Despite protests from consumers, the United States and Canada began experimenting with genetically modified crops about 20 years ago. Europe rejected this new technology and yet it has “achieved increases in yield and decreases in pesticide use on a par with, or even better than the United States,” according to a New York Times analysis of United Nations data. In addition, a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, showed little evidence of improved yields from genetically modified crops.
WHAT ARE GMOs?
Since humans first began domestication of plants and animals nearly 15,000 years ago, we have been using selective breeding and grafting to modify their traits so they will be more valuable to us. Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, details how certain plants, such as tulips and apples, evolved to be what they are today through this hybridization.
It wasn’t until 1973 that we actually had the technology to transfer genetic material (DNA) directly from one organism to another. The DNA that results from such a transfer is called recombinant DNA and the organism is transgenic. This technology, genetic engineering, has been commercialized since 1976.
Genetic engineering is used in:
- medical and biological research (genetically engineered research rats, for example)
- pharmaceutical drugs (some vaccines, for example, contain recombinant DNA)
- experimental medicine (gene therapy is one example)
Examples in agriculture include Golden Rice, (engineered to be rich in beta-carotene), and the resistance to herbicides. Herbicide resistant soya, for example, contains a gene that was genetically engineered from a plant virus, a soil bacterium, and a petunia plant.
CONCERNS ABOUT GMO
According to the Center for Food Safety
“Currently, up to 93% of U.S. corn is genetically engineered (GE), as are 94% of soybeans and 96% of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). It has been estimated that upwards of 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves – from soda to soup, crackers to condiments – contain genetically engineered ingredients.”
Genetically modified food has not been around long enough to study it in the detail needed to make definitive statements, but animal studies have raised serous concerns. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition says that,
“The results of most studies of GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters….The use of recombinant GH or its expression in animals should be re-examined since it has been shown that it increases IGF-1 which may promote cancer.”
In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) called for a moratorium on GM food and the implementation of long term safety testing. Citing several animal studies, the AAEM concludes
“there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health.”
We really don’t know if GM food is safe to consume because neither the FDA, the USDA, or the EPA have conducted any long-term human health or environmental impact studies of it. There is also no mandatory regulation or agency oversight of GM food in the US. Unexpected health risks posed by GM food may include:
- allergic reactions
- antibiotic resistance (antibiotic marker systems are engineered into food)
- immuno-supression (bacterial and viral vectors are engineered into food)
- cancer (Roundup Ready seeds have been bred to resist a carcinogenic herbicide)
- loss of nutrition (As early as 1998, African scientists estimated that gene technologies could undermine their nations’ capacities to feed themselves by destroying established plant diversity and sustainable agricultural practices.)
In addition to possible health hazards for humans, genetically engineered seeds contaminate conventional crops, often causing seed or product recalls, and other problems for farmers and consumers. For example, in 2014 US corn growers lost from $1 to 3 billion in revenue after China rejected nearly 1.5 million metric tons of US corn due to contamination with a GE variety. In addition, GM crops have led to a rise in monoculture crop production, which is not sustainable and herbicides used on GE crops have been implicated in the decline of the Monarch butterfly.
LABELING OF GMO FOOD
Consumers want GMO labeling. A 2013 New York Times poll showed that 93% of respondents want genetically modified or engineered ingredients labeled in food. And these numbers parrot the results of polls going back as far as 2001. However, the US lags behind the rest of the world in requiring labeling of genetically engineered ingredients. Sixty-four countries, including member nations of the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, Turkey and South Africa require standards of mandatory GE food labeling, and none have reported higher food costs as a result. [See label below from a product manufactured in The Netherlands].
Despite the fact that laws in California, Oregon, and Washington were recently defeated, more than 30 states introduced legislation to require GE labeling in 2013 and 2014 and laws recently passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. And, two Oregon counties—Jackson and Josephine—passed countywide bans on growing GMOs.
In the absence of manufacturer labeling of genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) in US products, it has been left to the private sector to label products that do not contain any GMOs at all.
HOW TO FIND GMO FREE FOOD
Shop at your local farmer’s market or at farm stands in your area. Shop at food coops and natural grocery stories. According to the US Department of Agriculture, no matter where a product was grown—if it has the USDA Organic seal on the label—it was not produced with GMOs. So look for the USDA Organic label or ask a farmer. Some farmers are certified organic by the USDA; others can’t afford the certification, but farm organically or pesticide free nonetheless. Here’s the USDA label:
Because the public is so concerned about GMOs, some companies seek verification from the Non-GMO Project. Here’s that label:
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She founded Mothering.com in 1995 and was its editor-in chief until 2012. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place. Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of three.