…And What’s the Big Deal About GMOs?

My post last week about grass-fed beef prompted another question: What’s the big deal about GMOs?

I spend a lot of time reading twitter, blogs and other websites condemning GMOs. And I’m convinced I need to avoid them as much as I can. But sometimes I have to remember what it was like when I was first learning about this stuff and trying to get both sides to make an informed decision. There’s no question there is a LOT of information out there on the topic of GMOs. Both sides seem to be pointing the finger at each other. So how do you know who’s right?

The truth is. We don’t know. There have been studies supporting both sides (more on that later). There are pros and cons to both sides. I have to remind myself not to get all preachy about what we are eating. Nobody likes to be told what they should be or should not be eating. What I can do, and I think is more effective, is tell you why I made my decision and why it is important to me to avoid GMOs. And I can give you some resources to check out and decide for yourself. (I’ve embeded links to my sources).

First a little background…

Because we live in modern times and most of us don’t produce our own food like some of our ancestors did, our modern food system must produce enough food for a global population growing at a truly remarkable rate. Over the years, technology has made our modern life easier, and the production of food is no exception. Advancements in farm machinery and in the types of plants and seeds used help farmers produce more food as their numbers have dwindled (another story). In the mid 1990s, seeds classified as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) hit the scene, developed by biotech behemoth, Monsanto. GMO seeds are seeds for everyday plants like corn that have had one or a few genes altered to diminish or enhance certain qualities of the plant. In theory, it was a genius idea. And it really wasn’t a new idea. Farmers have been doing some form of genetic engineering for decades. Tomato plants were first cross pollinated in the 1800s to yield a more hardy and sweeter fruit. In the 1990s, Monsanto’s seeds were developed that would be resistant to their keystone product, RoundUp herbicide. Planting these seeds would allow farmers to spray their entire field with RoundUp keeping unwanted weeds at bay while the RoundUp-resistant corn thrived. Since then, Monsanto has rolled out new product after product based on this technology, which has vastly changed commercial farming in the United States. GMO seeds are simply the norm now for many farms that grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

It didn’t take long for flaws to be exposed in process of growing GMO crops. Many species of living organisms have survived history through their ability to adapt to changing conditions. It is really one of the beautiful things about nature. The weeds targeted by RoundUp were no exception, either. As RoundUp use has become more prevalent on commercial fields over the past 20 years, these weeds have morphed into “superweeds” than can resist routine dosings of RoundUp, forcing farmers to use more and more of the product (at a mounting cost to the farmer). Here is a Bloomberg Business Week story about how hard it is for farmers to fight these superweeds from 2011. If pesticide residue left on crops worried anyone before, the exponential use pesticide on the same amount of crops should be alarming!

Another problem for the farmers who grow GMO crops is the cost. Technology ain’t cheap, and for years Monsanto was the only game in town. GMO seeds are patented. Without getting too much into intellectual property law, how it works is the farmer buys the seed from the seed company. The seed company owns the technology that gives the seed it’s ability to withstand pesticide, not the farmer. Years ago, it was common practice for farmers to save seeds from their annual crop to replant next year. However, seeds produced by GMO crops cannot (in most cases) be saved. Some farmers have tried to save them, and the seed company has employed tactics akin to organized crime to enforce their patent and ownership of the technology. The movie Food, Inc. highlights this topic in fascinating detail.

Even more troubling is when GMO seeds cross-pollinate with non-GMO crops, known as GMO contamination. Farmers who affirmatively choose not to grow GMO crops have been harassed by the seed companies when it has been discovered that their non-crops have the GMO characteristics of a neighbor’s field of GMO crops. GMO contamination has a much bigger impact that anyone could have imagined. Most of the European Union and a number of countries in East Asian have (wisely) banned GMO crops. Earlier this summer, Japan and South Korea suspended imports of US-grown wheat after it was discovered to be contaminated with GMO wheat. The suspension was lifted yesterday, actually, but you can bet US crops will be scrutinized more closely by importing countries from now on.

So GMOs have proven less than perfect for farmers, but what about for eaters?

This is where the rub lies for me. I already mentioned that farmers must use an increasing amount of pesticide on GMO crops as superweeds emerge. It’s no secret that pesticides are poison. The EPA lays it right out on their website. Pesticides have been linked to a number of scary afflictions including endocrine and reproductive toxicity, neurological damage and even the prevalence of obesity. Because of that, I avoid pesticides as much as possible. I’ve found the Environmental Working Group’s website to be invaluable for information on pesticides in our food, including the Dirty Dozen, their list of the top 12 vegetables to buy organic because of pesticide residue. Certified organic produce cannot have ever been treated with pesticide and must be GMO-free.

