GMO, do you know what it means? If you don’t, you are not alone. Research from Rutger’s University shows that over half of Americans know very little or nothing about genetically modified foods, despite wide media coverage on the topic.
Let’s start with a basic definition; a genetically modified organism (GMO) is one that has been genetically engineered. The process of genetic engineering involves removing a gene from one organism and transferring that gene to a different organism. The new gene becomes integrated into every cell of that organism and produces a desirable trait, such as resistance to pests or enhanced flavor. Scientists have been crossbreeding plants to produce desirable traits for hundreds of years. For example, did you know that carrots were originally white or purple? It was not until the 17th century that Dutch scientists started cross breeding them to become orange. Genetic engineering does go a step further than traditional breeding because any gene can be transferred to any organism, as opposed to traditional breeding where only closely related species can mate.
In the United States there are four main crops which are genetically engineered (GE). The three C’s: cotton, corn, canola, and soy. Roughly 90% of the corn grown in the U.S. is GE. However, that does not mean that the ear of corn you are eating at your BBQ is GE. Whole corn sold at American markets is not GE. Corn used to feed cattle and corn used in processed foods in the form of high fructose syrup is almost always GE. GE corn and soy are prevalent in processed foods (basically anything in a bag or box at the supermarket). The fresh fruits and vegetables on the displays are not genetically engineered. If you want to be 100% sure that something is not GE, you can always buy organic. In order for something to be certified organic, it has to undergo rigorous testing to prove it is free of GMOs.
Are you still with me? Good! On to the controversy, the anti-GMO activists list several reasons that GMOs are harmful. Reasons include no long term testing for safety, possible allergic reactions to new proteins that may be created, and antibiotic resistance. These are legitimate concerns. It is a relatively new technology (we have been eating GMO foods since 1996), and scientists have made mistakes in the past with believing new technology was safe when it really wasn’t. For example dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT. Big mistake. As for the allergies, there have been no reported new allergies that are specifically from GMO foods, but allergies are a tricky subject. Who is to say that there are not allergies that go unreported or misdiagnosed?
The pros of GMOs include greater crop yield, potential to help alleviate world hunger, reduced use of herbicides and pesticides, and adding beneficial nutrients to the food. For example, have you ever heard of golden rice? Golden rice is GE rice which has been altered to contain greater amounts of vitamin A. In developing countries, vitamin A deficiency is still the cause of thousands of cases of irreversible blindness and death in children and pregnant women. Rice is a staple crop in many of these countries and it could potentially help prevent many of these deaths and illnesses.
What do you think? Do the cons outweigh the pros? I will let you decide. My opinion is that we should proceed cautiously. I do think there is potential for genetic engineering to greatly benefit the world. You should definitely do your own research, but know that there are a lot of highly unreputable sources on GMOs out there. If anyone sends me an article from realfarmacy.com, I am not reading it. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a great source for health and nutrition information.