It’s what consumers don’t know that should worry them about genetically modified organisms.
If Carole Onderdonk has her way, Colorado will vote “yes” in 2014 to require any food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label that says so. As Eagle County’s coordinator for GMO Free Colorado, Onderdonk believes consumers have the right to know when it comes to GMOs.
“I don’t want myself or my family eating something that has not been tested on humans by a reputable science group for long-term effects. I don’t want GMOs going into my body,” Onderdonk says. She is currently collecting signatures to get the labeling question on the 2014 state ballot. “And I want other people to know about it, which is how I got involved.”
Genetically modified organisms — also called genetically engineered foods or trans-genetic hybrids — are organisms that have been created through application of transgenic, gene-splicing techniques. It’s a biotechnology that allows DNA, genetic material, from one species (animal, fungi, bacteria, even viral) to be transferred into another species producing a variety of desired traits. For example, genes from salmon can be spliced into tomatoes to make them more resistant to cold weather, helping farmers still reap a crop when the weather is not cooperating.
In the United States, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn is genetically altered, and much of it ends up unlabeled in the processed foods we eat, especially cereals. In addition to soy and corn, the most common GMOs are cotton, canola, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa and squash (zucchini and yellow). And like corn and soy, many of these items sneak into our food unannounced as added ingredients in the processed foods we eat.
A Gut Feeling
Commercial sale of genetically modified foods began in 1994, but it’s fairly recently that the topic has become hotly debated. Consumers, like Onderdonk, are concerned about GMOs’ long-term effects on the health of people and the environment.
What’s interesting is most of the opposition is based on the possibility that GMOs may cause problems with human and environmental health, rather than proof that they actually do. It’s a gut feeling. There’s been very little testing, and only one human feeding study, according to the Non-GMO Project. For the opposition — until more long-term testing is complete — it’s better safe than sorry when it comes to GMOs, which is why many food activists are fighting hard for GMO labeling, a basic transparency.
In the 2012 November election, labeling took the spotlight as Californians tried to pass a law (Proposition 37) to require a label for genetically engineered foods. But the agro-chemical giants, including Monsanto and DuPont, two of the largest producers of GMO seeds, outspent the “Yes on 37” campaign five-to-one. The biotech industry claimed that the act of labeling GMOs created a warning about GMOs that isn’t justified. Voters rejected the measure 53.1 to 46.9 percent.
The U.S. and Canada are two of the only developed nations in the world without GMO labeling. Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, along with all of the countries in the European Union, already have mandatory GMO labeling laws in effect, according to the Non-GMO Project.
But consumers continue to fight for labeling, and bills to require the labeling of GMO foods were introduced to the legislatures in 28 states in 2013. Colorado consumers may get the opportunity to vote on it in 2014.
Is Nothing New, Is It?
Ever since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have taken the seeds from plants with the best flavor, texture, high yield, disease resistant and used them to plant the following year, Todd Rymer says, head of culinary arts at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) in Edwards.
“As a result, we have genetically ‘modified’ crops by selecting desirable natural randomly occurring mutations over the millennium to better meet our needs. Heirloom seeds have been modified in this way to create different cultivars,” Rymer says, who teaches both the pros and cons of GMOs in his Food Politics course, part of CMC’s Sustainable Cuisine program.
Proponents of GMOs argue that modifying the genes of plants for agricultural benefit is nothing new, but creating a hybrid plant and genetically engineering seeds is not apples to apples. The difference — and what has people concerned — is scientists pick the specific trait they want — whether it’s from a plant or a foreign gene from an animal or bacteria — and insert it directly into the plant rather than simply waiting for a natural mutation to occur. This is the first time in agricultural history that we are inserting non-plant genes into a plant, and what the effect it will have on the environment and preserving our natural biodiversity is one of the opposition’s concerns.
