A GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, is a living organism that has undergone a laboratory process of manipulating its genes to produce specific traits. Also called genetic engineering (GE), this process involves extracting DNA from one organism and splicing it into the gene of an unrelated plant or animal. These foreign genes may come from plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, and even humans. There are different reasons biotechnology is using GMOs, ranging from agricultural use to scientific research. In agriculture, the two most common types of GM traits are herbicide resistance and the ability of a plant to produce its own herbicide.
Herbicide resistance. These crops are called Roundup Ready crops, as they are engineered to be resistant to Roundup, which is the Monsanto brand of the herbicide glyphosate. This resistance to Roundup allows farmers to spray these crops much more heavily without damaging the crop.
Bt, or bacillus thuringiensis, is a bacteria that produces a protein toxic to insects. It kills them by dissolving the insect's gut lining. Crops are being inserted with this Bt gene so that they produce this protein themselves, making it unnecessary for the farmer to use pesticides.
What foods are genetically modified? A lot more than most people think. The Institute for Responsible Technology reports that “Currently commercialized GM crops in the U.S., include soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%)...”
Why The Concern?
While no studies have been published to prove GMOs are harmful, there have been numerous studies that have pointed to a valid concern in using these products. Here's some studies I found on gmoinside.org.
The risk to human health. More and more studies on GMOs and their effect on human health are seeming to show that eating GMOs may lead to or worsen food allergies, irritable bowels, organ damage, and more.
With most of our soybean and corn crops being engineered “Roundup Ready,” many are concerned about the much higher concentrations of this herbicide being dumped on our food. Monsanto has claimed Roundup to be safe, but various studies done in several different countries linked Roundup exposure to DNA damage, organ abnormalities, etc.
Does the pesticide Bt gene in crops have a similar effect on human G.I. tracts as it does with bugs? Researchers aren't sure, but are recommending that consumers exercise precaution.
Also, since GMO foods have new substances engineered into them, they may pose a risk for food allergies that would not have occurred before.
The risk to the environment. With more and more pesticides and herbicides being poured on America's crops, some species of weeds and bugs are developing resistance to these chemicals, creating “superweeds” and “superbugs” that are harder and harder to control. In response, the producers are forced to use higher concentrations of these chemicals. Many people are concerned about the long-term effect of this process on our land and waterways.
Risk to organic and small farmers. Those farmers who choose to grow non-GMO crops face challenges of their own. Contamination from GMO seeds can very easily occur, whether seeds are accidentally mixed, or pollen drifts from GMO crops to non-GMO.
The blame for this contamination is then placed on the farmers who are growing organically. Monsanto has a reputation for finding those farms that have been inadvertently contaminated with GMO seeds and suing the farmer for patent infringement. Now, the USDA is recommending the non-GMO farmers to purchase crop insurance to protect themselves from GMO contamination.
Just something interesting to note is that most of the agricultural industry will tell you organic farming simply cannot feed our people. Is this true? Not necessarily. The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, a study done over the course of 30 years, involved comparison between conventional farming and organic methods. Their trial proved that organic farming cannot only match conventional methods in amounts of production, but is so much more sustainable and performed better under droughts and other agricultural challenges. They have successfully disproved the common myth that organic farming cannot feed the world.
Risk to our right to know. Here's the bottom line: with so many consumers concerned about the GMOs in the food they eat, wouldn't it be required to at least label the foods that contain GMOs so that consumers could avoid them if they choose? No! The FDA does not require manufacturers to label foods that have been genetically engineered. Numerous potential labeling laws have been introduced that would require companies to inform consumers that their product contains GMOs. But biotech companies and many manufacturers are spending lots of money to defeat these laws and to discredit studies showing that GMOs may not be all that they claim.
What You Can Do
1. Educate yourself so that you can make an informed decision about what you and your family will eat. Some good websites and resources are listed below.
2. Grow a garden using heirloom seeds. These seeds are not patented and can be saved and shared for years! A good source for heirloom seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Come into the store to check out our selection of their seeds, or order a catalog from them today!
3. Look for Non-GMO Project labeled foods. The Non-GMO Project is a third party organization that checks consumer products for GM foods.
4. Support legislation that requires companies to label food products that contain GMOs.
Though we cannot practically eliminate all GM foods from out diet, we can certainly educate ourselves and use our voices as consumers to lead ourselves and our future generations to healthier, more sustainable food sources.
Institute for Responsible Technology responsibletechnology.org