Old MacDonald had a farm… ee – i – G – M – O.
Genetically modified organisms are a hot topic right now. Across the country, people are calling for the mandatory labeling of any and all food containing them. In Hawaii, an incredibly important state for crop development, two islands have already passed sweeping bans of genetically modified crops, others call for broader regulations to be passed in the coming months. Scratching our heads for months, we finally sat down with some facts, and the research might be less “Frankenstein” than expected.
WTF is a GMO?
The term “genetically modified organism” is actually far more broad than you might think. The label actually refers to any organism that has had its DNA altered in some way to produce specific traits or characteristics.
Since the 1990s, a large percentage of the United States food supply is GM. Crops, when modified, are usually done so to “enhance the growth or nutritional profile,” according to the FDA’s website. Enhancing the growth refers to quite a few different alterations, mainly pesticide, herbicide or disease resistance. Traits that also offset uncontrollable environmental factors can be spliced in, such as drought resistance. Enhancing the nutritional profile is when genes are manipulated to change the expression of different vitamins and proteins in the plant
So it becomes clear, that the breadth of this label requires us to be careful when making sweeping generalizations about GMOs. The term does not denote the purpose for, or degree to which organisms are modified. It refers to both the subtle, cosmetic changes apparent in GloFish- the first GM pet – and the massive, systemic changes that happen when Peter Parker is bit by the radioactive spider. Indeed, Spiderman is, by definition, a GMO.
GMOs are made primarily by bioengineers at various companies, the most well known of which are: Pioneer Hi-Bred International (subsidiary of Dupont), Swiss company Syngenta AG, Dow Agrosciences (subsidiary of Dow Chemical) and German companies BASF and Bayer Cropscience.
The largest and most visible actor is Monsanto Chemicals Company, an agricultural biotech corporation based out of St. Louis. 40 percent of U.S. farmland is cultivated with Monsanto-patented seed. It owns around 90 percent of the patents for genetically modified crops.
In Stores Now
In terms of fresh produce, there aren’t any crops currently on the shelves. Monsanto put out a sweet corn that was approved by the FDA, but hasn’t caught on in any real capacity yet.
Most GM plants are used as either feed for livestock, or to make ingredients used in more processed food. Corn, canola, soybean and cotton are the big four. Canned soups, various oils and frozen meals all contain these products. They are also present in many snacks, sauces, cereals and bread. Nearly 85 percent of corn grown domestically, as well as 90 percent of soybeans are genetically modified to some degree. 90 percent of the rapeseed plants grown to make canola oil are also GM. This trickles down to meat and dairy as well, as livestock are fed these plants.
Is It Going to Kill Me?
The current scientific consensus is a resounding and herbicide-resistant, “No.” According to the FDA, “Foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally bred plants.” Teams of scientists from various disciplines review each new product, seeking out potential sources of allergens or toxicity. The nutritional profile is then reviewed to ensure any change is in accordance with regulations.
So eating bag of Doritos made with GMOs is unlikely to kill you immediately. But what about over time? Wasn’t there a study that said Monsanto corn gave lab rats cancer?
The science on this is inconclusive. Most studies show no relationship between eating GM foods and illness. The Séralini research in which GM corn was found to cause cancer in lab rats, has been unilaterally rejected by the scientific community. There is no doubt that more data collection is needed, but as it stands there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence that we should be afraid.
Environmental concerns are also on the forefront of the GMO issue. This can be divided into two main issues: chemical effects, and cross-contamination.
Chemical effects refers to the consequences of the various chemicals used in conjunction with GMOs. This is an incredibly complicated issue. In the past, farmers would till their fields, mixing in several different herbicides and pesticides in preparation for planting. With modern GMOs, specifically Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” line of seeds, farmers no longer need to till, or vary the chemicals. RoundUp is a powerful and versatile herbicide. Farmers can literally spray it directly on the plants, and due to the spliced-in resistance, crops continue to thrive.
On one hand, there is less tilling, reducing run-off and erosion. There are also fewer chemicals being released into the environment. On the other hand, however, more and more RoundUp (generic name glyphosate) is being used. An accessory of overuse is the relatively recent rise of glyphosate-resistant wild plant species, affectionately dubbed the “superweed,” currently limited to a small area of the country.
Cross-contamination is the thought that GMOs could pollinate surrounding crops, transferring one crop’s modified genes to another. This is a largely overblown risk, as crops can’t breed with different species. It’s much like the risk of your dog breeding with your neighbor’s cat.
Natural v. Unnatural
The “natural” vs. “unnatural” question is perhaps the emotional core of the GMO conversation. This is the toughest aspect to pick apart, as it is mostly one of feeling. Eating “natural” foods seems like it would be better for you. This then, is a philosophical debate, not a scientific one.
GMOs would obviously be categorized as unnatural. But even organic crops, grown without chemicals, pesticides or genetic alteration would not exist if not for human manipulation. Prior to genetic modification, manipulation was possible through other breeding techniques like selective breeding and mutation breeding. Some would argue the degree of control genetic modification offers humans makes it unlike previous breeding methods. Others see it as a natural progression. When it comes to natural and unnatural crops in modern agriculture, we’ve already accepted a spectrum – a clear distinction between the two simply doesn’t exist in any quantifiable sense.
What is scientifically supported is the fact that GMOs, simply by their nature of being genetically modified, are not worse than conventional crops. A group of Italian scientists did a summary of 1700+ studies surrounding the safety of GMOs and were unable to find a single, credible conclusion that “unnatural” is less safe.
–Parker Rechsteiner & Caroline Koch
Photo Stills: CAA Marketing + Chipotle