Inside scoop: We get straight to the facts and share the GMO Foods Pros and Cons that we know today.
What have you been told about GMOs?
That they’re bad? To avoid them in your food? That they can harm the environment? Or may cause allergies and increase our resistance to antibiotics?
GMOs can be a scary notion, and for a lot of us its a bit concerning to think that we may not entirely know how our food is being manufactured.
On the one side, we have advocates claiming that GM crops will help solve world hunger issues, and on the other the opponents argue that modifying a plant’s genes is unnatural and may have serious effects on our health and the environment.
But, to understand whether or not ‘GMO’ is truly a scary word or if we should be avoiding GMOs all together, we first need to break down what a GMO is, the different types of genetic engineering methods, and the GMO foods pros and cons according to the science and what we know today.
WHAT’S A GMO ANYWAY?
Simply put, GMO stands for ‘Genetically Modified Organism’. This means that the genes of the plant have either been inserted, or altered in some form to create a food that’s unique from its original version.
The controversy of genetically modified foods has been an ongoing debate between activists and farmers, particularly in the past 10 years.
Today’s theory behind genetic modifications comes from the idea that GMOs can increase crop yield, farming profitability and increase the stability of the plant by increasing tolerance to certain pesticides or herbicides.
But this theory has turned into a tug of war game between those who’ve lost trust in the big agribusiness side of things, and question what’s really going into the food that’s being sold to us, with those who are trying really hard to make a living off their crops.
A catch 22 really.
There are 7 billion people on this planet, and the scientific advancements in genetically modifying foods have the ability to save the world from hunger, but at the same time, the question remains, are we killing our soil and jeopardizing the future mouths that we are going to need to feed by introducing these certain modification methods?
HUMANS HAVE BEEN ALTERING THE GENES OF FOOD FOR NEARLY 300,000 YEARS
Remember good old Darwin and the terms we’ve coined called “artificial selection” a.k.a. selective breeding? You know, the process in which we take the strongest of the species and breed them in order to fizzle out the weak to provide stability within the ecosystems?
While over the past 30,000 years there have been plenty of scientific advancements (including laboratories and the direct influence over the selection of genes), the idea of making modifications to a natural environment in order to create an organism that’s designed to survive longer is naturally ingrained in our way of thought.
So, what’s the difference?
Selective breeding still relies on natural reproductive processes while genetic engineering allows the insertion of foreign genes from different species, which could never happen in a natural environment.
From domesticating animals, to taking wild foods that aren’t palatable and turning them into delicious treats, all the way to creating rice to solve a vitamin A deficiency in certain tribes, there’s more to GMOs that meet the eye. That’s why we need to break down the GMO foods pros and cons, so we can have a deeper, unbiased understanding of whether or not we should be fearing and avoiding them all together.
THE FEAR OF GMOS
In 1973 the method of cutting 1 gene out of an organism and placing it in another was invented. The first experimentations were on antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. This opened a lot of doors, and brought on a lot of concerns for the future of genetic engineering.
By 1987 genetic engineering made its way to field crops, with the introduction of the first ever food crop to be commercialized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This was a tomato called the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato and was genetically altered to ripen longer and stay firm for picking and shipping.
Since the release of this tomato, and from the early 90’s on, tech labs have been modifying crops:
- To produce their own pesticides
- To resist herbicides
- To increase nutrition value
- And for the purpose of research
Thus creating a fear in the general public as to what exactly it is that’s being put in these crops, and why are we still spraying our food if they have been designed to keep bugs away?
While the World Health Organization, the Food & Drug Administration and the American Medical Health Association have all deemed ‘GMOs’ to be safe for human consumption, there’s still public fear, as well as farmers butting heads with activists and the whole ‘natural food world’ to try and get to the bottom of this whole GMO business.
It’s important to recognize the difference between genetic engineering methods (where the fear stems from), to find out if there’s validity to the claims and how to create a healthy lifestyle with the consumption of GMO foods.
“There’s a psychological tendency to desire naturalness in food and avoid some forms of novelty in food.” – Washington Post.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT GENETIC ENGINEERING METHODS?
Scientists transfer genetic material between species in 2 ways; by either shooting the material into the organism using a “gene gun” or by using a type of bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens that is modified to “infect” another organism with the new gene.
Some of the GMO fears come from the notion that genetic engineering can switch on otherwise inactive genes that may be harmful, and while that may be the case, scientists have found that this is just as likely to happen in nature.
Here are the GMO terms broken down:
Simple Selection – The superior plant takes over the inferior, it’s what’s been seen in nature since the dawn of time. For example, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts are all human inventions that were selectively bred from wild cabbage.
Cross Breeding – When a plant breeder takes the pollen of one plant and brushes it on another one, thus creating a hybrid. This is to combine the useful features of two plants.
Genetic Engineering – This involves creating a change in a plant or animal by transferring DNA material from one species to another through altering the gene sequence, which has an effect or a specific result. This uses bio technology.
For example, Bacillus Thuringiensis or Bt is a soil dwelling bacteria toxin that is found naturally in the guts of caterpillars and in insect-rich environments. What genetic engineers have done is insert Bt genes into some crops like corn to make them resistant to insects. Bt is also approved as a pesticide in organic farming, but the difference is that it is sprayed and not inserted into the food.
DID YOU KNOW? Synthetic insulin (yes, the hormone diabetics need to survive) is produced through genetically modified bacteria? In this case the human DNA is inserted into the bacteria to allow it to produce insulin.
You see how understanding GMO foods pros and cons becomes valuable in forming a non-bias view on the matter?
