The hot new acronym is GMO and it doesn’t stand for “Grow More Okra.” It is short for Genetically Modified Organism and these days GMOs are present in more than 70 percent of processed foods found in supermarkets across the country.
The practice of creating GMO commercial food crops such as corn and soybeans is controversial. While creators hail GMOs as the answer to world hunger and supplemental nutrition, existing technology still is young and our present understanding of the way DNA really works is very narrow.
The subject of genetically engineering food is broad, technical and difficult to comprehend without some understanding of its history. Deliberate manipulation of plant genes to improve species has been going on for centuries and in the case of fruits and vegetables has resulted in hybrids with better flavor, higher yields and resistance to disease.
It was in the 1950s that plant breeding began to lose its innocence with the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. This breakthrough eventually resulted in the ability to transfer genetic material between different organisms, including between plants and animals.
Scientists now were able to create DNA sequences that never could appear naturally due to innate barriers in all living organisms that protect against the introduction of DNA from a different species.
This opened up a whole new laboratory of possibilities and it wasn’t long before scientists were busy working on combinations such as fish genes spliced with strawberries to produce frost tolerant fruits and salmon inserted with human genes to make them grow faster. In China, scientists have genetically engineered cows with human genes in order to produce milk with the nutritional properties of human breast milk.
However, the most widespread use of GMOs is for breeding plants with built-in crop protection. Genetically engineered plants are bred with genes either to resist particular insects and viruses or to increase their tolerance toward certain herbicides.
But there is little known about the long-term effects of GMOs in humans and animal feeding studies usually are limited to only 90 days. Studies funded by companies with financial interests insist genetically engineered food is safe. However, in independent studies there have been enough findings concerning infertility, organ disruption and immune problems for the American Academy of Environmental Medicine to ask physicians to advise all patients to avoid genetically engineered food.
In a 2009 study published by researchers with the International Journal of Biological Sciences, data clearly reveals “new side effects linked with GM maize consumption … associated with the kidney and liver … with other effects noticed in the heart, adrenal glands and spleen.” It was noted that the experiments should be repeated using feeding times longer than 90 days.
“Cancer, nervous and immune system diseases and even reproductive disorders can become apparent only after one or two years … but they will not be evident in all cases after three months.”
Even the World Health Organization is taking an active role in relation to GM foods, partially “based on the need to examine the potential negative effects on human health of the consumption of food produced through genetic modification.”
Despite the fact that these commercial food crops still are in relatively early stages of research and development, they are being forced on the general public in countless everyday food items.
According to the USDA, 94 percent of soybeans and at least 75 percent of corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified. These food crops are grown as grain for feeding beef and poultry and also as ingredients for innumerable processed foods.
Products containing ingredients derived from non-organic soybeans and corn most likely contain GMOs.
The list is long, but a few of the most common ingredients are soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, corn flour, corn gluten, corn starch, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. These ingredients are found in products such as mayonnaise, frozen yogurt, tomato sauce, pasta, tofu, peanut butter and enriched flour, just to name a few.
Currently there is no required labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in the U.S., leaving consumers to decipher complex ingredient lists or buy only organic in order to avoid GMOs. The European Union requires mandatory labeling for “products derived from modern biotechnology or products containing GM organisms,” allowing consumers to make informed choices.
It seems Americans should be afforded the same consideration but there is a tremendous amount at stake for the U.S. companies that produce GMOs and labeling in this country is being strongly discouraged by voices with financial power. We will delve further into the contentious issue of GMOs in our food supply in our October column. Until then, eat well and be well … and read labels!