I think just about everyone has heard of GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) by now. But if you’re like me, you’ve maybe heard that they are bad, but you’ve also heard that its debatable. You might have heard that they are in everything, so you can’t avoid them, unless you eat all Organic food, and who can afford that? You might have heard about farmers being sued and other countries banning them and all sorts of other blips and headlines about GMO’s, but you’re still left wondering…What are GMO’s, really? Why should I care (or should I)? and How on Earth do I avoid them if they’re in everything?
Today, my hope is to teach us all a little more about GMO’s so that we can make an informed decision on whether or not to care and learn strategies for including or excluding them from our personal diets.
What are GMO’s?
GMO’s, also known as Genetically Modified Organisms, are organisms in which the “genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally” (the WHO). Essentially, scientists, in a lab, take a gene from one organism and randomly insert it into the DNA of another organism. These newly paired cells are then grown in a lab in some sort of tissue culture or medium to develop into a new plant species that grows a line of Genetically Modified (GM) crops. For example, scientists will take a gene from a toxin that is used to produce pesticide and insert it into the DNA of corn. After culturing these cells, the scientist has now created a new corn plant that contains an actual pesticide. This new plant is now able to kill off the pests that might normally feast on it.
How does this differ from the cross-breeding of different plants that has occurred for thousands of years?
GMO’s are created at the cellular level, they are altering the actual DNA of a single cell to create a new species. With GMO’s, scientists are usually mixing the DNA of two completely unrelated organisms and combining them (plant plus bacteria). This doesn’t happen in nature. God did not design two separate biological kingdoms with the ability to reproduce.
Cross-breeding on the other hand involves cross-pollinating two separate, but related plants to create a new variety of the same plant that is more disease resistant or able to withstand the local weather and environment better. Cross-breeding takes a tomato, and cross pollinates it with a slightly different tomato and after a few generations we have a new variety of tomato. But still genetically, fully a tomato.
We now also have the ability to create hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds were created using controlled cross-breeding techniques to speed up the process. Instead of taking several generations of cross-breeding to create the new tomato variety, we can now create the new tomato plant in one generation. This is still a low-tech, not drastically unnatural process (still just mixing a tomato with a tomato). The only glitch with hybrid seeds is that it’s not sustainable. The “offspring” of hybrid seeds will not create the same variety, so farmers (gardeners) aren’t able to save the seeds year after year. Using hybrid seeds means you will always have to go back to the big seed company every year and place a big seed order. Which, if you don’t know much about plants and gardening, is really kind of silly. Your tomato plant makes seeds, you don’t need to buy new ones…unless you bought hybrid seeds in the first place.
Bottom line, cross-breeding is a natural process that creates slightly different varieties of plants. This is how we have things like seedless watermelons and cotton candy flavored grapes. We’ve been doing this for thousands upon thousands of years and there are no known health or environmental risks associated with normal cross-breeding that happen gradually over several generations. It’s safe and it’s sustainable. Hybrid crops are a relatively new thing (mid-1800’s), it’s a fairly natural process and is considered to create healthy plants that are safe for consumption. Nothing to fear. However, hybrid crops are not considered sustainable since you can’t save the seeds year after year which led to some major economic problems in developing countries (but a huge boost in profits for multi-national seed companies).
Why should I care about GMO’s?
Isn’t it a good thing to create crops that are more disease and pest resistant? Don’t we want to have higher yields of crops to feed all of the gazillions of people in this world? And wouldn’t it be great if we can create crops that are more nutritionally beneficial?
The problem is that no one knows if these new varieties are truly safe. The argument is that these new crops are “substantially equivalent” to the natural varieties so they should be regarded as safe. I don’t know about you but corn injected with a known toxin doesn’t sound safe or equivalent to the corn created by the hands of God. The companies creating and selling the GMO crops claim intellectual property rights and patents on the seeds that they create. Why? Because they are not actually, substantially equivalent to the natural varieties that God created.
The reality is that over 60 countries throughout the world have a ban or specific regulations in place for GMO foods (like labeling requirements) because they have not been proven to be safe. In fact, there have been some studies done on GMO foods that indicate that there is an association between serious health risks and GMO foods. GMO foods have been linked to health problems like asthma, allergies, inflammation, lowered immune function, cancer, infertility, gastrointestinal difficulties, insulin regulation, premature aging, and many more. Hmm, all things that have been rapidly increasing over the last couple of decades. (The first GMO crop arrived on the market in 1994.)
I’m not a scientist or an expert or even a farmer, so feel free to form your own opinions. The GMO seed companies claim that these crops have been heavily tested to assure safety, but yet the testing they are referring to was paid for and developed by them. Not exactly unbiased. Sure, some GMO crops on the market right now might be harmless. But many of them may not be. And there are GMO crops that are not approved for human consumption that can cross pollinate (by blowing winds) with crops that are fed to humans.
