Many of you prepare your food with a lot of care. You put time in to make sure your food is nutritious and delicious. But lately, you may have seen news headlines questioning the safety of American staples like corn and potatoes, if they contain, or are themselves, GMOs, genetically modified organisms.
Welcome back to the conversation table, if you’ve read part I of this two-part series about GMOs, or welcome for the first time. In this piece, we’ll thoughtfully consider the pros and cons of GMOs, as well as how GMOs are—or are not—labeled in the U.S.
As a quick recap, “Genetically engineered (GE) food is produced from plants, animals, and microbes that have had their genetic code modified by the selective introduction of specific DNA segments through the use of gene splicing….Food produced through genetic engineering or containing genetically engineered ingredients are also frequently known as bioengineered or genetically modified (GM) foods.” If you need a quick reminder about what any GMO-related term mean, please refer back to Part I of this series, which contains a definition of GMOs and a selection of related terms.
Pro-GMO arguments (a selection)
• GM and non-GM food is essentially the same, and demonstrates progress in food technology.
• GM food has been in the U.S. for more than 15 years, and no documented adverse effects have been observed in humans. Rather than a major change in how we produce food, creating GMOs is simply technological progress, after centuries of breeding plants for specific traits.
• GM food is nutritionally equivalent—or superior—to non-GM foods.
• Equivalent example: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers GMO ingredients to be “generally regarded as safe,” and doesn’t require special labeling for foods containing GMO ingredients.
• Superior example: GM foods can include more vitamins and nutrients than normally found in basic foods. Golden Rice is “rice that has been genetically engineered to produce and accumulate β-carotene in the endosperm (the edible part of the grain).” This means that Golden Rice can help people meet their daily needs for Vitamin A, which helps prevent blindness. For those suffering from malnutrition, GM foods such as Golden Rice could provide the essential vitamins and minerals that people might not consume any other way.
• GM crops are more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.
• Crops can be genetically modified to resist pests. For example, Bt corn is designed to produce its own pesticide, the bacterial Bt toxin, which is poisonous to insect pests. This change to corn’s genetic code means that farmers can avoid or decrease the amount of pesticides and herbicides sprayed on crops to protect against insects. Many consumers are wary of too many pesticides, which can also increase the costs of cultivating a crop and damage the environment through chemical runoff or over-application.
• Crops can be genetically modified to resist pesticides and herbicides. Rather than selectively apply an herbicide to weeds (rather than over the entire field, which would also harm the desired crop), farmers can apply herbicides to an entire field, without fear of harming the desired crop. This is more efficient and cost-effective, as it decreases the total amount of pesticides used.
• Other benefits: improved productivity (modifying plants to produce more per plant), decreased time until maturation (when crops can be harvested), resistance to natural stresses like drought.
Anti-GMO arguments (a selection)
• GMOs come from a fundamentally different technology, which is a break from traditional or “natural” techniques of breeding.
• The Non-GMO Project states that “natural reproduction or breeding can only occur between closely related forms of life (cats with cats, not cats with dogs … this process would never happen in nature.”
• GMOs could cause severe allergic reactions if introducing a new gene into a plant creates a new allergen.
• For example, one scientific study found that “A GM soy variety modified with a gene from Brazil nuts was found to be capable of producing an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to Brazil nuts.” The threat here is that consumers might eat a food that they are not allergic to, but which contains a gene from a food they are allergic to, and experience a dangerous allergic reaction—which includes death.
• GM crops may grow to dominate their respective markets, creating an overdependence on fewer select breeds. This could be bad for seed diversity around the world.
• The companies that own the patents for GM seeds could also have a monopoly on the seed market, since fewer farmers might want to grow seed with a lower profit margin.
• Cross-contamination, when GM seeds escape into the fields of non-GM plants, be they weeds or crops, has already occurred in canola plants. For example, “after just 4-5 years of commercial growing,” a Canadian government study found that GM canola plants genetically modified to tolerate three different single types of herbicides had cross-pollinated, resulting in canola plants that were each resistant to three types of herbicides.
• Also: GMOs have not been around long enough to know their long-term consequences, and most animal feeding studies have been only been of short or medium duration, with biotechnology companies such as Monsanto practicing self-regulation.
If you are concerned about GMOs, and wish to avoid them, take a look at the Huffington Post’s article “Eco Etiquette: How Can I Avoid Genetically Modified Foods?” or for a quicker reference, “Tips for Avoiding Genetically Modified (GMO) Foods,” from SafePlace Protection for ways to avoid or reduce the amount of GMOs in your diet.
To label or not label
Currently, the GMOs in the U.S. fall under the jurisdiction of three federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture. However, the FDA’s “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties,” published in 1992, states that “Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety.”
Regulating GMOs using three governmental agencies might seem like a way to tightly regulate GMOs, similar to putting more security measures around a potentially dangerous drug. However, many critics argue that “too many hands in the pot” makes governmental oversight more likely to occur, and risks of GMOs to slip through the cracks. It’s also worth noting that only Canada and the U.S. make labeling GMOs optional, while the European Union requires that all GM food, including all processed food, must be labeled as such.
GMOs remain a current controversial topic. As previously noted, federal regulations do not currently require that products containing GMO ingredients be labeled as such—a policy that California tried, and failed, to change with Proposition 37 in the November 2012 election. Multiple states have formed the Coalition of States for Mandatory GMO Labeling, so GMOs are likely to remain in news headlines beyond the 2012 elections.
Conclusion: there isn’t one
“Ignorance is bliss” is a cliché for a very real reason: it’s true. GMOs are a confusing topic, and scientific studies that seem to contradict one another can seem like daily installments in an argument merry-go-round. Now that, you’ve read a brief background on GMOs, you’re one step closer to making your own decision about them. It’s not a one-time decision: every time you shop for groceries at the supermarket or farmers market, you can choose whether or not to consume GMOs—if you know what to look for. Remember that the issue is more complex than bullet points on a page, so make sure to visit a pro-GMO source like the “Issues and Answers” web page of Monsanto, a leading biotechnology company, as well as an anti-GMO source like the Non-GMO Project’s brochure, “GMO Myths and Truths.” Just make sure you recognize where the information you have is coming from, and what the biases might be.
As you continue a life of healthful eating and living, consider the following question: If we are what we eat, who are we becoming?
Did you miss Part I of Tasty or Toxic? Be sure to check it out!
References: Carl K. Winter and Lisa K. Gallegos, “Safety of Genetically Engineered Food.” Agricultural Biotechnology in California 8180, modified 2006.  Deborah B. Whitman, “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA Discovery Guides, April 2000.  “GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops,” Non-GMO Project.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  FDA Federal Register, “Statement of Policy – Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, May 29, 1992.  John Davison, “GM plants: Science, politics and EC regulations,” Plant Science, 178.2 (Feb. 2010).  “Issues and Answers,” Monsanto.  John Davison (2010)”GM plants: Science, politics and EC regulations,” Plant Science 178(2):94–98.