What’s the deal with GMOs in food? Should you eat them or not?

IMG_2697We keep hearing about GMOs in food. It’s on the news. Vermont just passed a mandatory labeling law. Some food products packaging declare that they are GMO free. But what’s the deal? Should you be eating them?

Some say we shouldn’t eat them and other’s say there’s absolutely no danger and that they’re necessary for the future.  I can see the potential benefits to the science behind it but I am wary that enough long term research hasn’t been done (especially when it comes to things like Bt corn).

When I decided to hold a veggie garden workshop last month, I sent home attendees with a handout on GMOs (along with some organic non gmo seeds) and I thought I would share it here because so many people have questions about whether they should be eating GMOs.  I tried to give pros and cons to both sides (but I’ll admit it’s hard for me to not sound biased).  Here’s the thing, no matter what research you do, you’ll be able to find sources that support whatever side you look at (and not just with GMOs) so it’s really important to try to take in as many facts as possible and then make up your own mind.

What do you think?  Do you think I’m crazy for being wary of them?  Do you worry about GMOs in your food?

GMOs Yay or Nay?
For a little background, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.  Humans have been altering the genomes of plants for a very long time but until relatively recently it was through natural means; things like planting only the seeds of the best crops or cross breeding varieties to produce a sweeter plant. Today, a scientist in a lab can take DNA of any living thing and choose to insert it into another, completely unrelated species.  For example, they may choose to insert a gene from a moth into a potato to reduce the effect of potato blight disease on the next crop.  We even have GMO crops that have been engineered to withstand normally deadly doses of herbicides and pesticides.

The Upside of GMOs
Some of the benefits of GMO foods are that they are expected to increase our food supply. Advocates of GMOs say that with less disease or pest problems, farmers can grow more crops and feed more people, in less time and for less money.  GMO foods can be bred to taste and look better.  There is even potential to increase the nutrient content in certain varieties. GMO science also has wider reach than just food production. GMO research is helping the medical community understand which genes are responsible for certain diseases and speed production of some vaccines.  We are even studying GMO pigs for future organ transplants into humans!  There is also research being done to see how GMOs could be used for cleaner fuel sources.  With the growing problems our planet is facing, it would be irresponsible not to investigate the potential of GMO science.
The Downside of GMOs
As far as GMOs in our food goes, there is a lot we just don’t know yet.  The USDA does not require independent safety studies on GMOs and no long term studies have been done.  Research on GMOs is still in the infancy stages.  Some plants have antibiotics added to them so that they are resistant to certain diseases.  These antibiotics then show up in our bodies making medicines less effective when we need them. Some GMO corn and cotton varieties have been bred to contain Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that naturally occurs in the soil that is deadly to moths, caterpillars and butterflies.  This bacteria has been used as a pesticide in Organic farming because it is effective but easily washes off produce.  These GMO plants that have been bred to contain this bacteria have it in every fiber of the plant.  There is no washing it off.  So while this bacteria previously wasn’t harmful to humans, what happens when we’re ingesting large quantities of it in every bite of corn, corn syrup or tortillas that we eat?  Try finding processed food that does not contain corn in some form. Cornell University found that Monarch Butterfly larvae died after eating pollen that came from Bt corn.

Beyond unknown health risks, a few other possible consequences of GMO foods is the potential to create super weeds that are resistant to herbicides, difficulty preserving non-gmo fields (A farmer in Oregon found GMO wheat growing in a field he did not plant it in), legal ramifications (GMO seeds are patented and farmers have been sued for planting seeds more than once after purchase), and environmental pollution from liberal pesticide spraying (on pesticide tolerant gmo plants).

Unfortunately for us, there is no clear answer yet as to whether GMO foods are good or bad. Credible research on the dangers of GMOs are limited and often inconsistent but at the same time, much of the research that has come out saying GMOs are safe for consumption have been done by the same biotech companies who benefit financially from their widespread use.  If you do your own research, you will find people on both sides armed with lots of “facts” to obliterate the other side’s argument. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s up to you to decide.  There is no requirement at this time to label foods containing GMOs so we don’t always know when we are consuming them.

For me personally, just because there isn’t a ton of evidence saying that they are bad yet isn’t enough for me to jump on board wholeheartedly.  Once upon a time, the American public was convinced cigarettes were not harmful either.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.

If you are concerned about GMOs in your food, the most important thing you can do right now is getting the government to require labeling for GMO foods. There is a lot of money coming in from biotech companies (like Monsanto) to prevent labeling.  They know if we know there are GMOs in our food we will choose to spend our dollars elsewhere. We at least should have a choice in knowing what we put in our bodies.

What foods in our food supply are more likely to be GMO?
The crops most likely to be GMO today are: soy, corn, sugar beets, canola oils, papaya, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and peas, zucchini, yellow squash, dairy (due to the use of rbGH growth hormone) and alfalfa (fed to factory farmed animals).   To give you an idea of the reach, 88% of corn and 94% of soy produced in the US in 2012 were GMO.

How can I avoid GMOs?

  • Buy Organic when possible.  The USDA organic certification states that “the use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.”
  • Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal.  GMO labeling is not mandatory in the US and this label is the closest thing we have currently to any guidelines.  You can read more about it online at: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/understanding-our-seal/
  • Buy from local farmers – ask about their sources.  Local is usually a better choice even if it isn’t organic.

What else can I do?

  • Advocate for GMO labeling in your state. Until we know if GMO foods are truly safe (and we won’t know for many years) we should at least have the right to know what is in our food.  A label declaring this is the first step. Visit www.righttoknow-gmo.org/states to learn how you can help your state to support GMO labeling.

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