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What’s All The Buzz About GMO Food?

04/01/2013 17:37 ● Published by Brian O

Health and nutrition are all the rage these days, with “food” in particular getting quite a lot of attention.Have you ever heard the acronym “GMO” and wondered – what is GMO, and what’s all the fuss about? Well, first it might be helpful to explain what those letters represent.They stand for “Genetically Modified Organism”… which, in reference to the “food” we eat, sounds a little scary!And it definitely raises the question, why would anyone want to get into the DNA of a plant and actually change it?

What Does GMO Mean?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this topic – with both questions and answers still a long ways from being easily understood.Some suggest answers point to scientists hoping to boost available nutrition in crops, while others say seed production companies are trying to make plants hardier, more resistant to insects, fungi, predators, etc. and at the same time, yield bigger crops. In the case of “genetically modified salmon”, the rationale was to keep the fish growing longer to produce a bigger fish. Those all sound good on paper, right?

While this is a very technical, controversial, and involved process, we’ll try and explain it in its simplest terms.When you hear that a plant has been genetically modified, it means it has been engineered in a laboratory. Meaning, the actual genetic makeup of the plant has been altered (and tested) for specific desired qualities. Splicing or splitting one or more genes into a plant using genetic engineering techniques accomplishes this. Once the genetically modified plants produce seeds, the seeds are gathered, and the companies producing them apply to field-test those seeds. If field tests are successful, production companies like Monsanto, for example, seek further regulatory approval for the crop to be mass-produced and sold. If approval is obtained, the next step is to sell the genetically modified seeds to farmers. Like any other product, the seeds are marketed as being superior in some fashion – usually higher yields, requiring less chemicals, or touting some other desirable (usually monetary) benefit.Finally, farmers grow and harvest the crops from the GM seeds.The crop is considered to be “genetically engineered” because the plants contain the inserted gene.

Around the World

Farmers can only sell their crops in countries where the sale of GMOs are permitted.

In the United States, where GMO crops and foods CAN be sold and consumed, there are currently only a handful of counties with bans on GMOs. Some countries embrace GMO technology, including the United States, China, the Philippines, South Africa and Canada. Countries banning GMO products include Japan, New Zealand, several European Union countries - Ireland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and France, to name a few.An experiment in India lead to large scale bankruptcies and even suicides when cotton farmers failed to realized that the GMO “magic seeds” required double the amount of water.They also did not know seeds could not be saved for the following year, and experienced crop destruction from bollworms – despite assurances from Monsanto that crops would be resistant. These seeds cost Indian farmers up to 1,000 times regular cotton seeds.

 In the United States most of the corn and soy we consume is genetically modified – upwards of 90% by some estimates. Looking at labels, it’s hard to know if a food contains genetically modified ingredients. However, reading ingredients will quickly show you that almost everything that comes in “a package” contains corn or soy as an ingredient - therefore, if 90% of these two crops have been genetically engineered, it’s a good bet they are in almost all packaged foods we eat.

A Recent Invention

Genetic modification has a short and interesting history. It was less than 50 years ago that scientists first discovered DNA could be transferred between different organisms. What was the first genetically modified plant? Tobacco, in 1983. Next (in 1994) the Flavr Savr™ tomato got FDA approval. This tomato was modified to delay ripening after picking. The early 1990s brought about a GMO product to replace rennet in cheese making.Next, the US approved transgenic crops (GMO) for marketing to the public and manufacturing – to include canola, corn/maize, potatoes, soybeans, virus-resistant squash, and more delayed ripening tomatoes.

Later, in the year 2000, a new type of rice was created called golden rice.Scientists in Switzerland for the first time genetically modified a food to increase nutrient value; in this case Vitamin A. This was done out of a humanitarian concern for children in countries where Vitamin A is lacking substantially in the food supplies.Lack of Vitamin A can cause blindness, hamper ability to fight infection, and hasten death, especially in children. Vitamin A deficiency is thought to affect over 30% of children under the age of 5 around the world.At least in that scenario, the rationale appears logical and seemingly offers benefits worth consideration.

One of the most prevalent genetically modified foods consumed today is canola oil.Canola was not originally created in a lab, but instead developed using traditional plant breeding in an effort to reduce poisonous erucic acid and glucosinolates naturally found in rape seed – the seed that produces the oil.Canola is a made up word combining Canada and oil; Canada being where it was developed and patented.Despite it being traditionally bred, now 80% of all canola produced in Canada is genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. The specific genetic modification is to a protein in one of the plant’s genes and the Canola Council of Canada states that, even though the plant has been modified, the oil pressed from the seeds is safe and healthy because the oil does not contain protein. A controversial practice is canola meal is fed to livestock after the oil is extracted.

Long Term Impact

The main controversy over GM food is this: the scientists studying the effects on humans, animals, and the environment say there is little to no risk, and sufficient regulation to assure no problems will exist in the future. Those opposed, including Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and others state there has not been sufficient testing and these unnaturally produced foods have not been around long enough to know their long term impact on children, adults, animals and the environment.

 The environmental aspect is quite interesting.The seeds of GM crops are not supposed to mutate, drift into other fields, or in any way impact the environment. However, there are farmers, particularly those who grow certified organic crops, who dispute these claims.Another recent announcement from natural food giant Whole Foods™ insists that all foods containing GMO ingredients sold in their stores will be labeled as such by 2018. The U.S. government has been pressured by the companies producing GMO seeds to not label their crops, because they believe such labeling implies the food is somehow different or unsafe.

The Right to Know

There is quite a controversy brewing about the public’s right to know and manufacturers’ rights of constitutionally protected commercial speech. Right now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling of genetically modified foods because these foods are not considered (by the FDA) to be any different than their regular counterparts. This has been challenged, and upheld, in U.S. courts.One well-known case was in Vermont where a federal appeals court blocked Vermont law requiring dairy farmers to label milk from cows treated with rBGH, a growth hormone from genetically engineered bacteria. The hormone causes cows to produce more milk. But, the FDA determined the milk itself was not “materially different” from milk produced from untreated cows, so the law was declared unconstitutional, according to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2:1 decision.

While it may be unconstitutional to require labeling milk from cows given rBGH, it has been shown that these same cows suffer from an increase in the risk of clinical mastitis, a reduction in fertility and increased risk of developing lameness. The practice of using rBGH has been banned in Canada since 1999 and the European Union stated it should not be used due to the substantial increase in health problems with cows.

Get Informed, Make Choices

So how do you know if you and your family are eating foods containing GMOs? The short answer is, you don’t.However, if you eat processed foods, most of them contain flour, oil, sugar, syrups, emulsifiers, cornmeal and protein; you can safely assume most of these are now derived from GMO crops. If you want to avoid GMOs, make more of your family’s meals from scratch, using organic ingredients and least of all processed foods.Like everything else we do as consumers, the food we eat is a choice.Education is your best ally and will go a long ways in providing you and you’re your family the information you desire to guide you through those choices.There is still so much to learn and understand around this topic.This article is intended to provide a good foundation from which you can make informed decisions and explore further to your own level of comfort.Best of luck!

Sandi Thompson is a nutritional therapy practitioner, NTP in Eugene. She works with organizations, women and families to improve their understanding of how healthy eating can lead to successful weight management.

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