These concerns are heightened especially when it comes to GE fish, as it happens, plants are not alone in the laboratory. Scientists are currently genetically engineering 35 species of fish including trout, catfish, tilapia, striped bass, flounder and many species of salmon, according to Center for Food Safety. Using genes from a variety of organisms, including other fish, coral, mice, bacteria and even humans, these fish are being engineered for traits that allegedly will make them better suited for industrial aquaculture, such as faster growth, disease resistance, larger muscles, and temperature tolerance. Consumers have yet to see any of these fish on the market. Currently, there’s only one GE fish seeking approval for human consumption from the FDA — AquAdvantage Salmon, produced by Aqua Bounty Technologies. Still, opponents are concerned with what might happen when the GE fish escape into the wild. What sort of risks does these mutated fish pose on our wild populations?
The Pros of GMOs
Ask the top three producers of genetically modified seeds — Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta — why farmers should buy their products, and you’ll likely hear about two main advantages: increased crop yields to feed a growing world, and weed, pest and disease resistance.
One of the most notorious GMO products is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop. Roundup Ready crop are seeds genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which Monsanto also happens to produce, meaning double profits. How it works is farmers plant the Roundup Ready seeds and spray Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields without killing the cash crop. At first take, sounds like a pretty smart agricultural advance. But a study from France’s University of Caen shows Roundup has a toxic effect on human cells even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns. The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.
In addition to crop yield and pest resistance, the science of GMO crops promises even more fancy results.
“Now we can also breed in pesticide production, drought and flood resistance, increased vitamin production and tolerance to herbicides,” Rymer says.
A genetically modified variety of rice, called golden rice, is being developed in the Philippines to include beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A. Backers are lauding it as a way to alleviate nutrient deficiency for the populations in developing countries, but it’s yet to be approved for commercial sale.
A good book on the subject, Rymer says, is Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela Ronald, a GMO creator, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, an Organic Farmer, who both teach at UC Davis. To summarize the pros from the book, Rymer says, “genetic engineering will help create a new generation of plants that will dramatically reduce our dependence on pesticides, enhance the health of our agricultural systems, and increase the nutritional content of food leading us to a more ecological way of farming.”
Though for every pro mentioned above, there are opponents with facts that say the exact opposite, making the GMO debate even more murky.
Just Say No
to GMOs But Why?
Caroline Kinsman, communications manager for the Non-GMO Project, says the truth about GMOs is simple: GMOs show no improvements of any kind. Instead, she says, they tax the environment because of the increased and necessary pesticide use, and there are too many uncertainties of their effect on human health, especially long-term effects, which is a massive unknown due to the relatively young existence of GMOs. Some initial studies have shown GMOs to carry new toxins and new allergens.
The Non-GMO Project builds a non-GMO food supply, in part, by verifying and labeling products that meet its rigorous Standard. The Standard entails elements of traceability, segregation and testing at critical control points in the lifecycle of products. Many consumers may recognize the project’s butterfly label on many of their favorite natural foods.
“Americans have the right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding to our families — we deserve an informed choice. Labeling genetically engineered ingredients provides consumers a choice. Informed choice is a fundamental right,” Kinsman says.
Consumers take concern on GMOs is twofold, she says. First, there is a lack of sufficient research completed about genetic engineering for human consumption. Second, this new generation of GMO plants is requiring higher and higher doses of pesticides as insects and pests become resistant to genetic modifications in plants. This instead leads to increased — not reduced — dependence on pesticides and at higher doses.
“The Food and Drug Administration does not require safety assessments of GMO foods,” Kinsman says, “and does not review all GMO products hitting the market. FDA guidelines are entirely voluntary and the patent holders themselves determine whether their products warrant analytical or toxicological tests.”
So until mandatory labeling hits the U.S., Kinsman recommends knowing which crops pose the highest risks (For a simple, printable list of companies that use Monsanto products, visit www.realfarmacy.com/printable-list-of-monsanto-owned-food-producers).
The absolute best way for consumers to avoid GMOs is to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal,” Kinsman says. “There are currently more than 11,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products, and that number grows every day. The Non-GMO Project Verification seal saw an 18-percent growth in 2012 — the fastest growing label in the natural foods market.”
Kinsman says consumers are voting with their dollar and it’s rapidly changing the marketplace. But as they dive into which foods contain GMOs, it can overwhelm — because there are a lot. Start simply, she suggests to consumers who want to live a non-GMO lifestyle. Take a step-by-step approach, and begin very logically. Begin, she says, with breakfast.