What you need to know about GMO foods

There has been a lot of talk about GMO (genetically modified organism) crops and foods over the past several years. On one hand, those who are fiercely opposed to growing and consuming these foods say GMOs endanger human health and the environment. Biotech companies, on the other hand, continue to make the argument for GMOs because they increase crop yields and thus produce more food to feed the growing population.

These types of crops are heavily regulated throughout the world, yet the United States continues to increase GMO production. At the state level, there are big debates over labeling laws. Consumer organizations are fighting for foods to be labeled to increase awareness of GMO ingredients in food. Large biotech companies are fighting this tooth and nail.

How can we navigate all of this complex information? What choices should we make? Below I address the issue predominantly from my primary perspective, health, and offer more resources to consult in order to make an informed decision.

What are GMO foods?

GMOs are created in a laboratory by taking genes from one species or organism and inserting them into another to obtain or enhance certain characteristics. Historically, hybridization or breeding has been done within a plant or animal family (plum with apricot, or pig with pig).

When something is genetically engineered or modified, an animal gene may be spliced with a plant gene, something that would never occur in nature.​ As a part of the genetic engineering process, a plant virus is combined with the gene to act as a promoter, something like turning on a switch. It activates the gene and keeps it “on” constantly to increase the effect of this added gene.

Finally, in testing for viability of the GMOs, antibiotic-resistant marker genes are used to saturate the GMOs with antibiotics to see which survive. Survival indicates that the organism has taken on the new DNA.

What traits have been added to GMO crops?

Currently, the primary traits that have been added to GMO crops are herbicide tolerance and the ability of the plant to produce its own pesticide. What this translates to is more toxicity. The plant won’t die when the farmer sprays more herbicide on it, and the plant itself is toxic to insects and anything that eats it.

How can GMOs affect health?

  • Toxicity
    As previously mentioned, there are higher herbicide residues (primarily Glyphosate, a.k.a. Round Up) on GMO food crops. This leads to increased toxicity in the human body, which can manifest in many ways, including liver damage, reproductive problems, birth defects and cancer
  • Increased allergies
    In the UK, a 1999 study showed a 50% increase in soy allergies one year after genetically modified soy was introduced by U.S. imports. That is a scary statistic!  The theory is that new genes produce an unrecognizable protein that causes a potential allergy. Furthermore, tests show that some people react to genetically modified soy and not to wild, natural soy. Allergies can also be triggered by the increased toxicity of the GMO foods.
  • Potential antibiotic resistance
    A recent study in New Zealand showed a correlation between glyphosate and antibiotic resistance. Despite the fact that the concentrations of glyphosate studied were above the currently approved residue levels on food, this link warns of potential danger.

Which foods to be concerned about

The primary genetically modified crops in the U.S. include soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, corn, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and yellow squash. Despite the fact that this list is relatively short, you must think about all the products derived from these crops, such as soy protein, soy lecithin cornstarch, corn syrup, canola oil, and so much more. Don’t forget about meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals fed with genetically modified feed. Now we have quite a long list!

If you wish to avoid GMO foods, avoid all processed foods unless specifically labeled “Non-GMO” or “Organic.” You can also consult the following shopping guides:

The Non-GMO Shopping Guide

The Wedge Coop Non-GMO Shopping Guide

Where do we go from here?

A big part of the concern regarding GMO foods is that we are venturing into the unknown. Nobody knows what potential problems could occur from tinkering with our food supply in this way. More research must be done before dumping more and more genetically modified foods into our grocery stores. It’s noteworthy that at the end of April the restaurant chain Chipotle made a big splash with its announcement that they would no longer use GMO ingredients, citing the need for more research and to give them a marketing edge.

Our health is of utmost importance, and we should make it our first priority. The environmental impact of biotech farming will also affect our health eventually…not to mention the health of the planet.

Online resources for research and information about GMO foods:

Food Democracy Now

Center for Food Safety

Grist: Series on GMOs

Institute for Responsible Technology