can be applied to the GMO crops without harming them.
-Eventually, new, stronger weeds will evolve requiring even higher doses of herbicide application to combat them.
-GE crops may also lead to other negative environmental effects, ultimately damaging the natural balance of nature’s ecosystems.
-Insecticide-resistant crops may also increase the use of chemical pesticides that ultimately may wipe out beneficial insects, such as bees, that play an important role in pollination.
-Concern about the reduction in crop diversity as a result of the mass cultivation of single GE plant varieties, which could threaten the long-term viability of our global food supply.
Are GMOs Safe?
According to Martina Newell-McGloughlin, D.Sc., the Director of International Biotechnology at the University of California, “GMO crops are more highly regulated and tested for safety than any other crops grown in the U.S. They are regulated by three different agencies from farm to table: The United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.” However, the FDA’s policy for regulating GMO foods does not require additional testing to prove safety, unless a GMO food is significantly different—nutritionally or otherwise—compared to its non-GMO food-equivalent.
A large question mark remains on the long-term consequences of GMO intake on human health—much skepticism remains concerning their relationship to cancer risk, allergies, and digestive disorders. Recently, a highly publicized research paper, published in the September 2012 issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology, indicated an increased cancer risk in lab rats fed pesticide-tolerant GM maize. However, many experts believe the study was poorly designed and the results are not transferable to human health. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit public health advocacy group, coordinates The Biotechnology Project, which provides on-going, detailed information on the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It reports that Americans have been consuming GE crops with no apparent ill effects for the past 16 years, and that there is no evidence that current GE foods pose any risk to humans. Additional research is needed to understand the long-term health risks of GMO foods.
How are GMOs Labeled?
Outside of the U.S., much of the world, including Australia, Japan, the European Union, and nearly 30 other countries, requires GMO foods to be labeled.
Many countries have imposed significant restrictions on GMOs, citing a lack of research on the long-term human health effects of consuming these foods.
If you want to avoid GMOs, one option is to choose foods labeled “USDA Organic,” which prohibits products from containing GE ingredients or animals fed GE crops.
If you want more options to find GMO-free products, the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization, offers shoppers a third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. Their “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal on food labels shows that the food product has gone through their verification process. Non-GMO Project also has an app for your iPhone to help you when shopping.
—Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D. via Update: GMOs in Foods – Environmental Nutrition Article.
The internet is filled with sites about GMOs…for the science of, opponents, and farmers views on GMOs you can visit: American Association for the Advancement of Science, AgBioWorld, non-GMOProject , GMO Compass and Food Democracy.
Everyone has differing opinions on GMOs…thankfully the beauty of choice is you can choose what you believe is right for you and your family.