Genetically Modified Crops: Frankenfoods, Miracle Foods, Or Something Else?

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on September 14, 2013

Welcome back to our conversation about what goes into the food we eat. Today’s blog, no. 5 of 6, discusses the use of genetically modified plants (often called “GMO” or “GM”) as a food source.  We have heard from many that they are concerned about GM foods and that the available information on this topic seems confusing. We hope this blog addresses some of your questions.

Where might I find GM foods?

In the U.S., the most common genetically modified plants are soybean and corn.  Believe it or not, you likely have been eating GM food for years.  According to the USDA, 88% of the corn and more than 90% of the soybeans planted in the U.S. are GM. So if you regularly eat processed foods, which often contain corn or soybean oil, you likely have been eating GM foods for years. We provide this data not to scare, but to inform because we believe that it is important to know what goes into the food you eat.

What is a genetically modified (“GMO” or “GM”) plant?

GM plants are created in a laboratory when scientists introduce foreign DNA into plants. This foreign DNA gives the GM plant new, beneficial traits. The two most common traits are insect resistance and herbicide resistance, and both types are prevalent in the U.S. food supply.

Insect resistant plants contain beneficial foreign DNA that makes the plant toxic to certain plant eating insects.
Herbicide resistant plants contain beneficial foreign DNA that prevents certain herbicides (applied by farmers to control weeds) from killing them.

What are the most common concerns with GMO foods?

  • That GMO foods are more toxic to humans than conventionally grown foods;
  • That GMO foods are more allergenic (allergy producing) to humans than conventionally grown food;
  • That GMO foods have caused an increase in pesticide use;
  • That it is impossible from the label to tell whether a product contains GM food;
  • That the foreign DNA introduced by scientists into GM crops will harm beneficial insects; and
  • That widespread use of GM crops will undermine traditional farming techniques, like crop rotation and small-scale farming.

Do we find any of these concerns to be credible? 

We at Healthy Kids realize that the debate over the costs and benefits of GM foods will go on for years to come. We also understand that you have many things on your mind other than what are the costs and benefits of GM foods. Still, some of the issues associated with these foods do concern us.

  • For instance, some articles have reported that GM foods have caused an increase in pesticide use. These articles seem untrustworthy to us because they lump together conflicting information about two types of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides) to make a broad general statement. What few of them highlight is the fact that insecticide use is DOWN, while herbicide use is UP, with GM plant technology. Regardless, we are concerned about increased herbicide use because our society does not fully understand their long term impacts on humans or the environment.
  • We would like to see clear labeling indicating whether or not every food product is genetically modified or GM. Currently, labeling is voluntary. So unless you purchase all of your food from a farmer you know personally or the label says 100% organic, chances are high that you are eating GM food. This lack of labeling robs you of information, but more importantly the option to avoid GM foods if you desire.
  • The impact of GM plants on beneficial insects concerns us too. For example, pollen from GM corn is toxic to Monarch butterfly caterpillars. The DNA that makes these GM plants toxic to insects could spread to other plants, and we do not know the downstream effects of this on beneficial insects. Could it kill off all of the Monarch butterflies? How about honeybees? This may seem like pure speculation, but we do not want to see anything like this happen for many reasons (including the fact that bees pollinate 80% of the food we eat!).
  • It appears that the spread of GM plant technology is making it harder for farmers to follow traditional farming methods. Farmers face significant economic pressures, and GM crops appear to increase productivity for certain crops. But GM plant technology works best in the context of monoculture farming—the practice of growing the same crop on the same plot year after year after year. This practice can lead to the overuse of fertilizers and severe environmental consequences, as we mentioned in a prior blog.

Are GM Foods Safe?

It depends on whom you ask.

Broad scientific consensus supports the conclusion that GM foods are generally safe.* And more than a decade of research from the US and Europe—where GM foods have been consumed for the longest time—support the conclusion that GM foods are safe to eat. Put another way, there is no reliable data indicating that GM foods are more toxic or more allergenic than conventional food.

Many food purists, concerned citizens, and environmental groups disagree. And a number of countries, including Japan, Austria, and Greece, have banned GM foods.

It also depends on what you mean by “safe.”

If you mean safe to eat, there appears to be broad scientific consensus that it is. If you mean safe for the environment, the picture is less clear.  GM crops appear to be associated with an increase in herbicide use, and the long term effects of these chemicals are unknown. We do know, however, that they end up in storm run off and eventually lakes, rivers and ground water. In addition, GM crops are usually cultivated using monoculture farming, a destructive farming practice that harms the environment on both the local and national level, as highlighted in a prior blog.

What is our approach to GM food?

While we feel that these foods are as safe for humans as conventionally produced foods, we still recognize GM foods are harmful to the environment. Our approach to many foods at Healthy Kids Company is moderation, and this what we recommend here. Reduce the consumption of GMO foods as much as possible without going crazy—easier said than done!

We find these practices helpful:

  • Buy locally sourced food from the farm whenever possible. This allows you to ask the farmers about how they grow their crops and support local farms. (But local does not guarantee non GMO produce, so ask!)
  • Purchase 100% organic products with the USDA seal whenever possible, although cost may be an issue. (Organic certification requires that seeds are not genetically modified. However, organic certification does not require GMO testing of organic crops.)
  • Look for foods labeled as non-GM or non-GMO. (This too is sometimes difficult because the FDA does not require companies to label whether their products contain GM food, and few companies indicate a distinction.)
  • Read labels. Many cereals, breads, crackers, processed snack foods and commercially baked goods contain high fructose corn syrup, corn oil or soybean oil, and these are usually genetically modified.  Other crops that might be genetically modified are canola (made into canola oil), cotton (made into cotton seed oil), sugar beets, alfalfa sprouts, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow squash. 
Common Ingredients Derived from GMO Risk Crops Are: 
Amino Acids, Sodium Ascorbate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.
  • Look for theNon-GMO Project Verified Seal”  
  • Start at breakfast. By reducing GMO at one meal, you can make an impact on the overall consumption of GM products, without getting overwhelmed. Breakfast is a good place to start.

*See: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/1025gm_statement.shtmlhttp://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/csaph/a12-csaph2-bioengineeredfoods.pdfhttp://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/.

 

➤ Read our related blogs!

Part 1:  Think You Know What's in Your Food? Think Again.
Part 2:  What’s In Your Food? Growth Hormones, Superbugs and Partially Digested Plastic? It’s Possible!
Part 3:  Down on the Farm—Crops Permeated With Pesticides and Steeped in Sewage Sludge? You bet!
Part 4: Pull Back the Curtain On the Food Industry Wizards To See What Toxic Chemicals Are Used and Why.

➤ For a visual index of all our blogs see our Pinterest board, Blog, blog, blog. . .
➤ Please view the original infographic.

For more go to: FDA.org; http://www.efsa.europa.euhttp://www.ucsusa.orgwww.nongmoproject.org.

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