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Genetically modified organisms (most commonly known as GMOs) are animals and plants that have been genetically altered in a laboratory. They are modified so that our crops are more resistant to pests, weeds, and any other diseases that typically threaten them. Foods made from these types of plants tend to have a longer life, and they travel well. Furthermore, genetically engineered crops are becoming increasingly popular among farmers and food producers because they are more cost efficient.
GMOs are commonly found in mass-produced products, but they are not often listed on nutrition labels. The US passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law in July 2016, which required disclosure of all genetically modified food ingredients. However, the USDA has until July 2018 to issue regulations for the implementation of the law, and even then it’s expected that food producers will be allowed another one to three years to make their disclosures.
Under the law, manufacturers will have several options for disclosing their genetically modified ingredients. One is to add a statement on the product label, notifying consumers that the product contains ingredients from a genetically modified crop. Another is to include a special symbol created by the USDA on the food package. The third is to include an electronic or digital link through a QR code that takes consumers to a designated website with the disclosure information. It is likely that most food producers will choose this third option, since that will free them from having to list “genetically engineered” or “GMO” on their labels, which would be negatively perceived by a lot of consumers.
So, even though there’s not yet a lot of labeling being done, GMO’s are prevalent in processed food in the United States. And there’s a lot of hype and misinformation about them, so let’s explore the facts.
The Widespread Use of GMOs
The majority of both soybeans and corn that are grown in the US have been genetically modified. In fact, The Center For Food Safety reports that it is believed that around 70% of American processed foods stocking the supermarket shelves now contain at least one ingredient that has been genetically modified. There are a number of crops that are unrestricted and while there have been court orders to prevent their planting, the USDA hasn’t enforced it.
Is It Safe To Eat GMOs?
Dozens of countries across the planet have placed restrictions (or bans) on producing GMOs. Why?
Quite simply, they do not believe that GMOs have been proven to be safe. The consensus in research studies so far is simply that it doesn’t appear GMOs are unsafe. It is hardly the win that GMO activists have claimed it to be. And, certainly, the creator of the above picture isn’t really buying it. I’m not sure I buy it myself.
What Will GMOs Do To My Health?
While there have been numerous studies on GMOs, the general consensus (only reached recently) is that they do not appear to be unsafe. However, because the products weren’t labeled or tracked for so long, it is almost impossible to get a true picture of what potential human health problems may stem from the consumption of GMOs. While we don’t know that GMOs actively harm human health, we also don’t truly know whether they are unsafe.
See, the process of constructing GMO foods isn’t really a new thing. Farmers and Nature have been doing it hundreds and thousands of years. It’s simply a matter of cross-breeding a gene from one species into another species to make something different (and hopefully better).
The trouble with GMOs is that it takes this natural process and turns it into something synthetic. Instead of Nature running its course, scientists are forcing it in a lab. And any time you take something natural and try to simulate it with something synthetic, you’re not going to have anything nearly as good or valuable (I’m specifically thinking about gemstones here, but the same could very well be true of GMO food).
What Do GMOs Do To The Environment?
The purpose of genetically engineering crops in a laboratory is to make them more resistant to insects and viruses and to make them more tolerant to herbicides. But these advantages don’t come without cost, especially where the environment is concerned.
GMOs may be seriously harmful to insects that are not dangerous to the plants being grown, especially bees and butterflies. Bees are crucial to the pollination process of many food crops, but they have become endangered as a result of the use of genetic engineering. Likewise, monarch butterflies face specific threats from genetically engineered maize plants. Birds, which work as biological control agents and pollinators, are also at risk from the harmful pesticides. What’s even more frustrating to consider is that the pests that are targeted by GMO crops can easily adapt to the genetic changes in the genetically engineered plants, rendering them almost ineffective against the pests they are attempting to kill while still remaining toxic to the other creatures that are not supposed to die.
Some evidence suggests that small genetic changes in plants may produce larger ecological shifts, meaning that GMOs may negatively affect whole natural ecosystems. These negative effects come mainly in the form of a reduction of biodiversity. Heritage seeds are seldom used in the production of GMO crops, which leads to fewer weeds and less nectar for the pollinators. Toxins released into the soil through the plants’ roots means fewer beneficial bacteria to help the plants grow without chemical fertilizers. And because of the nature of the GMO crops, no nutrients are returned to the soil, as is the case with natural growing practices. The problem of the environmental damage that is caused by the GMOs is much bigger than that of a potential human health hazard.
How To Avoid GMOs
With all of the above in mind, it may be best to simply avoid GMOs as much as possible. The best way to do this is to buy organic foods. Organic food producers use methods that ensure your food hasn’t been genetically modified, nor is it subjected to being planted on land that has been treated or sprayed with chemicals. Separate machinery is used to prevent contamination, and the ingredients are stored separately too.
While it’s true that organic products are quite a bit more expensive than other products, I’ve found that the costs is well worth the peace of mind it provides. That being said, if you really don’t have the money to buy organic you can shop a little safer by choosing fruits and vegetables with a harder, thicker skin. This makes it more difficult for toxins to reach the fruit or vegetable itself. When it comes to those fruits and vegetables with soft skin (or skin that you eat), you should always buy organic. Try finding local farmers’ markets or co-ops you can buy from to get the most value for your dollar.
So, what do you think? Is all the concern about GMOs unfounded? Or do we really have something to worry about? Let’s start a discussion in the comments section.