I know it's risky making a statement like this as a new blogger and private practice RD. Nobody wants to be associated with something synonymous with Monsanto, corporate greed and toxicity. But the truth is genetic engineering is not inherently good or bad. It's how the technology is used or abused that determines its value to the world. In fact, there are many instances where GMOs really saved our butts.
A Quick History of GMOs
Humans have been genetically modifying foods for centuries. Farmers have traditionally crossbred species to gain desirable traits like pest resistance. Unfortunately they couldn’t control which genes were transferred, and some unwanted traits often came with the good. It was a lot of trial and error to perfect the new breed.
Even though cross breeding is a form of genetic modification, this obviously isn’t what the protest signs are about. There are many modern methods, but one people often take issue with is transgenisis.
Transgenisis allows us to precisely combine the genes of 2 unrelated species instantly. The specific gene wanted from one species is inserted into another, and voila! For example, by inserting a certain bacteria gene into cotton, it becomes resistant to pests that attack crops.
Then Why All the Bad Press?
GMOs have a poor reputation among consumers. 39% of Americans and 33% of Canadians believe GMOs are worse for your health than non-GM foods. Even one of my personal heroes Neil Young has a whole album protesting them. But he targets the biggest source of our distrust in GMOs. The reason most of us believe they are evil. Monsanto.
In case you haven’t been around any hippies or news outlets lately, Monsanto is a corporate giant specializing in agriculture biotechnology. They produce a synthetic herbicide called RoundUp. They developed and patented GMO seeds that make crops resistant to RoundUp. It’s a genius business plan. It has allowed them to basically monopolize entire crops in the U.S. and abroad.
Farmers buy Monsanto seeds and herbicides every year. They sign a form promising they won’t save the seeds to replant the next year, and buy new ones instead. The result is farmers can tackle weeds without killing their crops, providing higher yields. They are also left dependent on a company that has taken control of the market.
Mass farming monocultures, obliterating family farms, patenting seeds and making herbicide tolerant crops are all decisions made by corporations. They have nothing to do with the nature of GM technology.
GMOs are often associated with, but are NOT the same thing as:
Globalized Economy or Monopoly
Synthetic herbicide or pesticides
So What IS the Deal with GMOs?
There are accusations that GMOs cause cancer, autism, allergies, gluten intolerance, etc. There is no scientific evidence behind this. GM foods must be approved by Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and/or Environment Canada before being put on the market. The rigorous process takes 7-10 years per product. Every GMO is unique, so they test for allergens and toxicity.
"After twelve years of reviewing the safety of novel foods, Health Canada is not aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel [GMO] foods are any less safe than traditional foods." - Health Canada
The Canadian government subjects all foods to the same standards once on the market. They justify no mandatory labeling of GMOs with their 7-10 year pre-market safety assessment. Once on the market, they are confident there is no difference from a health perspective between GM and non-GM foods. Genetically modified foods also tend to be more affordable, and mandatory labeling would drive up their cost.
This is a tricky issue. Although research overwhelmingly points to GM foods being safe, consumers still want transparency with how their food is produced. It's a subject most of us know little about, according to surveys. We are so disconnected from the production of our food that we have to stay vigilant and skeptical about it's origin. It is fair to want more resources to help us make informed decisions.
The nutritional value of plants is very much determined by soil quality, growing conditions, and the harvesting process. GMO crops are generally as nutritious as their original version. An exception is when a plant has been modified specifically to increase content of a nutrient. For example, Golden Rice has been developed to treat and prevent Vit A deficiency, which commonly causes child blindness and death in Africa and Asia.
Some are also modified to lower the amount of a hazardous compounds naturally found in the food.
Again, this really depends on what trait was modified. A negative example would be making a crop more pesticide resistant in order to apply MORE pesticides without killing crops. However, evidence shows that GMOs have led to an overall decrease in pesticide use. The example below explains how that's been possible with corn and cotton crops.
Another fun fact is that GM crops have higher yields, meaning we need less land to grow more food. They are efficient and prevent forests from being turned into farm land. We are already straining the planet to feed our current population, and the goal of most GM crops is efficiency.
The take home message is that it's the traits we chose to modify that determine if a GMO is 'good or bad'. The technology itself has great potential. The socioeconomic and environmental factors need to be taken into consideration when new crops are released. And the way large biotech companies conduct business is not reason to dismiss the virtually infinite possibilities of GMOs.
The stress people feel about GMOs ironically has mountains of evidence that it's bad for our health.
We have been led to believe that this technology is something to be feared, that every study proving its safety is the result of big corporate money. But science says there is no reason to stop exploring its potential to improve the environment and our health. Mothers should not feel guilty for feeding their children GM vegetables. People in developing countries should not be denied solutions to serious problems because of misguided fears. In the end GM crops may be the only way we can sustain ourselves.
See Part 1 of this article here.