The Great GMO Debate

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GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) have received a lot of attention in recent years and rightly so. Anytime the industrial food system changes the nature of the food we eat, it is right to question how this change effects our health and why it is deemed necessary. The question is whether the food produced as a result of GMOs allows more of the world to be feed for less money or whether the controversial seeds exist simply to increase profits for the food industry regardless of environmental and health consequences.

I am not certain of the answer to the above question but let’s first look at the issue in some more depth. First, what exactly is a GMO? A genetically modified organism is the result of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another species in order to obtain a desired trait. The two main traits added to food are herbicide tolerance and similarly, giving a plant the ability to produce it’s own pesticide. The idea is to give farmers the ability to grow crops at a lower cost.  Scientifically, GMOs are a pretty cool idea. Let’s change the species to make it more resistant to bugs and weeds thereby allowing more food to grow and consequently feed more people.

The benefits of GMOs for producers and food industry is largely economic. There is no health benefit to producing crops with GMOs. Three major crops in the U.S. are raised predominated from GMO seed: corn, soybeans and cotton. Given the large percentage of processed foods containing corn and soybean products as well as feed given to conventionally raised animals, in all likelihood you are consuming GMO products whether you realize it or not.

Supporters of GMO foods argue that the seeds are essentially identical to non-GMO seeds but with the added benefit of an ability to grow more crops at less cost. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) agrees with this position and have not required any testing on GMO seeds. You read that correctly. Our government does not require testing of GMO seeds because the genetic differences are not deemed important enough.

This point is precisely where I and many other advocates of a clean food system have a problem. Without proper study it is impossible to know what effect these genetic changes have on us humans. There is significant anecdotal evidence from people and livestock that introduction of GMO foods causes gastro-intestinal issues as well as fatigue, allergens, antibiotic resistance and the list keeps growing. Gastro-intestinal issues are by far the most evident problem associated with consuming GMO products.

We know that the food industry largely exists to make a profit. This fact is the nature of the free market system. The profit motives is what drives our economic system and food is no exception. The reason a lot of processed foods are loaded with some combination of sugar, salt and fat is to sell a product for profit not to support our health. Although it would be nice if we could rely on the food industry with the support of our government to sell us healthy foods I am not convinced.

My biggest concern is that the U.S. government has chosen not to properly research these seeds in favor of trusting information provided directly from the biotechnology industry who have an economic incentive to provide biased information. The majority of European nations have rejected the use of GMOs due to a threat on human health, further highlighting the importance of taking this issue seriously here in the U.S. Additionally, I have read that U.S. food companies have actually removed GMOs in product they ship overseas (see this article by Dr. Mercola).

Politically, this issue currently revolves around whether or not to mandate the labeling of GMO products. To repeat what I said earlier, I do not know the effect of GMOs on human health. That said, at the very least we have a right to know what is contained in our food. The non-GMO Project is currently testing and labeling products as Non-GMO Certified. Unfortunately, efforts to require such labeling have been unsuccessful. Only Whole Foods are voluntarily including Non-GMO labels in their stores. Thankfully, market demand is beginning to have an effect on labeling of GMO products. Recently, several high profile brands have decided to either remove GMOs from their products (Cheerios, Chipotle, Panera Bread to name a few) or voluntarily label their GMO products (Campbells).

The fundamental issue for me is that we need to be assured that these products are supporting our health rather than destroying it.  Surely, we have a right to know.

To learn more about GMOs including the efforts to mandate labeling of these products see the Institute for Responsible Technology and the Non-GMO Project.

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