The Truth About GMOs
Whether you’re a health food shopper, conscious consumer, or have been to a grocery store recently, chances are you’ve heard of genetically modified organisms, known simply as GMOs. But what exactly does GMO mean? How can you tell if you’re eating them? Why are foods that have been genetically modified or engineered not labeled at the grocery store?
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration’s website:
Genetic engineering is the name for certain methods that scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism. For example, plants may be genetically engineered to produce characteristics to enhance the growth or nutritional profile of food crops. While these techniques are sometimes referred to as “genetic modification,” FDA considers “genetic engineering” to be the more precise term. Food and food ingredients from genetically engineered plants were introduced into our food supply in the 1990s.
This description does not offer many specific details. What it does establish, is how long the process has been implemented in the U.S. In contrast, the website Live Science detailed several examples of what exactly can be manipulated when the DNA of a plant or an animal is genetically engineered.
The range of GMOs can boggle the mind. Geneticists have bred GMO pigs that glow in the dark by inserting into their DNA a gene for bioluminescence from a jellyfish. Tomatoes have been developed that resist frost and freezing temperatures with antifreeze genes from a cold-water fish, the winter flounder.
Food that has been genetically engineered goes against nature, but why go to such extremes? In an article released by the Associated Press, Mary Clare Jalonick wrote that chickens can be bred with immunity to bird flu, steer can be bred without horns– which makes for a more efficient slaughter. GMO sweet corn is bred to provide its own insecticide. That’s right, food growing, while simultaneously producing insect killing repellant. How can that possibly be safe to eat? According to Monsanto, the leading company that produces GMO biotech seeds, as well as weed killing products such as Roundup Ready Plus, their website states:
There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans.
Certainly there are many other products that are not tested on humans before they are offered to consumers. But GMOs are recently created, man made food. There is value in knowing what you are eating, and knowing what you are eating is safe.
(Photo credit: Sustainable Pulse)
This leads to one of the main concerns regarding food that has been modified: labels. Genetically modified food grown in the U.S. does not have to be labeled as such through the FDA before it is ready for purchase, even though, in 64 countries, it is a requirement.
While there is currently no law at the federal level to label GMOs, through great effort, some individual states have managed to push through. On May 8th 2014, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed bill H.112 into law, requiring GMOs in Vermont be labeled, stating:
Vermonters take our food and how it is produced seriously, and we believe we have the right to know what’s in the food we buy. I am proud that we’re leading the way in the United States to require labeling of genetically engineered food. More than 60 countries have already restricted or labeled these foods, and now one state–Vermont—will also ensure that we know what’s in the food that we buy and serve our families.
In Oregon, a vote will take place in November to determine whether or not GMO foods will be mandated to carry a label. Of the 87,213 signatures needed to qualify for the 2014 ballot, as of July 23, 118,780 verified signatures had been received.
While individual states are fighting to label GMOs on their own, the lack of federal law is alarming. According to the website Get the Facts about GMOs, which is a project of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an estimated 80% of food grown in the U.S. has been genetically modified or engineered. The largest crops include corn, soybeans and canola. These staple ingredients are in practically everything, including canned goods, cereal, baby formula and pet food.
In 2013, Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer, gave a TED talk in Manhattan urging for the labeling of all GMOs. Watch him here:
Because GMOs have not been proven to be safe, and because they are currently not labeled, there is only one way to avoid eating them entirely: organic food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has strict guidelines for what can be labeled as certified organic. Food that has been altered or modified in any way is strictly prohibited. Among the stipulations, organic farmers must provide their animals with certain conditions and meet regulations:
Access to the outdoors so animals can exercise their natural behaviors.
Support animal health and welfare.
Preserve natural resources and biodiversity.
Not only is eating organic the best way to ensure you know what you’re eating, it is arguably more ethical.
There are many grocery stores that make it a point to avoid GMO products. Whole Foods, for example, even has GMO facts on their website, attempting to increase awareness in their shoppers, and offer them options on avoiding them entirely, via the non-GMO project.
Eating organic is the best and only to avoid GMOs, but what if you want to learn more or get involved? There are petitions in support of label laws, as well as countless hashtags on twitter to raise and keep up awareness. Among them:
justlabelit.org, supported by Gary Hirshberg (TED talk).
credomobilize.com , created by chef and food activist Tom Colicchio.
gmoinside.com, petition demanding Starbucks serve only organic dairy products.
You can also see check the status of GMO label laws in your state here.
*Title image photo credit: The Liberty Beacon