Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Genetically Modified Issue

Many of you may be familiar with the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO's) that is getting a lot of press these days, but for those of you who may have heard about it and aren't sure what exactly this is all about, I thought it was a good topic for this blog to give an overview of what GMO's are and why there is so much controversy out there.  

GM-huh??!!  What the heck is it!?

A GMO may also be referred to as Genetically Modified (GM) or Genetically Engineered (GE).  They can be a plant or an animal (including viruses and bacteria).  GMO's are created using biotechnology to splice genes and combine the DNA of different organisms  These organisms would not be found in nature because of crossbreeding and can occur only through human manipulation. (source)

Why are GMO's created?

GMO's began to be created in the 1990's with the initial goal of improving "crop protection" from insects, viruses, and weeds.  For example, a gene which produces a bacterial toxin (which kills insects) can be incorporated into the plant's genetic material in order to reduce the need for spraying with insecticides.  (My question then becomes, what does this bacterial toxin do to my body if it can kill bugs??)  (source)

That technology sounds cool - why should I care or be concerned?

The biggest reason for concern (at least that  first caught my attention) is the risk to human health.  GMO's are not well regulated in the US - it is voluntarily self-regulated by the industry.  Apparently Europe does a little better of a job of regulating GMO's, but still it is insufficient.  In the US, a biotech company has to show that their GMO is "substantially equivalent" to it's non-GM alternative, but this term has not been legally nor scientifically defined.  So this means that a biotech industry can do a safety study - which isn't published or peer reviewed - and define for itself if their GMO is "substantially equivalent" and the FDA will approve it for human consumption.  Additionally, pro-GM lobbyists (who are well-funded by the biotech industry) have a lot of influence over the US's regulatory process, keeping it weak.  And biotech companies restrict access to independent researchers who want to complete non-biased third-party research, so the real truth of the safety of these GMO's is kept from the consumer. (source)  Studies have shown that the pesticide glyphosate (Roundup) is linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and DNA damage which can ultimately lead to cancer or birth defects. There is also evidence that GMO's can cause potentially life-threatening allergies and damage the gastro-intestinal system. (source)

The other big reason for concern is GMO's effects on the environment.  GM crops have increased the use of pesticides by 383 million pounds in the US after being in use for 13 years, and without an increased yield in crop production when compared to some non-GM crops.  Herbicide use has also been increased because GM crops caused reliance on one herbicide (glyphosate) which resulted in herbicide-resistant superweeds and the subsequent need to increase herbicide use - including herbicides linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive effects, endocrine system damage, and liver and kidney damage.  Crops which are toxic to insects are not specific to target unwanted pests, but also kill beneficial insect pest predators and soil organisms as well.  Diversity created through traditional cross-breeding is much more effective in creating crops with greater resistance to insects/weeds/disease and thereby result in higher yields. (source)

Additionally, GM crops contaminate non-GM crops because of pollen drift or seed mixing.  This has a big impact on farmers who do not want to grow GM-crops and because they risk being sued by biotech industries because GM crops are patented.  Farmers then have to purchase insurance to protect themselves, which is a financial burden (often these farms are smaller) - a burden which should be upon the shoulders of the biotech industry who creates these seeds in the first place.  (source)

What crops and animals are genetically modified?

Here are some of the most common GM crops (source):

  • Soy - in 2011, 94% of soy crops in the US were GM.  Watch out for anything made with soy (soy sauce, tofu, lecithin, and of course soy beans).
  • Cottonseed - in 2011, 90% of the US crops were GM.  This means products like margarine and salad dressings which use cottonseed oil could contain GMO's.
  • Corn - again, 88% of US crops were GM in 2011.  Remember not just corn itself can be GM, but products derived from corn like high fructose corn syrup and corn starch often contain GMO's.
  • Canola - 90% of US crops in 2010 were GM.  Canola oil and sprays with canola oil probably contain GMO's.
  • Papaya - 80% of papayas grown in the US in 2010 were GM.  
  • Sugar Beets - in 2009, 95% of US crops were GM.  Any conventional sugar or sugar products that do not specifically say "pure cane sugar" in the ingredients list can contain sugar made from sugar beets that were GM.
  • Aspartame is an artificial sweetener made from GMO's.  Anything containing aspartame, i.e. Equal or Nutrasweet, is made from GMO's.
  • Zucchini and yellow squash
  • Alfalfa - was first planted in 2011.  This means alfalfa sprouts that are put on sandwiches, and alfalfa that is fed to animals.
  • Animal products such as milk, meat, eggs, and honey - because of contamination in animal feed.
  • Salmon - most recently the company AquaBounty has sought FDA approval for a GM salmon.  This has had a lot of resistance and is a big deal because of potential harmful effects on the environment should any of these "frankenfish" get loose into the wild, who knows how it would effect the natural ecosystem!  You can read more about this issue here.

Some ingredients derived from GMO's (source):

  • Amino Acids
  • Ascorbic Acid
  • Sodium Ascorbate
  • Vitamin C
  • Citric Acid
  • Sodium Citrate
  • Ethanol
  • Flavorings ("natural" and "artificial")
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
  • Lactic Acid
  • Maltodextrins
  • Molasses
  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • Sucrose
  • Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
  • Xantham Gum
  • Vitamins (see this article I just found!)
  • Yeast Products

How can I avoid consuming GM food?

Read those labels!  Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label or buy USDA certified organic products.    The USDA doesn't require testing for GMO's, so accidental contamination can occur; the Non-GMO project requires that products sporting their label contain .9% or less GMO's.  Avoid the above high-risk ingredients and especially avoid processed foods.  Be careful in restaurants, as you have less control over the ingredients in your food.  And you can plant and grow your own organic seeds!  Have some fun in the dirt!  (source)

How can I make a difference in the regulatory process of GM foods in the US?

There are several organizations out there that provide information on GMO's and that also lobby for changes in our food system.  They often put out petitions that you can sign so that your voice can be heard.  Some that I follow or have found through my research for this post are:

You can like these organizations on facebook, which is a great way to stay in the loop with new petitions and news on the GMO issue.

What is going on around the USA and around the world regarding GMO's?

California had a bill - Prop 37 - to label GMO's on their ballot last fall that was defeated (by a fairly small margin and with rumors of election fraud).  Many companies spent millions of dollars speaking against this bill -  major biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta, as well as commercial food companies like Pepsi, Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg's, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods. (source)

While a federal bill is in the works, many states are working on passing their own GMO labeling laws.  This includes:  Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Massachussetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. (source)  More than 60 countries require the labeling of GMO's, including: European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Venezuela, Taiwan, Russia, India, Chile, and South Africa. (source)  

I find it interesting that in the US, we don't have the right to know what we are eating, and are falling behind all these countries which have had these laws in place for years.  If food needs to be labeled if it contains wheat or soy or dairy, it should be the same for GMO's.  I also find it interesting that the same companies that fought against Prop 37 in California often simply make their products which are sold there without GMO's, rather than labeling their products.  If they don't want to label it, why not??

Well...I hope that wasn't too much information, but that I could give you a better idea of what GMO's really are, why they are a concern, and how you can not only protect yourself from their harmful effects but also make a difference in legislation regarding the regulation of GMO's in our food system and our right to know what products contain them!  

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