A “GMO” is a genetically modified organism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering. Most often these days, we hear this term used in discussions about our food supply. More and more we are hearing about “GM foods” which are foods that have been genetically modified or have genetically modified ingredients. GM foods are most often crop plants. These plants are genetically modified in a laboratory with the goal of creating a plant that might be more pest and disease resistant, more tolerant to herbicides, drought and cold, or that might grow faster and bigger.
So, why should we care about whether our foods are genetically modified, or contain GMOs? After all, technically, farmers have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries as they have tried to cross-breed different varieties of plants for various reasons. However, it is only within the last few decades that scientists have had the technology and the knowledge to be able to truly modify the underlying DNA of a plant in the laboratory. While we may have been consuming somewhat genetically modified fruits and vegetables for generations, many argue that the amount of genetically modified substances we are currently eating, along with the extent to which some of our food has been genetically modified, may have negative health and environmental consequences that are still unknown.
Ever since the early 1990s, companies have been bringing forward GM foods for approval by the government. According to the FDA and the USDA, there are over 40 plant varieties have been genetically modified and that have completed all of the federal requirements for commercialization. You may be surprised at the prevalence of GM foods in our grocery stores. Currently about 70% of processed foods include GMOs. More than 80% of many crops in North America are grown using GMOs, while less than 1% of U.S. crops are organic. Corn and soy are among the crops most likely to have been genetically modified. Extensive usage of corn (including High Fructose Corn Syrup), soybeans and soybean derivatives in our foods has led to a high probability that you have been exposed to GM food products in your daily diet. Processed foods like breakfast cereals likely contain a small percentage of genetically modified ingredients because the raw ingredients have been pooled into one processing stream from many different sources.
Alarmed? I am, and I’m not alone. There is growing concern that the use of GM foods may cause unintended environmental harm and health risks such as allergenicity. Are you curious about the increase in food allergies in children? Many children have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. Many people are concerned that introducing a gene into a plant when it is not naturally present there may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals.
I was shocked to learn last week that one of the companies I purchase a lot of products from is using GMOs. While Kashi markets its products as “natural” and healthy, "[t]he soy in Kashi cereals comes from soybeans that have had a gene inserted to protect the soybeans from the herbicide Roundup, which kills weeds," according to an article published on USAToday.com on April 29, 2012. This discovery that Kashi was using GMOs in its products spread like wild fire on the internet and Kashi was bombarded by angry consumers. Kashi was surprised by the backlash and quickly issued a Facebook response, video and press release with the headline "Kashi Increases Commitment To Organic And Non-GMO Project Verification" including a commitment that “by the end of 2014, all existing Kashi® GOLEAN® cereals and Kashi® Chewy Granola Bars—representing Kashi's biggest offerings—will be Non-GMO Project Verified. Beginning in 2015, all new Kashi foods introduced into the market will contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and will also be Non-GMO Project Verified."
Due to the unknowns about the health implications of consuming GM foods, one of the biggest issues surrounding the GM food debate is the lack of adequate and transparent food labeling. Consumer interest groups are voicing concerns and demanding mandatory labeling of products that contain GMOs. They argue that people have the right to know what they are eating and contend that, historically, industry has proven itself to be unreliable in its forthrigh communication with consumers. Not surprisingly, the agribusiness industry believes that labeling should be voluntary. The FDA isn’t currently on board with more stringent labeling and has taken the position that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods. This means that Congress will likely need to get involved to require that all GM foods and food products be labeled. Many other countries have already required this type of labeling. In California last week, volunteer petition gatherers arrived at the county clerks’ offices in all 58 counties to deliver almost a million petitions signed by registered voters requesting the right to know what’s in their food. These petitions support putting the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act on the ballot in November.
The issue of GMOs in our food supply is just one more example of why consumers need to be diligent in learning about what they are eating and feeding their families. The bottom line on GMOs is that the long term impacts of usage are not yet fully understood, consumers aren’t always aware of what they are buying, and current regulations do not require manufacturers to provide enough information so that consumers have the ability to decide for themselves whether eating GM foods is a risk they are comfortable taking.