What Are GMOs? What Are GE Foods?
Simply put, GMOs are genetically modified organisms that have been genetically engineered in a laboratory by inserting DNA of different species, including plants, animals, bacteria, and viruses. Genetically engineered food is just one subset of this.
Contrary to some opinion, agriculture has NOT been using genetically engineered foods for long. American farmers first planted genetically engineered crops in the mid-1990s. Between 1999 and 2000, genetically engineered soy, cotton, corn, and canola became the norm and now include large percentages of these crops grown in the U.S., as well as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and India.
There is a huge difference between common sustainable agricultural practices likegrafting, plant breeding, crop rotation, cover crops, soil enrichment, natural pest predators, and biointensive integrated pest management, all of which have proven benefits to yield and soil fertility and the biotech industry’s methods.
The Problem With Genetically Engineered Food – Big Picture
We may not have to worry about fish genes in our strawberries, but there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned, namely adverse consequences for soil, human and environmental health, with little effect on global food issues.
Environmental Health, Human Health, and Food Security
Understandably we are continually looking for more efficient methods to feed the world’s hungry. Experts expect the world will add another 2 million people in the next 40 years or so. Nine billion people is a lot of people, but the argument that genetically engineered food will provide food security, particularly in the developing world, is unfortunately not likely to be the solution.
“I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World — and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa — access to the improved seeds, fertilizers and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs….While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by the so-called organic methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.”
–Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel-Prize-winning agriculturalist and father of the Green Revolution
The myth that we must encourage a second Green Revolution is naive. The first Green Revolution certainly increased production, but managed to do little to curb world hunger, and instead has led to soil degradation, greater pest and weed problems, and ill health effects. Even now we are growing and raising enough food to feed the world, and 30% of food produced worldwide is wasted, yet a billion live in chronic hunger.
“Some researchers have shown that none of the genetically engineered seeds significantly increase the yield of crops. Indeed, in more than 8,200 field trials, the [genetically altered] Roundup seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties, according to a study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board of Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences. Far from being a solution to the world’s hunger problem, the rapid introduction of genetically engineered crops may actually threaten agriculture and food security.”
–Dr. Peter Rosset, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy and co-author of World Hunger: Twelve Myths (Grove Press, 1998)
Prevailing wisdom indicates that developing nations who succumb to genetically engineered crops will only lead to further food insecurity through a dependence on monoculture and the biotech corporations, besides the evidence of decreased soil life and devastating health effects for humans and wildlife we are already seeing from glyphosphate (Roundup).
Scientists are now seeing the herbicide in GE food in the bloodstream of pregnant women and in umbilical cord blood. In many parts of the world, there have been enoughdocumented cases of infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects from the glyphosphate that accompanies genetically engineered crops that strongly suggest we should be concerned.
Furthermore, leading scientists agree that we don’t know enough about more long-term effects of eating and growing genetically engineered foods, which is exactly why the thought of deregulation of certain GMOs is so scary. We just don’t know what we don’t know. Science has not yet been able to produce a large enough body of peer-reviewed study into the health and environmental effects of genetically engineered foods.
All of this is not to say that there may be some benefit to GM technology, but the issues surrounding glyphosphate, Monsanto, and scientific determination of risk are too great to ignore completely. Once we unleash GM seeds, it is highly unlikely that we can turn back and run the great risk of losing our small, organic family farms due to cross-contamination. We should then proceed with caution when approving any new unlabeled GM crops such as 2,4-D corn.
Just Label It
Whether you feel we should continue to develop genetically engineered technology for food crops or not, the majority of Americans, an estimated 92%, think we should be able to decide whether or not to eat them.
I believe we all have a right to make the choice whether we feed our families genetically engineered foods or not. I also believe that the U.S., like Japan, Australia, and the European Union, should require labels on the 80% of packaged foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients and are already on shelves.
“Today the vast majority of foods in supermarkets contain genetically modified substances whose effects on our health are unknown. As a medical doctor, I can assure you that no one in the medical profession would attempt to perform experiments on human subjects without their consent. Such conduct is illegal and unethical. Yet manufacturers of genetically altered foods are exposing us to one of the largest uncontrolled experiments in modern history.”
–Dr. Martha R. Herbert, pediatric neurologist
What You Can Do
Donate your voice. Tell the FDA we have a right to know and to require a label on genetically engineered (GE) foods. Call, e-mail, or mail U.S. state and federal elected officials and government agencies.
Vote with your wallet. Avoid the packaged, processed foods that are likely to contain GE ingredients. Look for a certified organic label, the Non-GMO Project Verified label, and/or avoid the top GE food crops: corn, soy, canola, and beet sugar. Some say, if you have to ask, avoid it.
Occupy your food supply. Take the ultimate control of some of your food supply by growing a food garden, joining a CSA, or buying directly from a local farmer you can trust.
Learn more. Educate yourself, your family, your friends on this issue.
What are your thoughts about where genetically engineered foods are headed and the campaign to label them?
Note: All quotes were from a look at both sides of the GE foods issue from PBS’s Frontline.