1. In laymen’s terms, what is a GMO, and what kind of examples of these do we see every day? A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is an organism whose genes have been tinkered with using genetic engineering techniques (as opposed to traditional methods of selective breeding which produced things like livestock breeds and vegetable varieties). This ranges from corn that has been altered to be tolerant of certain pesticides to cats that glow in the dark. GMO’s also include bacteria & small mammals that have been altered for pharmaceutical use, or “pharming.” However, when most folks talk about GMO’s, they are talking about crops. Agriculturally, the first GMO product to hit American shelves was the FlavrSavr Tomato 1994, and today, consumers are offered an increasing number of GMO products including cotton, corn, and soybeans:
It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of these commodities grown in the United States are GMO crops.
2. Are there inherent health risks in consuming these kinds of foods? So, here’s the problem. The research is quite mixed on GMO crops. Quite a few sources support the conclusion that GMO foods pose no health risk. On the flip side, other studies suggest the opposite: genetically engineered toxins appear in fetal and maternal blood samples, GMO consumption correlates to problems in the liver and kidneys, and herbicide tolerant corn is associated with a host of health problems in laboratory rats. So who do you believe? We’re inclined to think that if you can avoid eating poison–even just the smallest amount that may or may not even be poisonous but you can’t be certain because no one can give you a straight answer–why not just avoid it? Also, it wasn’t too terribly long ago that we used to hose children down with DDT to demonstrate how safe it was, which could give consumers some degree of trust issues. Similarly, health risks are only half the game. GMO’s have ecological impact as well: evidence suggests that we’re breeding pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant weeds, killing off the insects we do need, and breeding out diversity, which is a vital part of ecological success.
3a. What are the benefits of labeling GMO’s to distinguish them from organically grown products? One of the wonderful and terrible things about the American marketplace is that each and every one of us has the power to effect change by voting with our dollar. And we can cast the vote most in alignment with what we think is right only when we are well-informed. Therefore, it is desperately important that consumers know exactly what they are supporting. This issue, of course, is only an aside to the potential health risks we are exposing ourselves to every time we unknowingly consume something containing GMO products.
3b. So what is America’s hesitation to labeling GMO’s? There are many, many answers to this question. There are economic answers: a large, easy to manage crop is money in the bank, so why discourage that? Similarly, Monsanto, the most prominent GMO producer, lives in the United States, where it, too, can vote with its dollar. Also, the science backing the health problems associated with GMO’s is a tricky thing. Take, for instance, the first study to be published on the subject, in which rats being fed GMO potatoes were studied; however, isolating the physiological effects of GMO potatoes vs. regular potatoes is tough because a diet of exclusively potatoes (GM or otherwise) will kill just about anything. Science can’t give you good answers if you ask it bad questions. So Americans are reluctant to hang their hats on that one. The biggest factor, perhaps, is ignorance. The first GMO products were made available very quietly in 1994–this means that there’s a good chance that anyone under thirty has been consuming GMO’s for most of his or her life. Food can be the best medicine or worst poison nobody knows they’re consuming every day, and if we better appreciated the effect our diets have on us, we would be much more discriminating.
Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.