Another problem with GMO crops is that they have now caused the development of GMO resistant weeds. GMO crops aren’t supposed to need as much herbicide, but with the natural development of these “superweeds”, farmers are now forced to use more herbicides and toxins on their crops. If you didn’t know, herbicides and pesticides don’t just poison and kill weeds and bugs, they poison and kill people, pets, and wildlife as well.
Ok, so how do I avoid eating GMO’s?
Ah, now we get to the tough part. But never fear. Real, non-toxic, GMO free food does exist!
Anywhere from 60-85% of the food on your local supermarket shelves is made from GMO crops. Let me repeat, the majority of the food available in the United States is made from GMO crops! The real tricky part is that, in the United States, there is no mandatory labeling of GMO foods. There is no way to easily identify if you are eating GMO foods unless the company itself decides to tell you. Hint: a company will never announce that the food you are eating contains Genetically Modified Organisms unless they legally have to. But some companies have made the switch (or are working on it for some of their products), so they do advertise GMO free foods, at times.
Where to begin? Start with your produce department. Although GMO companies are creating many new plant varieties, at this point, the majority of the fresh fruits and vegetables found in your produce department are GMO-free, even if they aren’t Organic. Things to watch out for in the produce department that may be GM (genetically modified) are Hawaiian papayas, some squash/zucchini, and some corn (but most of the sweet corn we eat at barbeques is currently GMO free, though this is starting to change). For these items, it’s best to choose Organic because one of the requirements for certified Organic foods is that they cannot contain GMO’s. Or buy direct from your local farmer at the farmers market and ask him/her if they use GMO seeds. The rest of your fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle are likely GMO free, for now.
Dairy. Have you seen labels of milk and cheese that say “our cows are rGBH free” or something similar? Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone is a genetically engineered hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. If you can find dairy labeled rGBH free, you are on the right track. However, the feed the cows eat might still be made up of mostly GMO grains. The only way to truly avoid GMO’s in your dairy is to choose Organic dairy products or those specifically labeled GMO free (not just rGBH free).
Meat, Fish, and Poultry. There are currently no Genetically Modified meat or poultry products that are approved for human consumption. There is a company who has developed GM salmon and other fish that is likely to hit the market soon. The trick with meat, poultry, and fish though is that like dairy, although the animal itself isn’t GM, the food that the animal is fed probably is GM. Since there is some validity to the statement “you are what you eat”, the safest bet is to avoid meat, fish, and poultry products that are given GMO feed. The best way to know this is to get your meat directly from the farmer and ask him/her about their feed and farming practices.
Packaged foods. When perusing the inner aisles of your grocery store, you really have to read labels and choose sparingly. Know that products containing corn, soybeans, cotton, and many oils (canola and rapeseed) most likely contain GMO’s. The problem is that just about every packaged food contains these items in some form (corn syrup, fructose, cornstarch, soy protein, sugar, sorbitol, and literally hundreds more). It’s nearly impossible to remember all of the “forbidden” ingredients that could contain GMO’s. For packaged foods, your best bet is to select specifically labeled GMO free or Organic foods. Or just avoid packaged foods altogether.
Kind of crazy. In the United States it can feel nearly impossible to completely avoid GMO food items. You probably won’t be able to completely eliminate GMO’s from your diet and I wouldn’t advise trying to. My suggestion is to stay informed. Now that you know what GMO’s are and the potential health problems that they may cause, do what you can to choose non-GMO foods as often as possible. Last week I talked about the concept of “crowding out”, that’s really important when it comes to GMO’s. The more fresh fruits and vegetables you eat, the less you will need to eat other items. And fresh fruits and vegetables are pretty easy to eat, most of them can be washed and eaten raw if you’re really pressed for time!
In our house we purchase some pretty expensive hormone free, grass based, low pasteurized milk. I drink a lot of milk so I want to make sure the milk we drink is as healthy as possible. But we go to restaurants and other people’s houses and we drink whatever milk is available there. We “crowd out” the less healthy milk by making sure that the majority of the milk we drink is super healthy. Use this trick with all of your eating habits.
If you can completely avoid packaged foods and restaurants, then more power to you. Keep at it. You are doing an amazing thing for your family! But if you are stuck in the reality that sometimes you have to run through the drive thru and all organic foods are just not in your budget, don’t sweat it. Make the best decisions with the knowledge and the resources that you have for this season. That is the best that anyone can do. And making a better decision today than you did yesterday is a step in the right direction. Just take it one step at a time.
Today you can eat more produce, tomorrow you might be able to make your own homemade spaghetti sauce to avoid the GMO filled jars at the store, next year maybe you can buy a quarter cow from your local farmer. Whatever you can do today, do it. You won’t be able to do everything, ever. Focus on the good that you can do. Think about the positive changes that you are able to make. Learn, grow, teach, and enjoy the life that you have been given to the best of your ability.