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Ingredients: GMOs 101

About a month ago, my husband and I had dinner with a high school friend and her husband, and we started talking about food. The conversation drifted to honey and possible causes for the collapse of honey bee colonies, like pesticides and genetically engineered crops. My friend asked, “So why exactly are genetically modified plants really so bad for us?” I had a few thoughts on it at the time, but her question prompted me to read up for a better understanding of what’s going on. Beth, here’s your answer.

This post is intentionally a very brief explanation of the problem. If you want more information, there are many websites like Non GMO ProjectGMO Awareness, and Food Babe. You can also grab a copy of Jeffrey Smith’s Seeds of Deception. It’s well written, exhaustively researched, and one of the many resources that I relied upon while writing this post.

What are GMOs?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Similarly, GE refers to something that has been genetically engineered. Genetic modification is talking about “an organism whose genetic structure has been altered by incorporating a gene that will express a desirable trait” (Impact of GMO).

Here’s what that alteration might actually look like in practice.

Let’s say you have some corn, but caterpillars keep eating it. Soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) contains a protein that is toxic to caterpillars. If we can insert Bt into the DNA of the corn, and we have Bt-Corn, which happily addresses the problem of hungry caterpillars by producing its own pesticide. Because Bt-corn makes its own pesticide, it is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide. Let’s think about that for a second. A food crop is registered as a pesticide. 

Crops like soy, canola, and sugar beets have been altered so that they will be resistant to the application of glyphosate, more commonly known as “Round Up.” When a field is treated with Round Up, the commodity crop alone survives the application of pesticide… until nature outsmarts us and becomes resistant to the Round Up, resulting in the use of more and more chemicals.

If you think you’re immune because you don’t eat much soy, sugar beets, or corn, think again. These crops are grown in unthinkably huge quantities, heavily processed, and their derivatives are in just about everything at the grocery store. Look at your labels for “corn syrup,” “vegetable oil,” “soy lecithin,” “fructose,” “maltodextrin,” “citric acid,” and “lactic acid,” just to name a few.

In other words, you’re probably already eating genetically modified material at every meal.

And this isn’t only about plants: GE animals are in our food supply, too. Cows can be treated with a modified growth hormone (rBGH). Animal feed is often made with GMO corn, soy, and canola. GE salmon that has been altered to grow at an astronomical rate has almost completed the FDA approval process and will be swimming to your plate this fall.

Are GMOs safe?
I think many of us operate under the assumption that if something wasn’t safe, it wouldn’t be in the grocery store. We trust our government to run tests and protect us from unsafe food. We are also bombarded by a steady onslaught of positive, happy advertisements by the companies who grow and process these crops, turn them into nutrient poor foods like high fructose corn syrup, and then convince us that foods like HFCS are good to eat. Who hasn’t seen that beautiful “Sugar is Sugar” commercial with a happy family playing near a cornfield?

source: foodslash.com

Due to marketing and the surplus of cheap, commodity crops, processed foods have become integrated into American life to such a degree that it’s difficult to imagine a Fourth of July without BBQ flavored chips, Easter without Cadbury eggs, or a birthday without a boxed funfetti cake mix and canned frosting. People who don’t eat these all-American foods must be tree-hugging hippie weirdos or militia-type separatists; GMOs and the processed foods they’re found in must be safe because they’re so deeply integrated in the American diet because, after all, our government approved them, right? So let’s look at the tests that the FDA has conducted to determine their safety.

And there, ladies and gentleman, lies the problem. There are no regulations about the safety of genetically modified food, and there haven’t been since GMOs were first introduced back in the early nineties because genetic modification isn’t treated as “an additive or a safety problem.”

The first GM food crop, the FlavrSavr Tomato, had three 28 day feeding studies run on it, and since those tests went so well – only some of the rats that ate the GM tomato got stomach lesions and died (none of the conventional tomato eating rats had problems) – the FDA said that any other GM crops would be good to go.

Not only were the foods approved, but policy “facilitat[ed] their availability as quickly as possible,” according to Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan. This, in effect, means that since there were no long-term tests conducted on the safety of these foods, we are the guinea pigs.

Why are GMOs potentially unsafe?
Allergies, Antibiotic Resistance, and Autism
There are strong arguments linking GMOs to the indisputable rise in allergies. A University of Ohio explanation of GMOs says that “the most obvious nutrition concern with genetically modified organisms is the risk of allergic reactions.”Other arguments link GMO consumption to antibiotic resistance and autism.

Gene Expression – the biggest problem
Genes from other organisms are literally shot into cells. We have absolutely no idea how their insertion might disrupt DNA and how the presence of foreign genetic material will change how DNA functions. We certainly don’t know how the new gene will interact with and be expressed by the DNA. To quote a great article at GMO Awareness, “modifying one segment of DNA does not have a single result; instead it can cause a spiraling effect of unintended consequences.”

Some consequences might be less devastating, like diminished nutritional value, while others could have much more serious implications for our health. In the absence of long-term testing, we can only guess at what those implications might be.

But, if you don’t believe me, let’s look at the track records of the companies who brought us these foods, companies like Monsanto. After all, they say these products are safe. And we should believe them, right? They also brought us innovative products like DDT, polystyrene, and Agent Orange. These are clearly people who know how a thing or two about safety and public health.

GMOs and the Environment
Loss of Biodiversity through Contamination
Sarcasm aside, though, once GMOs are sent out into the field, they can never be recalled. In Canada, GM canola has contaminated conventional canola to such a degree that it is basically impossible to grow non-GM canola. GM alfalfa is presenting a similar problem for organic farmers in the US. Just watch Food, Inc. for a glimpse into the lives of farmers whose livelihoods are being ruined because of the contamination from GM products.

The success of GM crops is predicated on the increased use of pesticide. As weeds become resistant to the application of the primary pesticide, secondary pesticides must be used to kill these super weeds.

Butterfly & Bee Decline
Bt-Corn, supposedly modified to kill only caterpillars, has been linked to the death of some Monarch butterflies, and the widespread use of GM crops and associated pesticides has led to a diminishment of milkweed, a plant that is vital to the Monarch. Apiarists worldwide have blamed the disappearance of honeybees or “colony collapse disorder” on increased pesticide use and the production of plants that are engineered to create their own pesticides.

If we want to preserve our health, our environment, as well as beautiful heirloom produce and the insects that pollinate them, we need make our voices heard – and we have the chance to do that three times a day. Here are some ways to reduce your GMO consumption:

  • Reduce your consumption of processed foods.
  • When you do buy processed, look for brands that have a no-GMO stance (like Annie’s Homegrown and Amy’s) or have the Non GMO Project Verified sticker.
  • Write to your favorite companies to tell them that you aren’t buying their products until they find non-GM sources. The fact that rBGH in milk is no longer widespread is entirely due to consumer demand – we can make a difference. 
  • Buy organic and/or locally grown produce. 
  • Slowly replace your pantry with non-GM ingredients. Here’s a great cheat sheet on brands and stores that are GMO free or carry non-GMO options.

Happy and safe eating!

Want to learn more?
Here’s the difference between conventional and organic produce and what GMOs have to do with it.
What is a GMO?  – a quick read from Non GMO Project
GMOs Defined & GMO Risks, both great articles that go into much more detail that I did here.



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