We are all eating GMO foods every day and don’t even know it.
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, which means a living thing (usually a plant) that has had its genes modified by a human, by adding a gene that is from another species to the organism’s DNA. It sounds like science fiction but we have the technology now, and its happening every day.
The laws being put up for a vote in many states this fall will be about labeling the GMO ingredients in our food. Creating GMOs is completely legal, the point of contention is whether or not they will be labeled or if we will just pretend they are the same as natural foods.
Haven’t we had GMOs forever? No.
GMOs are not plants that have been modified by cross-pollination. Cross pollination is when one type of tomato (or other flowering plant) is fertilized with the pollen from a different type of tomato, and the grower waits to see what nature produces.
To make GMOs, scientists actually add a gene (or genes) to the DNA strand of the host plant, so that it will grow with some added characteristic from the inserted plant gene. So the gene from a soybean that helps is last longer on the shelf is added to a corn plant, in hopes that the corn will then last longer on the shelf.
The genes can be added to DNA either by piggy-backing onto a virus or bacteria that has developed the ability to enter a cell’s nucleus and attach itself to the strand of DNA inside, or by a gene gun, which actually inserts the new gene into the DNA strand of the host. This is why they are often called “Franken-foods.” They would not be possible in nature, they must be created in a lab.
Are GMOs bad? They sound bad.
One of the highlights of the American College of Nutrition annual meeting this year will be a debate on whether GMOs are good or bad. Yes, it will be one for the history books.
The truth is not all GMOs are bad, and not all GMOs are good.
There are researchers using this technology to solve problems of malnutrition and food shortages throughout the developing world. Due to poor farming techniques, war, drought, and other ecological disasters the food supply in many parts of the world is insufficient, and modifying plants in this way may be able to help people survive. A GMO rice, which has a gene that produces Vitamin A, was developed to reduce childhood blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. As far as we know this is a good thing.
On the other side are agriculture companies that are making GMO crops for profit, and the safety of these crops has not been established. You can demand a higher price for a patented GMO seed than a generic seed, especially if foods may be cheaper to grow or bring to market. Unfortunately we are unknowingly the test subjects for the safety of these new products.
It is reminiscent of all the chemicals in our food that we were told were “completely safe” only to find out later that they can cause cancer or other health problems. Like artificial food dyes, some preservatives, artificial sweeteners, etc.
There is also the issue of allergies. For someone with a life-threatening peanut allergy, they would want to know if there is a chance their corn has been modified with a peanut gene (say, to promote resistance to a pest that bothers corn but not peanuts).
Here’s the bottom line: the scientists who are trying to solve malnutrition and famine have no problem with labeling GMO foods. They want their seeds labeled and used to help people. Those arguing against it are the companies that stand to profit from unregulated use of GMOs. In my opinion we need more transparency in our food production, not less.
GMOs may end up being safe, they may not. I am always suspicious of anyone who wants to hide what they are selling. And don’t try to tell me it is too expensive to add three letters to a label – that’s nonsense.
If you want to avoid GMOs now, choose organic foods. One requirement for a food to be organic is that has not been genetically modified. The most common GMO foods on the market today are corn and soybeans. By choosing organic, you can avoid GMOs. Until more research is published, that is a smart choice.
For fresh corn on the cob the farmers market or farm stand is a good bet – you can ask the farmer directly if he uses GMO seed. Most small farmers don’t, and many grow their crops organically.
So now you know, when you go to vote on this issue you can make an informed choice either way. Personally I want to know what is in the food I am eating.
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