Happy December to Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange Readers! This month we’ll discuss the issues around GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), something I’ve been asked to write about in the aftermath of the defeat of Proposition 37 in California (the Right to Know campaign to label GMO foods). I have tried to present a balanced view, even though you can probably imagine that I’m not a big fan of some of the bigger examples of tampering with our food chain, such as Bt corn (which turns corn into a pesticide). I’ll explain briefly what GMOs are and I’ll list the reasons why we modify organisms. I will report on some of the risks associated with GMOs, but I’ve left out any scary pictures of rats with tumors. I’ll catalog the crops that are most affected by genetic modification, and list out the foods products where these GMOs (from crops) are likely to end up. If you are really wanting to avoid GMOs, I’ll give you some strategies and tools for doing so. Enjoy this month’s newsletter!
Before I jump right in to the GMO content, I take a brief moment to help out any of those readers that are just searching for a gift that they’d like to give children and families in the Wood River Valley. As you might know, Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange is a sister-organization to Nurture, which is in the process of accepting donations to expand its programming to improve the nutrition and health of families across the nation. We teach content that often times overlaps with the very same messages provided as a free-service through the monthly Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange newsletter. Our first readers of Healthy Kids, back in 2008, were actually the folks that provided the seed-funds to start Nurture in Chicago! I have refrained from asking for donations via this newsletter since that initial drive, but we have expanding needs this year and maybe just maybe you are itching to make a donation this year. If so, please use the “donate” button on the sidebar of Healthy Kids. In any case, read on. Thank you!
So, back to GMOs. What is a genetically modified organism, anyway? I like to keep concepts simple and visual, so here is my picture of what GMOs mean:
So we use parts of the DNA code from one organism (often viruses and bacteria) and place them into another organism (like corn or soy). Why would we do this?
Reasons we Genetically Modify Organisms
The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GMO foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways:
- Plants that are more drought tolerant
- Plants that are pest resistant
- Plants that are herbicide tolerant
- Plants that can kill bugs
- Plants that have higher nutritional value
- Plants that are cold tolerant
- Plants that are resistant to disease (bacteria and viruses)
Ok, so the above reasons sound pretty reasonable if we want to feed our growing population. The question is, are GMOs safe? Here is where I found lots of controversial advice, and I will try my best to share all sides of the story with you. Then you will have to decide for yourselves (and your families).
Position #1: GMOs do not have health risks
Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, phrased it last year inScientific American: “There is broad scientiﬁc consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.” As Ingo Potrykus, career plant scientist, put it in a review article for the Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, “GE-technology has an unprecedented safety record and it is far more precise and predictable than any other “traditional” and unregulated breeding technology.” GMOs have the potential to dramatically benefit people across the world by providing balanced nutrition and enhancing production in struggling areas. As mentioned above in the reasons why we modify organisms, they have the potential to address many of the very real concerns about our current and future food supply.
Based on the growing body of scientific literature, numerous scientists and scientific organizations have come out in defense of genetic engineering technologies and against labeling initiatives like Proposition 37, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Medical Association, theNational Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization. The AAAS statement put it succinctly: “Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
And what about the FDA? ”The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” This is from their statement of Policy on May 29, 1992.
Position #2: GMOs do have health risks
In 1999 the Lancet reported that when rats were fed genetically modified potatoes, they developed:
- Potentially pre-cancerous cell growth in the digestive tract
- Smaller brains, livers and reproductive organs
- Partial atrophy of the liver, and
- Immune system damage
GMO potatoes have since been removed from the market. Other health risks that have been associated with GMO’s, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, include:
- New diseases
- Nutritional problems
Other voices against GMO’s include that of Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth, who believes that GMOs are behind the dramatic increase in food allergies. Here is the video of her recent (2011) TedEx talk:
Kate Geagan, MS, RD also shares some interesting points in her October 2012 blog, Why GMOs are the Tipping Point of Taking Back Consumer Power.
Position #3: It depends
My research led me to conclude that GMOs should not be put into one blanket group–not all GMOs are the same. Every plant created with genetic technology contains a different modification. Adding Bt toxin to corn is different than adding Vitamin A to rice or vaccines to potatoes or heart-protective peptides to tomatoes. I DO believe in labeling, but I think more education should come first. People should know more about what’s in their food. I would have loved to see Proposition 37 pass, but perhaps a “generic GMO label” wouldn’t have told us what we really need to know: what exactly is the modification that this plant has received? Some modifications might be just fine and other not. And there definitely needs to be more testing done on the specific types of genetic modification.
Where are GMO’s found?
The big four crops that have been genetically modified include:
- Cotton and
What does that mean for GMOs in our food chain? Here is how GMOs find their way into the food chain:
It is estimated that GMOs find their way into 70% of our foods. If you are eating processed foods, you are most definitely eating GMOS. Here’s why:
How can you avoid GMOs?
Here are some simple strategies that you can use to reduce your intake of GMOs:
- Buy organic
- Buy products that are labeled non-GMO
- Avoid at-risk ingredients (processed ingredients, as mentioned above)
- Buy products listed on a Non-GMO Shopping Guide
Have a great month and a happy, healthy holiday season!
Institute for Responsible Technology: http://www.responsibletechnology.org/
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