In my attempt to be an “informed consumer,” I quickly realized that genetically engineered or modified foods are one of the most hotly debated issues at this time. Regardless, I believe in being aware and making my own educated decision on matters of health and environmental impact, and this applies to GMO and non-GMO foods.
What is GMO?
The World Health Organization defines GMOs (genetically modified organisms) as organisms (i.e. plants, animals, or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. So simply put, GMOs are organisms that have a DNA or a genetic makeup that does not occur in nature.
If interested, here is a diagram of crop modification techniques used:
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, these are the commercially available GM crops in the United States: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, and papaya. Keep in mind this includes variations of these items that are used in 70 percent of processed foods as additives. Potatoes are considered a “monitored” crop, and several other foods like apples and tomatoes are in the pipeline. For now, however, these are the only foods that can have a GMO version and, thus, a “non-GMO” version in stores. Today more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and cotton are grown from genetically modified seeds.
Farmers choose biotech seeds for reasons that may include management of weeds, to control insects, to prevent crop diseases, and to increase productivity or enhance nutritional content. Much of the corn and soybeans go to animal feed or are used to make ethanol. Right now, there is no genetically modified wheat currently commercialized anywhere in the world. Dry grains, beans, nuts and seeds are usually not GMO. That means that if you are concerned about GMOs, you needn’t worry when you are eating bread.
The benefits and potential risks of GM foods seem to be many in number, none of which I am qualified to address here. Proponents of GMO foods state they are efficient vehicles for necessary nutrients to populations in need. In short, some reported benefits include enhanced nutritional value, economic gains, agronomic benefits, improvement in food processing, and products for therapeutic purposes.
Potential risks of GM foods
The debates over GM foods are generally focused on the uncertainty of the adverse effects these foods may have on the safety of human health and the environment. Three major concerns involve toxicity, allerginicity, and genetic hazards. In addition, there are concerns over ecological risks associated with GM foods including disruption of the food web, resistance to antibiotics, and selection of pest and herbicide resistance.
Here is a compilation of consensus statements issued by various organizations on both climate change and GMO safety.
So in the end, to GMO or not GMO is not a yes or no answer. However, I urge you to become educated on GMO foods, read the research, and decide for yourself if there is a health or environmental impact. Try to stay away from sites and organizations with biased views and seek out those with facts. If you choose to avoid GMOs, here’s a recap of a few options in doing so:
- Choose organic. Organic foods are free of synthetic pesticides and genetically modified ingredients.
- Look for “non-GMO Project Verified” products. This is a non-profit organization that operates a detailed, voluntary certification process so that food producers can test and verify that, to the best of their knowledge, they have avoided using genetically modified ingredients in their products. The Non-GMO Project is the most well-known organization offering independent verification for GMO products in the U.S. and Canada.
- Be aware of the additives in packaged foods.
- Most fruits and vegetables are free of GMOs.
- In general grains, breads, nuts, and seeds are free of GMOs.
- Consider animal feed used in animal products you buy.
Whatever you decide regarding GMOs, you have the right to know what is in your food. Stay informed on labeling laws and GMO foods coming to a grocery store near you. In terms of labeling laws, President Obama signed a bill in 2016 that gives the USDA two years to set up a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure statement which manufacturers will have to comply with a year after the standard is agreed upon. This disclosure will be made in various ways, including the use of QR codes that a mobile phone can read or website addresses, as well as statements on the ingredients labels. Stay tuned on more information on GMO status on food labels in the near future. Good resources include WHO, the FDA, and the USDA.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.