Today’s post is one I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, as GMO’s are such a hot topic in the field of health/nutrition. Of course, everyone seems to have an opinion on GMO’s, but not all of these opinions are backed by any kind of science or research. So I wanted to take a bit of time, and lay out the facts for you wonderful readers, so that you can form your own, science-based opinion on GMO’s. Much of the content in this post is based off of a fantastic document about GMO’s put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest – “a nonprofit education and advocacy organization that focuses on improving the safety and nutritional quality of our food supply.” This group does not receive funding from any industry or from the government, so they’re a great source for non-biased, factual information.
So, let’s start at the beginning….
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. GMO’s are also sometimes called genetically engineered organisms. Genetically modifying a plant involves removing a gene from one plant and transferring that gene to a second plant. That new gene will then pass to all of that plant’s offspring. Usually, the transferred gene is one that produces a protein that provides the plant with a useful trait.
What I think a lot of people don’t understand, is that plant breeders have been doing this for years and years to try to improve their crops, kind of like dog breeders selectively breeding their animals to try to get the most docile animal instead of one that’s anti-social and aggressive. What’s different about the genetic engineering now, is that before, reproduction could only occur between closely related plant species, where as now a gene from any plant organism can be transferred to any other plant organism. Genetic engineering has made it possible to achieve the same ends as with classical breeding, but much more quickly and much more efficiently.
So now you might be wondering, what kinds of traits are they engineering into our plants? Mostly, they’re introducing traits that are either resistant to pests that eat the crop (ie toxic to the pests) or that are tolerant to herbicides. Basically, they are trying to make the crops more profitable by lessening the number of plants lost to pests and herbicides, thus, more food.
Genetically modified organisms are actually way more prevalent than you probably think. Here’s a direct quote from the CSPI paper, “In 2011, approximately 88% of all field corn (mostly used for cattle feed and ethanol production), 94% of all soybeans, 95% of all sugar beets, and 90% of all cotton grown in the United States was genetically engineered with one to as many as seven different genes. U.S. farmers also grew GE canola as well as small amounts of genetically engineered papayas, summer squash, and insect-resistant sweet corn. All these engineered crops totaled approximately 170 million acres in 2011.” That’s a lot of GMO’s folks. Chances are, you’ve been eating GMO’s for years without knowing it. A lot of the GMO corn and soybeans do get used for animal feed, but some of it does get used for human food products as well. A lot of field corn is used to make corn meal for muffins, corn chips, and tortillas, and even more field corn is used to make high-fructose corn syrup, which many of you are probably fairly familiar with, as it has received a lot of attention in the last few years. Genetically engineered soybeans are used to make soybean oil and soy lecithin (which is an emulsifier used in many foods), and engineered sugar beets are used to make sugar, which is in a ton of foods. So, there you have it – you’ve already been eating foods made from genetically modified plants. But, if you’re still squeemish about GMO’s, here’s the good news. The processing involved to produce the sugar, oils, and HFCS from the GMO’s eliminates virtually all of the transferred gene and whatever proteins it produced. To sum up, we consume a ton of food that is made from GMO ingredients, but we’re not actually consuming much of the engineered gene or its products.
The good news, is that there is NO EVIDENCE that suggests that GMO’s pose any risk to humans. Let me say that one more time. Research conducted thus far, shows that GMO’s are safe for human consumption. There’s not even evidence showing that GMO’s can cause allergic reactions in humans. However, there is always room for further research of course, especially long-term studies on the effects of GMO’s, which are not entirely known. I liken it to the microwave. When microwaves first came out, people were nervous. No one knew what effect these appliances were going to have on our long term health, but they were just so darn convenient that we kept on using them anyway! And so far, microwaves still seem a-okay.
Despite all this, say you still want to avoid eating GMO’s – how do you do it? Well, you work extra hours because it is going to be expensive. You need to buy everything organic. Federal standards for something to be “organic” mean that the ingredients in the product can’t come from GE crops, so they should contain no or only inadvertent trace amounts of GE ingredients. There are no laws that require manufacturers to label their products as “GMO”, so buying organic is about the safest you can play it. Of course, another way to try to keep GMO’s out of your diet would be to avoid foods made with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn meal, and soy lecithin. If you’re into reading labels at the supermarket, you already know that avoiding all these ingredients would be pretty tough, and would really limit what processed foods you could buy. However, if you did try to do that, you would be eating a diet of mostly fresh produce, meat, fish – basically foods you find around the perimeter of the grocery store (which would be a very healthy way to eat).
So, here’s what I take away from this – you don’t need to avoid GMO’s, but if you wanted to, you could be super picky and really fine tune your diet. As mentioned, avoiding processed foods certainly isn’t a bad thing (the opposite in fact) it would just be costly and time consuming. So for me personally, I’m just taking the following stance: everything in moderation, and try to eat less processed foods as able. That seems like good, general advice to me.
Of course, there are many more issues relevant to GMO’s (including the coming concerns about Genetically Engineered Animals – yes, that’s already happening), and if you are curious and eager for further reading, I suggest you read the CSPI paper in it’s entirety by clicking the link here.
Also, here’s another link to an article from the Huffington Post that was just posted yesterday about the introduction of GMO wheat.
I hope you have found this post interesting and helpful. If you have any comments, opinions, or further questions I would be delighted to read them in the comments sections so don’t be shy about posting!
Wishing everyone a great weekend!