HOW WILD FOODS HAVE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS
“Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a “superfood”. A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple has a staggering 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets.” – NY Times
A lot has changed over the past couple thousands of years in regards to food. Modern day breeding techniques have allowed us to take the most desirable traits from our produce to have a specific outcome. Fruits are getting sweeter, vegetables are getting prettier, foods are easier to grab, they stay fresh longer, and are more palatable, but at the cost of what?
A great example is our modern day modifications to the wild corn crop (teosinte). The wild ancestor of our present-day corn was a grassy plant that had near to no resemblance to the modern day sweet corn. Teosinte had a maximum of about 12 kernels of corn, and needed a hammer to crack the kernels open, there was a lot of starch, little sugar, and nearly 10x the protein that modern-day corn has today.
Over several thousand years of breeding, the corn we’ve become so accustomed to has lost protein, gained sugar, and lost valuable antioxidants, such as beta carotene and other anthocyanins along the way, but tastes much more palatable.
Therefore, not all changes have necessarily been in our favour, and it’s important to understand how some crops and farming practices can have detrimental impact on the environment and our health.
THE RISE OF SUPER WEEDS & THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
What’s a superweed you ask?
Just like a superbug, superweeds are overtaking American farming landscapes, and are becoming completely immune to herbicides. The negative implications of superweeds are more than just a weed taking over. The result is farmers using more toxic herbicides on their crop, just to keep the weeds from taking over.
Just as we’re starting to see antibiotic resistant bugs popping up in modern health and medicine, with a correlation to the overuse of antibiotics, the same concept goes for superweeds.
Over the past 2 decades, the rise of Monsanto and big agribusiness, and the overuse of products like roundup, as well as monocropping, and lack of soil diversity, have contributed to the issue of the superweeds.
How are big agribusinesses choosing to solve this problem?
Well, you throw some more herbicides at resistant weeds, obviously, that’s the right approach, right?
The issue with this is that it completely disregards the biology of the soil. Excess herbicide use will inevitably contribute to further resistant of herbicides, and thus a vicious cycle of herbicide overuse not to mention the dangers it poses to human health.
But is this just a GM Food problem? As we can see in the graphs here and here, weed resistance is a worldwide problem that’s not just affecting GMO foods. And in this case, are GM crops alone the cause of superweeds or is it the overall overuse of herbicides?
A note on Roundup:
Roundup is a popular herbicide that was developed by farming giant Monsanto, with the key ingredient being glyphosate. It’s non-selective and will eliminate most plants it comes into contact with. It does this by inhibiting a metabolic pathway (called shikimate pathway). This pathway is not present in human biology.
While roundup has been deemed one of the safest herbicides out there due to the fact that glyphosate is considered safe for human consumption, several studies have actually found roundup more toxic to human health than just glyphosate alone. This could be due to the fact that Roundup has more than just glyphosate as ingredients, and some ingredients aren’t even released for public knowledge.
Which, brings us to the next point we have, knowing all about the GMO foods pros and cons, how can you become more mindful of what you choose to purchase? We know that genetic engineering, has it’s pros, so how do we regulate the cons?
MOST COMMON GM CROPS/ ROUNDUP READY SEEDS
Should you be eating genetically modified food? Well that’s completely up to you. In our humble and honest opinion, we would much rather you eating a whole food, whether it’s genetically modified or not, organic (read all about organic food facts here) or not than eating highly processed food. The tomato might be one of the highest on the list for GMO crops, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain beneficial nutrients for human health.
As a matter of fact, you’d be surprised about the most common GM crops out there. Most of them are mass produced for their oils, for clothes, used as additives in ingredients or as feed for livestock. Here are the top contenders for GM crops, and there are definitely simple ways around avoiding these top contenders.
- Sugar Beet
Simple trick to make sure you’re minimizing your intake of these GM crops would be to avoid additives that have ‘soybean oil’ or ‘corn maltodextrin’. Try to purchase oils made from olives or avocado, and avoid highly processed vegetable oils that contain both soy, corn and rapeseed/canola. Sugar beets are used for their sugar, so avoiding white sugar, and making sure you eat organic potatoes and corn* definitely come in handy if you are trying to minimize your exposure to roundup ready GM crops.
*Most edible sweetcorn/ corn on the cob we buy at the grocery store is not actually GMO.
Whether you choose GMO or not, eating a bigger variety of whole foods will definitely matter more for your health. Download your printable healthy pantry staples shopping list.
THE PROS OF GMOs & WHAT TO DO NEXT
As quoted by MIT are Roundup ready crops a “cash crop or a third world saviour”?
This is the dilemma of a world that contains a growing population and third world hunger issues. The thing is, not all GMO is bad, but marketing tactics created by the NON-GMO movement have led us to believe so. It’s an issue that has two sides of the story.
Some GM crops have increased vitamin or mineral content of food (golden rice, for example), but we beg to ask the question, without mass-producing crops, would we need to alter plant genes in order to create nutrient availability of food in the first place? And, is it even a reality to go back to a time where genetic scientific advances don’t exist?
WE DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS
The bottom line is that the planets population is getting bigger, the issue of starvation is a huge problem and we have the science and technology that may offer some answers. It’s also a fact that there is no going back from genetically altering food, but we can definitely stay informed.
With GMOs, we don’t have all the answers and all that we can ask is that enough research and studies are performed to demonstrate their long-term impact and safety, to have transparency and openness in the process, to be given the choice with proper labelling and to keep an open mind!
You can do your due diligence to look at the ingredient list and reach for foods that are void of the top contenders on the GMO list. You can eat a more whole food, plant-based diet, in order to reduce your carbon foot print, you can also visit local farmers markets, eat seasonal foods and buy grass-fed, or free range meats.
Remember that farmers have to make a living too and they are just doing what they can to feed their families, so supporting local initiatives and your local agricultural community is a great place to start, as well as learning what you can and stay up to date on the GMO trends.