Should We Care About GMOs?
Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
Do you remember where you first heard about GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? Maybe it was during a conversation with a friend, on television or somewhere on the internet. It seem to be one of today’s hot topics, but why? Some claim that GMOs are dangerous, that they need to be clearly labeled on food items and that they should be banned from use entirely. Yet, how many of us know what GMOs really are and what real problems are linked to them? Furthermore, why should we care?
What’s a GMO anyway?
Thanks to technology, a seed is no longer just a seed. Today, some of our food crops are grown with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So, what exactly are GMOs? First introduced to the market in 1996, they’re defined as organisms whose DNA has been changed in an unnatural manner. There are several terms that are used to refer to the technology responsible for altering DNA, but one that you may be most familiar with is genetic engineering. This technology works by singling out individual genes and transferring them from one organism directly into another one. In a twist that probably doesn’t surprise you, this gene transfer can also take place between non-related species.
The end-result of this gene altering genetic engineering is a brand new plant that may look like its counterpart, but isn’t – it’s genetically modified (GM). So, why bother to create a GM plant to begin with, and what is its advantage over its non-GM counterpart?
You like tomato and I like tomahto
The tomato has the honor of being the first commercially grown GM whole food crop. Named the FlavrSavr, it was transformed to actually ripen without softening. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? It may help to explain the reason why anyone would go to the trouble of growing food from GMOs in the first place: crop protection. Farmers are bombarded daily with factors that they can’t control such as bad weather and exposure to disease carrying insects. So, it’s easy to understand why the planting of GM crops would be a game changer, since they offer a high level of insect and virus resistance, coupled an increased tolerance towards herbicides.
I know where you live
Since such a small amount of our food is currently labeled for GM content, where are all the GMOs hiding? Here’s a partial list of foods that are genetically modified in the United States: soybeans, corn, cotton (cottonseed oil), alfalfa, Hawaiian papaya, tomatoes, canola, sugar cane, sugar beet, rice, zucchini squash and sweet peppers. GMOs are also showing up in a variety of processed foods masking themselves as enzyme sources that help to do such things as improve fruit juice transparency and clot milk protein to make cheese.
What you don’t know can hurt you
Many consumers presume that their food is labeled accurately. It’s difficult to know exactly what we’re eating when it comes to GM food though, since advocates claim these types of foods are literally the equivalent of the non-GM versions, thereby not requiring labels or broad testing. At this point, there is not enough independent scientific research to back up this claim.
Due to its unpredictable nature, the consumption of non-labeled GM foods pose serious health concerns for people such as their potential to cause allergic reactions. In addition, the GM process itself will sometimes create new toxins with unknown health effects. Another problem with GM food consumption is that it appears to effect children more than adults, making breast-fed babies and fetuses exposed in the womb particularly vulnerable.
According to the Non-GMO Project, the U.S. is one of the only developed countries without mandatory labeling. Fifty countries including the European Union, China, and Russia currently require all GM food to be labeled.
What can you do?
GMOs have not gained worldwide acceptance. Over the past ten years, both the importing and planting of of genetically modified foods, such as Monsanto’s MON-810 corn, were banned.
If you’re unsure about the choices you should make regarding the use of GM foods, you’re not alone. One good place to start is by doing your own research so that you can make informed choices to protect the health of you and your loved ones. You can also decide to become directly involved in a local grassroots coalition that is pursuing the labeling of GMOs. Remember, knowledge is power, and your voice makes a difference!
Where do we go from here?
No one will argue that we need to increase our food supply around the world. So, are GMOs the answer to this problem? The jury is still out on this. Some argue that GM crops work against nature, instead of with its natural cycles and have failed to increase overall yields, while others claim that GMOs enable farmers to protect their crops and produce first-rate harvests.
With an estimated 60 to 80 percent of processed food in local American grocery stores containing genetically modified ingredients, GMOs are clearly something we should all care about. At the end of the day, everyone has the right to know exactly what’s in the food we eat.
Photo Credit: Alexis Baden-Mayer