The health risks specific to consuming GMOs gets a little more dicey. The standard employed by government agencies to approve the use of a GMO crop is whether the GMO crop “differs substantially” from the original. At first blush, the answer would certainly be “no.” GMO corn is the same color, size, shape, taste, etc., as non-GMO corn. But the lasting effects of consuming GMOs has never been extensively studied in humans. As early as 2003, the University of Minnesota warned that human consumption of GMOs could be linked to food allergies, increased toxicity and decreased nutrition. Studies have been conducted on animals, namely mice and pigs, with dismaying results. At least two European studies have linked a GMO diet to increased tumors in mice. And most notably, this summer, an Australian study linked a host of serious health conditions to GMO consumption in US pigs, including stomach inflammation and infertility. The pig study is particularly troubling because the organ systems of pigs are very similary to humans. Although there have been no human trials on GMO consumption, it is hard to argue with the explosion in food allergies and food intolerance in our population. There have been at least a few documented cases of a specific allergy to GMO corn, as noted in this story in Elle of a woman’s misery before she discovered she suffered from an allergy to GMO corn.

With all the mounting information questioning the safety of GMOs in our diet, the thing that adds the most insult to injury is that GMOs are damn near impossible to eliminate from our diets. And that’s on purpose. GMO corn and soybeans are largely grown for feed for animals that later become our food. Most of the rest of GMO crops become refined ingredients in junk food. You can bet that high fructose corn syrup is made from GMO corn. But also are a number of other common ingredients in packaged food that I’ll bet you never knew where made from corn or soybeans, such canola oil, cellulose, citric acid, dextrose, maltodextrin, stearic acid, and MSG. There are tons more. I’ll be honest. I find it completely exhausting to be on the look out for GMO ingredients all the time. And I’m pretty diligent. I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t have the free time that I have–a harried new parent, or someone who works long hours or two jobs, having the time to do the research I do to keep them out of my house. Which is a nice segue into the next issue. It would be so much easier to avoid them if they were just labeled.

Last year, California proposed through ballot iniative a law which would require GMO foods to be labeled. The ensuing campaign, both for and against, crystalized the controversy for the rest of us across the country. The measure initially polled that it would pass, but food corporations opposed to the measure dumped $45 MILLION into marketing and advertising to ultimately defeat it, compared to the $5 million the Just Label It campaign raised. Their fear was that forcing food products to be labeled as containing GMO ingredients would only confuse and strike unnecessary fear into consumers. Since California’s unsuccessful bid for labeling of GMO ingredients, at least two dozen other states have considered bills to require similar labels of GMO ingredients. So far, Connecticut is the only state to successfully pass a labeling law, but it’s implementation is hung up on the fact that surrounding states do not require the label. The fact that a recent poll found that 82% of Americans support mandatory labeling is hopeful for other states to follow suit. Add to that fact that most countries in the European Union either have an outright ban or a labeling law for GMO food.

The biotech industry and food corporations insist GMO foods are safe. A new website was recently rolled out by the biotech and food industry with the purpose of dispelling some of the “misplaced” fear of GMO food, as many states contemplate a labeling law. The website, called GMOAnswers, does have a feature that readers can submit their questions to be answered (it’s not clear by whom), and some of those questions are pretty legit. At any rate, I hope visitors see the website for what it is, a PR tool designed to get the pro-GMO message to consumers before they make up their mind otherwise. Here’s a story on Take Part about the website, I found particularly interesting.

The bottom line for me is that I just don’t like the thought of my food being anything but … well, food. A generation ago, we didn’t have to worry about heavy pesticide use and GMOs (and a bunch of other problems in our food system). We just don’t know what kinds of chronic illness we will be dealing with in a few years because of a steady diet of GMO and pesticide-laden food. I hope to live a long and healthy life, and I try to do everything in my power to make sure I am not exposing myself to anything that could lead to health conditions down the road. I’ve been blessed with good health, but I have seen folks who have not been so blessed lead better quality and more free lifestyles even with illness because they have changed their diets. I’m a huge believer in the saying “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

Because every post needs a picture... My GMO free backyard harvest

Because every post needs a picture… My GMO free backyard harvest

Of course, like I said, you can’t eliminate GMOs completely. It would be great if this area had a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, 2 supermarket chains that support consumer awareness of GMOs. And, I can’t lie… I’m didn’t turn down the piece of cake a coworker’s going away party this week, and I’ll likely hit a wing night again at some point in my life time. For me, the key is to be a savvy grocery shopper and restaurant patron and avoid them as much as I can, so I don’t stress out too badly when I do eat something that likely contains GMOs.

There’s no question there is a lot of information out there. I have embedded by sources, and I tried to use mainstream media outlets as much as I could to avoid any bias opposing GMOs, since those are the types of websites and blogs I generally read. However, if you would like to know some of the places I like to get information from, here are the ones I read most:

One particular series I’ve followed that I have really enjoyed is on the Grist website by Nathanael Johnson. He is skeptical of GMOs, but not after doing his homework. He started the series with an open mind, given the mounds of conflicting evidence on the subject, to get to the bottom of it. He is not finished, but he does a fantastic job at researching the topic and presenting it an easy to follow format.

Everyone is different. Some folks might not feel as strongly as I do about my food, and I understand that. It’s a decision each person must make individually. I just wish the food industry wasn’t trying to hid the ball from us so consumers CAN make an decision about what they buy.

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