A majority of Americans (some surveys report as high as 94%) say they want mandatory labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs). But what are GMOs, and what is the big deal?
What are GMOs?
Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of transferring specific traits, or genes, from one
organism into a different plant or animal. The resulting organism is called a GMO (genetically modified organism). 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets are estimated to contain genetically modified ingredients. Genetic engineering is different from traditional cross breeding, where genes can only be exchanged between closely-related species. With genetic engineering, genes from completely different species can be inserted into each other.
Genetic engineering not only refers to crops but also animals. For example, salmon have been bioengineered to grow five times faster than wild breeds, and chickens have been genetically modified to lay low-cholesterol eggs. At this point in time, no GE animals have been approved by the FDA to enter the food supply, but that scenario may not be far off.
The majority of GMO crops are found in the United States with 68% of GE acreage right here. Others include Argentina (22%), Canada (6%), and China (3%). That’s 99% of the world’s GE acreage (almost 400 million acres!) in just 4 countries. America’s 170 million acres of genetically engineered crops produce 95% of the nation’s sugar beets, 94% of the soybeans, 90% of the cotton and 88% of the feed corn.
Are GMOs harmful?
There have been many concerns raised over GMOs and the insufficient testing on the effects of genetically engineered foods on people and the environment. Genetic engineering is still in its infancy, and scientists don’t fully understand the consequences of introducing DNA from one species into another. DNA can change and mutate with the combination of foreign DNA, possibly with harmful results. The long-term effects of consuming GMOs have not been properly studied nor the effects such organisms have on the environment, in general.
Some specific concerns with GMOs include allergic reactions, gene mutation, antibiotic resistance, loss of nutrition, damage to the environment, and gene pollution.
Consumers could experience allergic reactions with GMOs injected with known allergens such as nut or strawberry genes injected into common foods. Without labeling, a shopper allergic to one of these would be unaware of a potentially severe reaction. Another concern is the combination of DNA will lead to the creation of new allergies previously not in existence.
Gene mutation is a possibility with the forced combination of DNA. The effects of these mutations are unknown on human health or their introduction into the environment.
Almost all GE food contains antibiotic resistance marker genes that help makers know whether the new genetic material was transferred to the host plant or animal. GE food could make disease-causing bacteria even more resistant to antibiotics. This opens the possibility of increasing the spread of disease throughout the world.
Although some GMO foods are being developed to increase nutrition, the majority of GE crops are developed for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. The nutritional value of these organisms may be significantly less than non-GMO foods.
The full extent of damage to the environment is unknown. GE crops are consumed by insects, birds and animals. Along with wind and water, the seeds of these plants are distributed outside the acreage, perhaps combining with other non-GMO crops. The effects of these combinations, or the effects on the creatures that consume them, is unknown. One possible scenario is GE crops cross-pollinating with weeds, potentially creating “superweeds” that could become difficult to control.
Once these genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment, they cannot be recalled or cleaned-up. Unlike chemical spills or nuclear disasters, gene pollution cannot be contained or separated from the environment.
What can we do?
One positive tool for consumers would be the labeling of products containing GMOs. Over 40 countries worldwide require labeling – the European Union, Australia, Russia, Brazil, China, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Some have even banned all GM foods – Japan, Ireland, and Egypt. Currently, the United States has no such requirement, although California is currently attempting to pass legislation on the issue.
The FDA and GMO supporters say that labeling genetically modified foods would be cumbersome and costly, ultimately raising food prices. Countries currently with label laws say the costs are far less than FDA is quoting.
Proponents argue we have the right to know what we’re buying and eating. There are already laws requiring information on ingredients and nutritional content. Truth in marketing is a fundamental principle of consumer choice and the free market.
Until the government requires labeling of GMOs, consumers can avoid these products by choosing sustainable foods. Shop the farmers market, grow your own veggies, or choose foods from the supermarket that are marked Organic. The USDA regulations governing organic food do not permit genetically-modified fruits and vegetables, and organic meats cannot come from animals that were fed GE crops.
Choosing Organic products ensures that you won’t be consuming any genetically engineered foods or causing any unnecessary strain on the environment. The long term effects of GMOs on human health and the environment are unknown. Common sense says stick to sustainable crops and animals for your well-being and the planet’s. You’ll feel better you did!
Image credit: Christian Science Monitor