Understanding Genetically Modified Foods

Farmers have been cross-breeding plants for 100’s of years, but what happens when scientists get involved? Here’s an introduction to genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and some insight into why they’re so controversial.

Farmers have been cross-breeding plants for hundreds of years, but what happens when scientists get involved? You hear news here and there about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but I decided to look more into the controversy.

What are GMOs?

Simply put, they are any plant, animal, bacteria or virus that contains genetic material that has been manipulated through engineering. Seeds for GMO -- or “biotech” -- crops are developed in laboratories to create plants that have the most desirable characteristics. It might be better insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Basically, particular good genes are extracted from plants (and sometimes animals) and transferred to other plants so they can grow bigger, more quickly and in larger quantities.

Where are GMOs found?

Growing GMO “super plants” has become common practice for large food manufacturers in the U.S. In 2007, our country accounted for half of the world’s acreage of biotech crops. The main biotech crops include canola, corn, soybeans and cotton. Seventy-five percent of the corn grown in 2007 was genetically modified; this was up from 40% in 2003. Biotech crops are not only used for human consumption, but used to for livestock feed and biofuel production. It wasn’t until recently that some Asian countries agreed to purchase GMO crops from the United States and opposition is still strong (though dwindling) in Europe. Many South American countries are growing and exporting these crops as well.

Can you avoid them?

GMO foods typically aren't labeled. Watchdog groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been pushing for mandatory labeling laws for GMO foods -- to help people make their own choice when food shopping. Currently, companies may label their foods GMO if they choose to (so most of them don’t). Many companies that sell foods that are “GMO-free” do include that on their labels. Organic foods aren't allowed to contain GMO ingredients, but looks like some may be accidentally contaminated (more on this below). Most local farmers also shy away from growing GMO crops -- ask your growers at the farmers' market to know for sure. And remember, GMO foods often are used to make other foods – so even if you don’t eat an ear of GMO corn, you may be eating corn starch, corn syrup or corn meal made from it.

Is there anything wrong with GMOs?

The major concerns surrounding GMO foods include possible mutations, allergens and the environmental impact. Since the GMO industry is relatively new, there's no clear evidence that long-term consumption of GMO foods affects humans or animals in any specific way.

These foods are genetically manipulated, and it’s very possible that Mother Nature may find a way to adapt and combat the changes made in the laboratory. The risk here is that plants might evolve to be resistant to current farming methods or even mutate to produce natural toxins (which has begun to happen already).

Another concern is possible food allergies. In some cases, genes come from nuts, fish and other animals and are transferred to plants. If someone has an allergy to nuts, for instance, they may risk an adverse reaction to something genetically modified. Also vegetarians may be ethically opposed to eating a crop containing genes from an animal.

Finally, there's the possible affects on our ecosystem. Animal species can’t digest certain GMO plants properly or may become sick from some of the toxins they produce. It's difficult to keep GMO pollen and seeds from spreading. Some GMO farms are contaminating nearby non-GMO and organic farming operations.

Bottom Line: There is a lot of political, economical and ecological debate surrounding biotech farming -- and different sides to the story. Right now, it's hard to track and control whether you eat GMO crops. But if you're worried, monitor the source of your foods as much as you can and stick to local, more organic foods when possible.

Want to know more? This New York Times article (from last year) has some interesting info on how the global economy is affected by the biotech industry.

TELL US: What do you think of the GMO debate?
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