Have you ever found yourself wondering, “What exactly is a GMO, anyway, and why should I care?”
Heated debates on whether or not GMO foods should be labeled are cropping up all over the country with several states working on legislative measures and propositions to require labeling. Whether or not these votes are happening in your state, you’re likely consuming more GMOs than you realize.
What is a GMO? G-M-O stands for genetically-modified organism. GMOs are created by scientists in a laboratory through genetical engineering (GE).
How does genetic engineering work? Scientists can alter the genes of yeast, bacteria, insects, plants, and animals in a laboratory. Genes are either added, removed, or mutated.
What is the purpose of GMOs? The whole point of genetic modification is to yield more desirable traits for industrial agriculture. For example, scientists may alter the genes of a corn plant so that it can withstand higher pesticide and herbicide use. Other reasons include resistance to pests, diseases, and the ability to tolerate extreme environmental conditions.
When did GM crops begin? Genetic engineering in crops first began in the 1980s with altering genes in tobacco resist herbicides. The first edible GM crop came to the American market in 1994 (approved by the FDA in 1992). It was a tomato called Flavr Savr, genetically modified to have a longer shelf life by altering the enzyme that cause the fruit to rot.
How does GM crop production differ from traditional agricultural methods? Genetic modification is a relatively new practice compared with the traditional breeding, which has been used by farmers for thousands of years. Traditional breeding works in many ways: 1) Farmers keep the seeds from the plants that had the most desirable traits (stalk strength, fruit yield, taste quality, etc.) to plant next year’s crops, 2) Farmers choose the strongest and healthiest animals to breed, and 3) Farmers can create a hybrid plant by crossing two plants using controlled pollination.
Why should I care about GMOs? There are several reasons the food consumer should care about GMOs. Here are a few:
1. GMOs exist in more foods than you think. Corn and soybeans are key ingredients in processed foods and 50-80% of them in the U.S. have been genetically modified. It is estimated that 75% of processed foods in American grocery stores contain GMOs. GM corn is the source of glucose syrup, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, lecithin, dextrose, lactic acid, maltose, MSG, carmel coloring, and xanthan gum – basically any of those ingredients on the back of the carton that you don’t know how to pronounce.
2. The long term effects of genetic modification in food sources is largely unknown and untested. In GM crops, the food is being changed at the molecular level. Even if the end product still looks the same (GM tomato versus organic), we need more information on the potential long term effects on humans and the environment. If GMOs cause tumors in rats, don’t you think more research ought to be pursued before human consumption?
3. When crops, are modified to withstand higher pesticide, fungicide, and/or herbicide use, nature adapts with different and stronger insects, bacteria, and invasive species. As a result, scientists must continually alter genes and innovate chemical formulas. This means the food consumer has a less natural product with more chemicals on it.
What are the most widely distributed GM foods? According to the Cornucopia Institute, the top ten GMO foods are soy, corn, canola oil, cotton (cotton seed oil), milk, sugar, aspartame, zucchini, yellow squash, and papaya.
How can I avoid GM foods?
1. Avoid processed foods and look for the GMO-free label (recently approved for meat and liquid egg products by the USDA)
2. Buy organic. GMO use is prohibited by USDA organic regulations. In order to be certified organic, farmers and processors can’t use GMOs in any part of their production process. This means the crops can’t come from GM seeds and the animals can’t have any GMOs in their diets.