Everything You Absolutely Need to Know About GMOs

The rapid spread of genetically modified organisms throughout the American food system is confounding. Just a hundred years ago junk foods were barely in circulation. Now, they’re not only prolific but also filled with toxic chemicals and those divisive GMOs. In fact, the addition of GMOs to our supply chain has happened so rapidly (essentially just over the last two decades) that most Americans don’t even know they’re eating any, let alone what they are or what risks are involved. Environmental degradation and food-related health issues are on the rise, and GMOs may play a critical role in causing irreversible damage to both our species and our planet.

Long-term research on the health or environmental effects of GMOs does not yet exist, making the use of foods containing GMO ingredients banned or tightly regulated throughout most of the developed world. But here in America, where no regulations on GMOs exist, it may be the most important time to know exactly what you’re eating and what risks are involved.

What Are GMOs?

You may have seen a number of terms from genetically modified organisms to GMOs, GM, genetically engineered or biotech, but they all essentially mean the same thing. GMOs are bacteria, viral genes, plants or animals created by gene-splicing technologies that alter the DNA of a species by introducing DNA from other microbes, plants and animals and/or pesticidal genes into the organism, creating unstable cellular structures that do not occur in nature. By denaturing an organism through modification, genetic engineering companies became legally capable of patenting their inventions—a decision that has sparked debate and controversy over the ability to own a trademark on life.

Why Are GMOs Sometimes Called “Frankenfoods”?

The practice of introducing new DNA and chemicals to seeds or animals (Aqua Advantage has developed a GMO fish) is similar to how Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein created his monster–through piecing together lots of different organisms. We all know what happened when the monster turned on Frankenstein, and many critics of genetic engineering have likened the inevitable backlash of GMO technology to the destruction and muderous rampage of Frankenstein’s monster.

Why Are GMOs Being Made?

The companies involved in the biotech industry, such as Monsanto, DOW, Cargill, ConAgra and Syngenta, believe that among the many theorized benefits genetic engineering can deliver, higher crop yields, drought, bug and pesticide resistant crops, improved nutritional content of certain foods and improved flavor are some of the most notable attributes of genetic engineering.

Many of the companies developing GMOs also make companion herbicides and pesticides like the glyphosate-based Roundup, Monsanto’s top-selling GMO companion pesticide. In fact, Monsanto was in the chemical business long before developing seeds. As many chemicals (like the ingredients in Monsanto’s Agent Orange (2,4,5-T and 2,4-D) were banned or became tightly regulated, many believe that the companies looked at ways of using some of the technology and chemicals in other platforms, like genetic engineering.

How Do GMOs Grow?

GMO seeds are planted just like regular seeds, but some, called “terminator seeds,” are designed to produce only sterile seeds, which forces farmers to buy new seeds each planting season instead of saving seeds, a practice used by farmers around the world for thousands of years. Some farmers who have successfully saved GMO seeds, or had patented GMO seeds drift onto their land from neighboring farms, have been the recipients of lawsuits filed by the multinational seed companies for patent infringement. Underperforming GMO cotton crops led to hundreds of thousands of suicides throughout India by farmers who were disgraced by their inability to pay the debts incurred to the seed companies.

Unlike conventional or organic crops, GMO seeds are designed to withstand excessive amounts of pesticides so that farmers can aggressively use the chemicals to kill weeds and insects that often destroy crops. Some of the seeds have these pesticides encoded into their DNA, meaning the foods they produce will also contain the chemicals.

What Foods Contain GMOs?

The California Department of Food & Agriculture has estimated that GMOs are now found in nearly 80 percent of all processed foods. The four most common GMO crops are corn, soy, canola and cotton, but GMOs are making their way into a number of other common crops from potatoes, tomatoes and papayas to sugar, rice and conventionally raised meat and dairy (as most factory raised animals are fed diets that includes GMOs).

Are There Any Health Risks Associated with GMOs?

As GMOs become more prevalent in the U.S. (while most developed countries around the world have bans or serious restrictions on genetically modified foods), more research is also being conducted on the human health risks associated with eating GMOs. Studies have linked GMOs with a rise in food allergies, serious organ damage, nervous system disorders and even certain types of cancer. But the bottom line for many opposed to GMOs is that without enough research, there’s simply no way to tell how harmful GMOs are–and that’s not a risk worth taking, especially when the effects GMOs are having on the environment are so obvious. The pesticide resistance of GMO seeds has led to the excessive use of chemicals like Monsanto’s Roundup, which has increased in use more than 15 times since GMOs were deregulated. It is now found in ground and rain water and air samples and in 93 percent of pregnant women in a recent study. And, bugs and weeds resistant to glyphosate are requiring the use of even more potent pesticides, like 2,4-D, a chemical in Agent Orange, which bring additional environmental and health risks to virtually all ecosystems exposed.

Are GMOs Labeled?

In many countries around the world, foods containing genetically modified ingredients must be labeled. But the U.S. does not require any labeling of GMOs. A campaign is currently underway in California that could make it the first U.S. state to require labeling of GMOs.

How Can GMOs Be Avoided?

Only foods that are 100 percent certified organic or bear the Non-GMO Project’s certification are your full-proof guarantee that you’re avoiding GMOs. Foods labeled “natural” or “contains organic ingredients” can still include genetically modified ingredients such as corn, soy or canola.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger






Image: MillionsAgainstMonsanto