A GMO Primer
December 21, 2015
The debate over whether it is responsible to allow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply has been going on for quite some time now. As with most controversial topics, the issues are not so black and white – leaving a lot of space for ambiguity and confusion. As culinary nutritionists, we are interested in the ins and outs of this often heated dialogue and have compiled arguments on both sides of the debate. While the GMO debate now spans both plants and animals (with the green light for GMO salmon), the discussion for this blog pertains mostly to GMO crops.
To begin, let us address the basic question: what are some reasons to genetically engineer crops in the first place? Many believe using GM technology is the only way we will be able to feed the growing population in 50-100 years. Within the crops that are currently GMO, there are three main goals:
- Some have been engineered to have a more desirable nutritional profile, such as the fatty acid profile of canola oil or vitamin A in Golden Rice.
- Another is to introduce pest resistance through a toxin, which could lead to less pesticide use. Note that this toxin should break down in our acidic stomachs and should therefore not be toxic to humans.
- A third goal is to introduce resistance to an herbicide, specifically Roundup or glyphosate.
- And finally, reasons that are less prevalent, but still exist, are to make foods aesthetically desirable (ex: Arctic apples that don’t brown) and making foods that are safer (ex: the Innate potato that contain less acrylamide).
The second question to ask is: how are GMOs even created?
- While different GMO’s might be developed slightly differently, the general process goes as follows: a trait of interest is identified. The gene for that trait is then isolated and inserted into the genome of the crop that is to be modified. The new modified crop is then grown and cultivated to hopefully thrive with the new desired trait. While this is a very elementary explanation for what actually goes into making a GM crop, you can read more about the different processes here.
- Complicating matters, there's quite a bit of debate over where traditional non-GM ends and GM begins. In some ways, genetic engineering of crops is actually an evolution of traditional selective breeding where horticulturists selected and crossed certain plant varieties to ultimately get a plant with the most desirable traits possible. In more modern history, scientists have used other methods to bring about mutations in genes such as irradiation. Compared to these methods, many plant scientists believe using genetic engineering is a far more precise method to achieve a superior product more quickly. A trial and error process that once took years can now be achieved in a fraction of the time due to advances in technology.
While we have so far painted a fairly pretty picture of the GMO story, there is a significantly controversial side to them that should be addressed:
- While creating GM crops that are pest resistant could mean less use of a variety of herbicides, it has led to an increase in the use of one specific herbicide: Roundup. As weeds grow tolerant with the application year after year, more Roundup needs to be applied. There is a significant amount of distrust that Roundup is as safe as initially thought, and just this year, the WHO declared that it “probably causes cancer.” More recent research shows that it isn’t the Roundup per se that causes cancer, but rather other chemicals that are used in the glyphosate-solution. In addition, there's concern rising about a relationship between the growing incidence of gluten intolerance (and allergies in general) and the increased use of Roundup (but remember a correlation doesn’t mean causation).
- While industry and some members of academic and scientific communities believe genetic modification methods are benign, there are a variety of methods used and others maintain that there has not been adequate testing to understand the potential outcomes of all these methods. In many countries, GM products are not allowed in the human food supply however in the US, companies that create GM foods go through a voluntary consultative process of providing evidence to the FDA and EPA that their product is not materially different than the non-GM variety and is safe in our food supply. However, it is worth restating that this process is voluntary.
- Many argue our understanding of the environmental impact of GMOs is incomplete. The proliferation of GM crops may be harmful to the environment as it reinforces the mono-cropping that is terrible for the environment, reduces the overall diversity of food on the planet and contaminates the genes of non-GM crops that have evolved more-naturally over time. The last point is particularly concerning because currently, the burden is on the farmer that does not want GM seeds growing in his field to keep them out, rather than on the GMO farmer who has no obligation to keep his seeds from spreading.
Say you wanted to avoid GM foods, how would you go about doing that?
- There is a good deal of confusion around the number and type of GM foods that are actually available on the market. While a large percent of conventional and processed foods do contain ingredients derived from GM products, this is due to the fact that the most common GM crops are soybeans, corn, cotton, canola and sugar beets. These crops are then turned into cooking oils and ingredients like corn starch, soy lecithin, high fructose corn syrup, granulated sugar, etc., which would be present in all sorts of processed ingredients and foods. And it's important to note that these crops are also used for animal feed and given to most conventionally-raised livestock.
- With the exception of papaya, a small number of varieties of summer squash, zucchini, sweet corn and a variety of potato and apple, most whole fruits and vegetables you would find in the grocery store are typically not GMO.
- As of now, there is no federal law requiring that GM foods be labeled as such. Currently, the federal government is debating whether to allow states to enforce individual GMO labeling laws, such as the one to go into effect in Vermont in 2016 (in this regulation, products from animals fed GM feed would not be considered GM). Not surprisingly, industry is very much opposed to a patchwork of regulation with some states requiring labeling and others not. Aside from the fact that it presents an added issue that the operation must adhere to, given the public’s concern, they’re also likely not eager to expose just how many products include ingredients derived from GM crops. It’s hard to argue against transparency and perhaps GMO labeling would discourage the overuse of GM crops, except when proven to actually benefit the environment or reduce malnutrition in the world.
- For now, if you want to avoid GM products, eat less processed food (since these have long ingredient lists often with ingredients derived from GM corn or soy) and look for certified organic or non-GMO certified products, especially if you want to avoid animals given GM feed.
While this is surely not comprehensive, we hope that it has provided some background and insight into the complexity of the GMO issue. Keep reading and stay informed as the debate continues!
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