A Definition of GMO: Genetically Modified Opportunity or Ordeal?
April 9, 2013
Dietetic Intern Chui T. Pereda discusses the use of genetic engineering in food and weighs in on the pros and cons of GMO products.
What are GMO foods?
Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) are foods whose DNA have been altered to display desirable characteristics. All foods that have undergone genetic engineering are designed to display one of three basic traits: resistance to insect damage, resistance to viral infections and tolerance towards certain herbicides. This technology is relatively new; the FDA approved the first GMO crop -- a tomato that ripens slowly after harvesting -- in 1994. Because this approach is novel, there are inadequate long-term studies to understand the long-term effects of GMO crops. This article will highlight what the advocates and critics are saying and – if you’re averse to consuming GMO products -- teach you how to avoid them.
What are the advocates saying about GMO?
After decades of testing and use, plant biotechnology promises to deliver a host of new products for the future. Some of the advantages include:
Potential Increase in Agricultural Productivity
- Increased nutrient-density: Certain vitamins may be inserted into crops to increase nutritional value. For example, a precursor to the vitamin A gene has been inserted into rice to produce golden rice, which could help reduce vitamin A deficiency.
- Resistance to environmental stress: Crops could be bred to resist extreme weather such as frost or extreme heat.
- Increased product yields: Genes may be inserted into cows to increase milk production.
Potential Environmental Benefits
- Reduced pesticide usage: Bacteria-resistant crops may reduce dependence on pesticides. Reduction in usage may improve the health of the farm and industrial workers.
- Longer shelf life: Fruits and vegetables genetically modified to ripen later are likely to stay fresh while in transit to your local supermarket.
What are some of the critics saying about GMO?
Although the FDA has approved the sale of GMO foods, some people believe there are long-term health and environmental risks. Here are some of the arguments:
- Disturbed ecosystem: Multiple studies have shown that GMO crops containing insecticide-like pollens lead to high mortality rates in monarch butterflies. Experts believe bees are currently affected as well.
- Reduced effectiveness of pesticides: Some insects, like the rootworm beetle, are now resistant to GMO crops. Farmers are once again relying on older, more toxic sprays to manage their fields.
- Gene transfer to non-target species: It is common for crops to crossbreed with nearby fields. Fields that were GMO-free may begin to express genetically modified genes of a neighboring field. Farmers who are found to produce modified crops face major lawsuits for “stealing” from the companies who make these seeds. These farmers, more often than not, have lost legal cases when an action has been brought.
Human Health Risks
- Increase in pesticide usage: Farmers saturate pesticide resistant crops with herbicides during the plant’s growth period. Current studies show pregnant women have high levels of these chemicals that have been banned since 1972.
- Correlation with serious illness: Since the release of genetically modified products there has been a rise in food allergies, type II diabetes and autism. Soy -- coincidentally the #1 GMO crop -- has been reported as the biggest dietary culprit leading to autism.
How to avoid GMO products
Currently, up to 85% of U.S. corns, 91% of soybeans and 88% of cotton are GMOs. An estimate of 75% of all processed foods -- soups, soda, candy, crackers etc. -- contain genetically altered ingredients. If you decide to avoid GMO foods, here are five helpful tips to follow:
- Choose 100% organic: In order for products to be labeled as organic, they cannot be genetically modified or have been fed with genetically modified feeds. However, organic can still contain up to 30% genetically modified sources.
- Look for trusted organic certification seals: Examples include QAI, Oregon Tilth, CCOF
Look for label numbers when shopping for fruits and vegetables:
- A 4-digit number means that the crop is conventionally produced
- A 5-digit number beginning with 8 means that the crop is a GM product.
- A 5-digit number beginning with 9 means that the crop is organic.
- Purchase 100% grass-fed beef: Most U.S. cows are grass-fed, but may be fed with GM corn during their final stage in life. Sometimes 100% grass-fed beef are also labeled “grass-finished” or “pasture-finished.”
- Plant your own crops! You know exactly what went into your garden, so you know what to expect.
What are your views on GMO? Opportunity or ordeal? Let us know in the comments section below.
20 questions on genetically modified foods. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/. Accessed April 5, 2013.
Weighing the GMO arguments. Food and Agriculture of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo7.htm. Published March 2013. Accessed April 5, 2013.
GMO risks. GMO Awareness. http://gmo-awareness.com/all-about-gmos/gmo-risks/. Accessed April 5, 2013.
Tips for avoiding GMOs. Center for Food Safety. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/non-gmo-shoppers-guide-325/1846/tips-for-avoiding-gmos. Accessed April 5, 2013.
How to avoid foods made with genetically modified organisms. Center for Food Safety. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/cfs-shoppers-guide1_94012.pdf. Accessed April 5, 2013.
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