What Is A GMO?

May 24, 2016
by Thrive Market
What Is A GMO?

It’s the buzzword that won’t go away: GMOs. And, lately, the conversation about genetically modified organisms only continues to heat up with passionate opinions on both sides.

Most recently the sugar industry has been embroiled in the chat as the two largest sources of the sweetener (sugar beets and sugar cane) are being traded as different commodities for the first time in history. Sugar cane is not modified, unlike the majority of sugar beets, and that discrepancy has created a shortage and higher prices as more and more candy manufacturers have adopted non-GMO practices. And yet this is just one example of the trickle down effect.

But even as more headline news is devoted to the topic, regulation is not—and consumers are often left in the dark to wonder what GMOs really are and what they should be doing about eliminating them from their diet. However, knowledge is power, and consumers that understand the full scope of GMOs as discussed here are better equipped to make healthy food decisions.

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Why GMOs were developed

A GMO is a living plant or animal species whose genetic material has been altered in a laboratory setting for purposes of preserving, protecting, multiplying, or producing a cross species of food that wouldn’t grow naturally.

This alteration, known as genetic engineering (GE for short), originally rose to popularity with farmers when they realized they could grow crops that could withstand herbicides and insecticides. While naturally-occurring plants are killed by these chemicals, genetically modified varieties can outlive them. That made it easier for farmers to rid their fields of pests without having to pay special attention to spraying around their crops.

As such, GE practices have been infiltrating our food supply since the ‘90s (the longer-lasting Flavr Savr tomato was among the first GMO products to hit grocery stores in 1994). In recent years, though, the idea has become heavily criticized for producing unstable genetic combinations that don’t normally occur in food and are therefore thought of as harmful to humans.

The safety of GMOs

While GMOs sound beneficial in theory, especially for creating a more economical food supply that can reduce the high costs of feeding families, a large and growing body of evidence has suggested that GMOs in fact present a significant risk to human health. Some of the potential concerns include:

  • Toxicity: Because of the genetic instability that comes with altering food’s makeup, new toxins can develop as a result. In the case of the Flavr Savr tomato, it actually created stomach lesions in lab rats that were tested.
  • Allergic reactions: Food labs can be breeding grounds for cross contamination of foods, potentially transferring an allergen into a product that might otherwise not have it. The other problem is that creating new types of foods can produce new allergies, too.
  • Antibiotic resistance: Many GMOs already have potent properties that make them resistant to pesticides, weed killers, and other chemical agents. When ingested, these foods could also have the potential to make medicine less effective for humans.
  • Immunosuppression and cancer: In much the same way, human immune systems can be affected by the genetically engineered compounds, compromising the ability to fight off serious illnesses such as cancer.
  • Malnutrition: Messing around with food’s natural makeup can also affect the amount of nutrients that are delivered to the body when eating them.

Because of these serious health risks, nearly 60 countries have now banned or placed significant restrictions on the sale and cultivation of GMO crops. But not America. In the States, there are currently no regulations on GMOs and GMO foods are not required to be labeled, even though polls consistently reveal that the grand majority of Americans would like to see this happen. In fact, it’s estimated that 80% of conventional processed food has some kind of GMOs.

GMOs and farmer rights

In addition to the fact that GMOs may present a health risk for consumers, there’s also a large amount of discussion about the risk to farmers’ rights.

Large agrochemical corporations have taken out thousands of patents on the genes present in genetically engineered substances, and as such, farmers are now required to purchase GMO seeds directly from distributors and are unable to save them year after year. Additionally, since GMO seeds often have an effect on the soil in which they are planted, farmers who want to step off of the GMO wheel are often unable to do so, due to the fact that natural seeds will no longer grow in the same fields.

Even worse, farmers can be subject to legal repercussion if gene-infested spores drift into their non-GMO fields during high winds or if they don’t pay the proper fees to work with these types of seeds. In Kenya, for example, an “Anti-Counterfeit Act” was recently instituted, which states that the genes contained within GMO seeds are technically intellectual property and farmers that purchase them must pay royalties on their crop production.

As these patents continue to become more prevalent, small farmers are faced with rising costs, the need to purchase more specific seeds, and the need to maintain relationships with large agrochemical companies. This places a substantial financial burden on many small producers across the world, and is currently one of the most prominent agricultural problems facing farmers in developing countries.

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Five common GMO foods

The list of foods that are notorious for being modified may come as a surprise. These five items are some of the most common on the market today:

1. Milk.

While there is a push in the food industry to trend toward milk that is raw and organic, many people are still drinking GMO milk—whether they know it or not. One of the most common growth hormones used to treat dairy cows, RGBH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), is a genetically engineered compound that is used to provoke a drastic increase in milk production. Despite the fact that the European Union, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all banned the use of RGBH in cows, as much as 40% of the dairy sold in the U.S. still contains it. If you want an alternative to dairy, consider non-dairy milk substitutes such as hemp, coconut, and almond milk.

2. Corn.

A whopping 90% of all the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. While most of the corn produced in this country is turned into animal feed, a good portion of that corn winds up in processed foods. Last year, GMO super producer Monsanto produced its first GMO sweet corn harvest and, today, many stores carry the new variety without a label. If you want to get around GMO corn, shop for local or organic varieties.

3. Alfalfa.

While consumers don’t always eat alfalfa directly, the animal sources of their meat and dairy likely do. Alfalfa is a common food source for dairy cows and, as such, the GMOs in the feed eventually wind up in products like milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt. Alfalfa is the fourth most prevalent crop in the U.S., and many varieties have been bred to be disease- or pest-resistant. To eliminate it from your diet, opt for grass-fed dairy.

4. Papaya.

Here’s a little-known fact: 75% of all papayas grown in Hawaii have been genetically modified to resist ringspot virus, which destroyed nearly half the papaya population in the early 1990s. To deal with the outbreak, scientists engineered a form of papaya that was resistant to the virus. As with most produce, you’ll want to shop organic varieties to stay clear of GMOs.

5. Soy.

This is one of the biggest culprits of GMO sourcing—93% of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Soy appears in a multitude of processed foods, including those that contain emulsifiers, lecithin, hydrogenated oils, and tocopherol. Thankfully, there are many soy-free products on the market you can buy instead.

How to avoid GMOs

Until GMOs are consistently labeled, it will be tough to avoid them entirely. However, there are some tips you can follow to help steer clear of them.

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Most of the fruits and vegetables currently sold in the U.S. are non-GMO. Certain varieties, including corn, zucchini, and yellow summer squash may pose more of a risk, but you can often avoid these varieties by purchasing produce from a reliable source or a local, organic grocer.
  • Look for non-GMO verified products. Though GMOs aren’t currently regulated in the States, many producers have taken it upon themselves to fight the revolution from the inside. The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that was created to become the country’s only third party verification system. It currently has 35,000 products from 2,500 companies that are vetted and labeled as non-GMO certified, many of which are sold at Thrive Market.
  • Pay attention to additives. Additives are often genetically modified, especially when it comes to soy, cotton, corn, or canola, which are prevalent in processed foods. Therefore, avoiding processed foods can help avoid GMOs and a whole other host of related health issues.
  • Purchase frozen produce. If you find it difficult to avoid fresh GMOs, opt for frozen varieties of fruits and vegetables, which are often free of modified substances.
  • Buy dry varieties. Simply purchasing dried grains, nuts, beans, and seeds can help avoid exposure. While these options take a bit more work, they’re a great way to ensure safe eating.

Illustration by Karley Koenig, Katherine Prendergast

Photo credit: Dominik Martin via Unsplash

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