Everyone’s got an opinion on GMO foods.
For you it might be fear or anger. It could be indifference. Maybe it’s suspicion.
Even if you don’t know exactly what GMOs are, you know they’re somewhere in our food. In our world of trend diets, organic labels that often get confused with all-natural labels, and constant food contamination news headlines, everything warrants a side-eye of caution.
After all, we truly are what we eat.
Consider this your quick cheat sheet on the basic truths of GMO food. A solid place to start thinking a little more critically about the food you’re exposed to every single day.
And then you can decide how worried you want to be about it.
What are GMO foods
In case you need a general refresher, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms.
GMOs are created through a process that involves the transfer of DNA from one species into another creating something called transgenic organisms. Transgenic organisms can be a new breed of carrot or chicken.
The transferred genes can come from almost anywhere, and in the case of GMOs are often bacteria or viruses.
The reason for the use of bacteria and viruses is twofold.
First, one of the primary objectives of GMOs is to create food sources that are more resistant and resilient to natural damage.
Things like mold, drought, predatory insects are just a few examples of totally natural occurrences that can completely wipe out full crops and food supplies. This is where engineering plants to have increased natural herbicides, produce their own pesticides and be more resistant to natural disaster comes in.
A second (though more theoretical objective) of GMO crops is to create food sources that have a higher nutrient density or higher yield than their previous strains.
A few foods have achieved this, such as Golden Rice which was designed to have a high vitamin A content by splicing rice with a carotenoid from the daffodil. However, crop stability been a bigger focus of most companies rather than nutritional content. There was extensive research and approvals around bringing Golden Rice to market, and it’s just recently been approved for consumption in 2018.
Increased crop yield is where GMO corn or soybeans come in. When you can produce more food more regularly, there’s a higher likelihood that you can then feed more people more often.
A Short History
Before you get completely freaked out, consider that nature has been swapping genes between organisms for basically all of forever.
This is one of the biggest arguments supporting the safety of GMO foods. Every time you get a cold, take probiotics or eat a piece of fruit after only kinda washing it, you’ve been exposed to virus or bacterial DNA.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Nature has been cross pollinating genes for millions of years. This is the fundamental reason why our DNA is so diversified with the genetic sequences of non-human species. It’s also part of the reason our immune system works and why vaccines work.
The major difference between how nature does it and how people do it, is the specificity gene swapping that happens in a lab.
Nature will swap entire packages of genes between organisms. This is a process it’s refined over a millennia.
People, on the other hand, will target ONE gene and add it into a specific place in a DNA strand. This is a process we’ve developed over a handful of decades.
The question about GMO is often about this particular action. Change a lot of things, and nature adjusts accordingly. Change one small thing, and the possibility for unanticipated ripple effects goes up dramatically.
Understanding the GMO Question: An Example
Think about a pothole on a busy road.
When there’s no pothole, cars driving on that road will have a smooth and save drive from point A to point B. Unless something jostles that well-coordinated activity, there will rarely be an accident.
Now add a pothole to that smooth road. If that pothole also comes with a big sign that says WATCH THE POTHOLE, an arrow pointing away from the pothole and a traffic cop to redirect traffic away from the pothole, everything keeps running smoothly.
If you take away the sign, the arrow and the traffic cop, now there’s just a big pothole on a busy road. The chance you’re going to see some problems on that road goes way up.
And we all know what happens when just one car gets into an accident on a busy road – traffic starts backing up.
Now replace the concept of accidents with allergies, new diseases, unexpected toxins and nutritional deficiencies and you’ll start to get a sense of the bigger food questions GMO poses. Change everything and your body has a chance to make a sign and get a traffic cop. Change one thing, and no one might notice until it’s too late. Without proper direction, these accidents will happen again and again.
The Pros and Cons
GMO supporters say millions of people have been eating GMO foods for years, decades even, and there have been no issues directly related to GMO.
Skeptics remind us that not only has no one been directly monitoring the impact of GMO foods, but that it could take decades or generations before health problems start to crop up.
Because of this, the arguments around GMOs generally fall into two camps.
PRO: GMO foods will save this planet from the inevitable demands of overpopulation leading to inadequate food resources. More crops that grow stronger, produce better yields and can survive harsh climates better means more food for a population that’s expected to need 70% more food by 2050.
CON: GMO food experimentation will destroy this planet and ourselves while we tamper with nature and our natural food sources. Just because there’s no hard evidence today that shows GMO foods impact the health of those who eat it, doesn’t mean it will never happen. There will be continued diminishes to our overall health, particularly around antibiotic-resistant diseases and hard to manage food allergies (made harder when you don’t know what your food is really made up of).
A major concern is that GMO foods are still so new (they were introduced to mainstream markets in the mid-1990’s) that no one has any hard, scientific proof that these issues are likely, let alone probable. There have been no definitive studies on how GMO foods have impacted public health. This little fact has interestingly been used to support both the supporters and the skeptics.
But are they healthy?
Generally, it’s agreed that the nutritional content of GMO and non-GMO crops are fairly equivalent in macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, water content).
Micronutrients (think zinc, copper, iron, manganese, and many others) are a different story and can potentially change the game when it comes to supporting the overall health of the people it’s meant to feed.
Many people simply want GMO foods to be tested in the same way drugs are tested by the FDA.
At this point, GMO crops aren’t tested for safety because they still are, in fact, considered to be food. We don’t consider heirloom tomatoes to be a different food than cherry tomatoes. That means new varieties of GMO tomatoes will not be tested in the way a new drug or a chemical additive is tested.
But improved testing of ALL crops on both human and environmental health has clear benefits.
Without knowing exactly how our tampering is impacting both ourselves and the planet has the possibility of opening us up to a whole host of unintended and unexpected consequences to our actions.
This is a long way from saying that GMO is bad. It’s a whole lot closer to simply stepping carefully, armed with neon signs, on a road where potholes can crop up at any time.
CLICK HERE for a full list of GMO produce
CLICK HERE for a full list of GMO foods sold in supermarkets
For further reading, consider this article from Scientific American.