Genetically-modified (GM) foods have been available in the US, without much fanfare, since the first transgenic tomato was approved for sale in 1994. Today, 3 out of 4 processed foods on supermarket shelves—from soda to soup, corn chips to veggie burgers, pizza, and even baby food and infant formula—contain GM ingredients.
GM foods currently approved for human consumption include corn, rice, soy, wheat, alfalfa, flax, barley, maize, apples, papaya, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, sweet peppers, Brazil nuts, peanuts, bananas, pineapple, zucchinis, cassava, canola oil, beef, pork and cow’s milk. A genetically modified cow has even been developed that produces human breast milk.
If this is news to you, you’re not alone. Most people can’t even begin to describe a GM food, much less know whether they’re safe to eat. Those who oppose GM foods say they fear more allergies, cancers, and harmful effects on health that can’t yet be seen. Those who support developing GM foods say they can make farming more efficient so that more of the world’s population can be fed, reduce the need for pesticides and give products longer shelf lives.
Understanding GM foods
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally,” say experts at the World Health Organization.
In GMOs, genetic fragments of DNA from one organism to another, usually from a different species to modify plants, grains, and animals are randomly inserted, supposedly to improve a trait or achieve a desired result, such as rot-resistance.
But because genetically engineered foods aren’t labeled as such in the US, there’s no way to know if the food you’re buying has been modified, despite the fact that 96% of Americans polled by MSNBC say they want modified foods labeled. A CBS News poll last year revealed that 53% of Americans wouldn’t buy foods that contained genetically modified ingredients. Worldwide, more than 40 countries have either banned such food outright or have laws requiring labeling of GMO products.
In the US, genetically modified foods are regulated by the USDA, FDA and EPA, which, without one main oversight group, leaves testing, safety and compliance with current regulations largely up to the manufacturers.
Testing the safety of GM foods
Dr. Philip Bereano, who has studied GMOs for the last 30 years at the University of Washington in Seattle, maintains that genetically engineered foods have never been proven safe for human consumption even though federal regulators call them “substantially the same” as their natural equivalent. Some researchers, such as those at Penn State, argue that the GM foods may be safer because they undergo testing unlike other plants that are bred over time though traditional mutagenesis techniques, which have been used for centuries to create new plants and foods. Yet research conducted apart from the GM industry-funded studies has raised questions about GMO foods regarding adverse or unexplained health effects in both animals and humans.
Scientists in Canada, at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, at the University of Michigan, and at the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural resources have raised concerns regarding the effects on global health associated with GMO farming, related to the increased pesticide use due to the development of “superweeds” and the destruction of the planet’s biodiversity. The pesticides and herbicides used to treat GMO are now showing up in significant amounts in rainwater, water wells, and even mothers’ breastmilk in levels much higher than those permitted in cows’ milk, according to new research out of Brazil.
The World Health Organization notes that genetically modified organisms can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non-GMO environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way, in many cases destroying native organisms that have thrived for centuries. While consumers search for answers, the debate on the safety of these foods continues.
Avoiding GMO foods isn’t always easy. Experts recommend looking for certified organic or 100% organic products, which cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients. As more people request non-GMO foods, some growers and manufacturers are starting to label foods that don’t contain GMOs as such.
The 8 top modified crops are: Corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini and yellow squash. Avoid these or choose only certified organic options when possible.
Know that most sugar in the US is likely to be a combination of both sugar and GM sugar beets; choose “pure cane sugar” when possible. When buying dairy, look for phrases, such as “artificial hormone free,” or “no rBGH or rBST.”
Keep up with the latest lists of non-GMO foods at places like the Center for Food Safety, truefoodnow.org.
Understanding Product Codes
If the product is not organic, Dr. Joseph Mercola, physician and activist, asserts that you can determine whether or not produce is GMO by looking at its label. Conventional food that is non-GMO and non-organic has a 4 digit “product look-up” (PLU) code; organic foods have 5 digit PLU starting with a “9;” and GM foods have a 5 digit PLU starting with an “8.” For example, a conventionally grown banana would be 4011; an organic banana would be 94011; and a GMO banana would be 84011.
Health effects seen in animals fed GMO foods:
- Poor growth
- Damaged immune and organ systems
- Gene expression changes
- Infertility and reduced litter sizes
- Birth defects
- Shortened life spans
- Accelerated aging
- Increased disease rates
Health effects seen in people fed GMO foods:
- Allergic reactions and skin issues
- Antibiotic resistance
- Neurological problems and pain
- GMO-programmed pesticides in women and their babies
- Immune system suppression
- Increased chronic disease, such as irritable bowel