What The Heck Are GMOs Anyway?
Genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, are a hotly debated topic lately. Yet, for many years, people may not have known they were even eating them. That’s because GMOs are no longer labeled, even though research from the Center for Food Safety indicates that 89% of people in the US want food containing GMOs clearly labeled. They’re currently not labeled because growers and manufacturers fear that people may not buy them when placed next to non-GMO products. The history of GMOs indicates a legitimate reason to be concerned because the first GMO tomato, introduced in 1994, WAS labeled and consumers would not buy them.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are living organisms, such as plants, that have been altered by having DNA from a non-related species put into their genes. These genes can come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or humans. An example of a GMO might be a tomato that has gene from a fish artificially put into it to make it withstand colder temperatures, or an apple with a gene from bacteria that keeps it from browning. These are examples of the technology. A really good video describing the facts about GMOs and the process used is available on YouTube, produced by AbbyMediaRoots.
How are GMOs different than hybrid plants?
Hybrid plants are created when two related species of plants are intentionally cross-pollinated in order to produce offspring (food) that contains the best traits of both parent plants. An example is the Big Boy tomato and Beef Steak tomato that gardeners have been growing for decades. Cross-pollination also happens in nature by accident, but it can be done in controlled environments to produce specific hybrid plants to sell. Cross-pollination does not insert foreign DNA from an unrelated species into the plant.
Why do farmers plant GMOs?
Farmers often plant GMO crops because these crops are created to withstand certain chemicals, such as herbicides or pesticides. This makes the farmer’s job easier since they can mechanically spray a crop and get rid of the problems without hurting the plant. Chemical companies often create seeds that can withstand their chemicals so that they can sell more of those products. There are some genetically modified foods that are created to increase certain nutrients, such as golden rice, which is modified to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. The benefits of GMOs such as Golden Rice should be evaluated through ample scientific evidence to determine the pros and cons of the genetically modified food. In my opinion, much more research needs to be done to determine whether GMOs are safe for consumption.
If GMOs are a win-win for farmers and chemical companies, why are GMOs controversial?
Although GMOs do make it easier for farmers to grow many crops, the chemicals sprayed on these crops can pollute our environment including the soil, rivers, lakes and the ocean. Some neonicitoid insecticides may be related to bee decline. Some GMO crops even produce their own insecticides within the plant. These chemicals then pollute the foods you eat and can even be found in baby food. Some non-GMO foods are also sprayed prior harvest in order to dry the plant by killing it, making harvesting faster and easier. Some examples are wheat and sugar cane. Food products sprayed with glyphosate at pre-harvest can be labeled non-GMO if the plant itself is not genetically modified. Since the World Health Organization has listed some of these common chemicals as probable carcinogens, it’s a good idea to buy organic when possible. The only way to avoid GMOs and avoid food sprayed with chemicals at pre-harvest is to buy certified organic products. `
What if I can’t afford organic food?
Many people simply do not have the budget to buy everything organic. If you are like me, you probably have to pick and choose the most important organic items to purchase. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group makes this easier by producing a free dirty dozen shopping list, which lists the top 12 most chemically contaminated fruits and vegetables on the market. The 2016 dirty dozen list is available here. To help protect your health, you should purchase as many of these items organic as possible. If you can’t purchase organic produce, you may want to concentrate on eating more of the fruits and vegetables on the clean 15 list. These items have the least amount of chemical residue on them, even when not organic.