Earlier this week, hubby and I attended a fundraising dinner in support of California Proposition 37, which would require Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be labeled in raw and processed foods sold to consumers in California. This dinner was hosted at GustOrganics, New York City’s first certified organic restaurant, by bloggers Food Babe and LivingMaxWell. I have to admit, I am generally not much of a political activist – I find the political system to be overwhelmingly frustrating and prefer to make my mark by talking to people and voting with my dollars (i.e., purchasing foods and products that are in line with what I believe in). That being said, I attended this dinner not only as an excuse to eat at this great restaurant again, but because I truly believe GMOs are an incredibly important issue. I was also excited to have the opportunity to support someone like Vani (a.k.a. Food Babe) who is brave enough to actually get into the political system to advocate for changes at the policy level.
After mentioning this dinner to a friend of mine who responded with “what are GMOs?”, I realized that the lack of mainstream media attention to GMOs means that there are probably a lot of people who don’t know much about them. 50 countries around the world, including all of Europe, Japan, India, and China, require GMO labeling. Nearly 50 countries, including the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and most recently, Russia, have restrictions or bans on GMO foods. But in the US, GMOs are not labeled, largely unregulated, and barely a blip on the radar for most people.
In addition to fundraising, one of the goals of the dinner was to raise awareness, so I thought I’d play my part by giving a bit of an overview here for those of you who would like to know more.
Genetic engineering (GE), or the development of GMOs, is a process which involves altering the genetic make-up of certain crops to achieve desirable outcomes. Years ago, when I first heard about genetic engineering in foods, I assumed that it was some form of accelerated breeding, allowing researchers to take the best traits in different varieties of a plant and combine them in a highly successful version without having to go through the tedious process of breeding over and over again. Is this what you imagine, too? As it turns out, this is not the case at all.
Genetic engineering involves inserting a gene from a different species into a plant to try to achieve a desirable characteristic. That means the new gene could come from another plant, animal, bacteria, or virus. If you think back to high school biology, you might recall that members of the same species can mate, members of similar species can mate but produce sterile offspring (e.g., horse + donkey = mule), and members of different species – like a plant and a virus! – cannot mate at all. Instead, GE scientists force these foreign genes in by injecting them using a “gene gun” or infecting the crop with bacteria and hoping to see the desirable trait appear in the new genetic code.
Despite the laboratory methods required to create these seeds, the GMO manufacturers claim that they are fundamentally equivalent to traditional seeds, and therefore bear no special risks. In fact, when GMOs were originally brought to market, the government accepted this claim, thereby making it so that GMOs require no labeling and no independent safety testing.
This is shocking, since it seems obvious to me that GMOs, which could never exist through natural methods and contain genes from foreign organisms that were never intended to be part of our food supply, are NOT fundamentally equivalent to traditional crops. And yet, the government has enabled a system where we can eat GMOs all day long and not even realize it.
There are only a handful of GMO crops in production, but some of them – corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets in particular – are used to create ingredients that are pervasive in our food supply and show up in some unexpected places. For example, from these crops we get corn/soybean/canola/vegetable oil, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, baking powder, soy lecithin, soy protein, sugar, aspartame, and equal, just to name a few. Additionally, GMOs can be found in the animal products we eat (e.g., eggs, dairy, and meat) from animals who were given GMO feed.
Ok, so GMOs aren’t natural and we eat them all the time. But is this necessarily a bad thing?
Indeed, the corporations who develop these GMO seeds make some lofty promises. Two of the most encouraging are that GMOs will increase crop yields (which would be a good thing for feeding the world) and will allow farmers to spray fewer pesticides (which would be good for our health and the environment).
Starting with the first promise, there is no evidence that GMO crops consistently improve yields or better help to feed the world.
As for reducing pesticide use, this is theoretically achieved in two ways. First, certain GMO crops are given a gene from a bacteria that is toxic to insects. The plants then produce the toxin directly, thereby either killing or discouraging insects from eating the crops without the need for additional pesticides. This is effective – farmers growing these crops do not have to spray for insects – but I’m not entirely sure how having the toxin produced directly by the plant (which we then eat) is a good thing, since unlike some pesticide sprays, this can’t be washed off at all, so we are guaranteed to be consuming the toxins in these plants.
The second method is through the development of crops that resist a specific herbicide, which allows farmers to use a spray that will kill all weeds but not the crop itself. The idea is that only a small amount of this powerful pesticide would be needed to protect crops. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is pretty sneaky, and instead of reducing pesticide use, these GMO crops have encouraged the evolution of “super-weeds” which are resistant to herbicides. This, in turn, has led to even heavier spraying, more than making up for the reduction achieved by the built-in insecticide gene.
As a result, while the GE industry has promised a reduction in pesticide use, in fact pesticide use has increased since GMO crops were introduced. Increased pesticide use negatively impacts the health of field workers, aquatic life in the waters that receive the farm run-off, and the humans who eat these chemical heavy crops.
Not only that, while research is still scarce, GMOs have been linked to increased allergies, liver problems, reproductive problems, increased cancer risk, and more. Additionally, GMO crops disrupt ecosystems and reduce biodiversity.
One more area for concern: once planted, GMO crops have the potential to contaminate neighboring farms through cross-pollination. This means that even non-GMO crops can have traces of these unnatural genes, threatening the livelihood of farmers who have promised their customers organic or conventionally grown food. This also opens the door to unintended environmental consequences and an inability to go back to strictly traditional crops should these products ever need to be pulled from the market.
So it seems that GMO crops are a huge risk, at best full of empty promises, and at the worst dangerous to all forms of life. If nothing else, these ingredients should be clearly labeled as different and vigorously studied in controlled experiments to determine safety BEFORE they are released into the environment and allowed to contaminate our food supply. In the mean time, I’m doing my best not to be a test subject by buying organic (since GMOs are not allowed in certified organic products) and avoiding processed foods as much as possible.
I hope I’ve convinced you that GMOs are something that we should all be aware of and treat with skepticism unless they can be proven to be safe, something that is seeming more and more unlikely with every study that comes out. There is so much more information out there on GMOs that I wasn’t able to cover here, so if you’re intrigued enough to do some more reading, here are some great resources on GMOs, their impact, and how to avoid them: