What are GMOs and are they Safe for our Children?

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)* are created by selecting the genetic material from one plant or animal and inserting it into another. Should we really be eating these scientific experiments?

Grocery store shelves are packed full of GMOs, 75% of which are found in highly-processed foods. 92% of the corn and 94% of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically-engineered (GE) and most of the sugar and vegetable oil we consume is too. It is a likely bet that we have all snacked on our fair share of genetically-modified foods.

Why do GMOS exist anyway?

Traditionally genes have been transferred through cross-breeding, a process resulting in offspring with the most desirable natural traits from both parents.

Today an accelerated process to swap DNA and previously non-existing traits from one species to another may be utilized to strengthen a plant’s resistance to disease, the environment and pests, and/or to boost its nutritional value. I am pretty sure I will never forget my college professor describing how fish genes have been injected into strawberries to make them withstand the frost!

Are they Regulated?

Technically yes, however many argue the validity and lack of research conducted on the safety of GMOs.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are collectively responsible for the safety of human and environmental health in regard to GE food.

The EPA requires a food-safety analysis for any toxins used in GE crops.

The FDA considers most GMO foods to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) thus allowing crops to skip pre-market approval unless the new proteins significantly differ from the plant’s natural proteins AND may present a health concern. This idea, know as “substantial equivalence,” is argued to lack a clear definition and scientific basis. GE proteins are essentially compared by their composition without rigorous testing on biological effects.

The USDA must be notified of any GE crops or organisms that may be released into the environment. Simple trials may be signed off on while others that may be deemed high risk will require a permit.

What are the Potential Concerns?

  • They contain Pesticide and Herbicide Residues. GE corn often contains a bacterial toxin known as Bacillus thuringienis (Bt). Bt is known to transfer to the baby in pregnant women and has been linked to altered immune cells and gastrointestinal damage in animal studies. GE foods are also created to withstand treatment with glyphosate making high exposure to this herbicide likely. Glyphosate exposure has been associated with endocrine disruption, chronic kidney disease, birth defects, childhood cancers, and altered GI bacteria with increased infection in cattle.

Related: Glyphosate in our Food: What you Should Know

  • They are Nutritionally Inferior. GE crops have been found to have fewer micronutrients, macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat), and phytochemicals than their natural counterparts.

 

  • They Create an Allergenic Risk. GE foods may contain allergens from other foods, thus leaving consumers with food allergies at risk. One study found that genes from Brazil nuts transferred to soybeans created a reaction in those with an allergy to nuts.

 

  • They May Harm Mother Earth.  Glyphosate use increased significantly from 1996 to 2011 (527 million pounds) resulting in a reduction in our pollinator friend, the Monarch butterfly. Glyphosate destoys milkweed, the butterfly’s food source. “Superweeds” have also started popping up as a result of genes from GE crops being released into the environment. Escaped genes are also contaminating non-GE crops.

How Can GE Foods be Avoided?

Even though a new labeling law passed (which terms GMO/ GE foods as Bio-engineered or BE foods), it appears that consumers may still be left unclear about whether or not foods contain GMOs.

The Environmental Working Group’s 2014 Shopper’s Guide, provides several strategies for avoiding GMO foods:

#1: Buy Organic (GMO foods cannot be labeled organic)

#2: Buy Local (ask your farmers about their seeds/ crops)

#3: Look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified Seal” (voluntary certification where food manufacturers conduct tests to ensure their products do not contain GMO ingredients). 

#4: Know which foods are likely GE modified (this includes corn, soybeans, sugar, and vegetable, canola or cottonseed oil. There are other foods listed in the guide to watch out for too, including papayas!).

#5: Eat fewer highly-processed foods

No long-term studies on the safety of GMO foods have been conducted making me uncertain about the safety of these foods for my children. Even so, because the majority of the foods they are found in are highly processed, it seems a good bet to avoid too many of them anyway!

 

*GMO and GE  foods are used interchangeably throughout this post!

Photo credit: a katz/Shutterstock


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