The GMO labeling legislation battle continues to rage after Vermont's law went into effect last week (and Congress considers a law that would negate it), and everyone seems to have an opinion about the safety and efficacy of genetically modified foods.
Those in favor of GMO foods tout their innovation, citing crops such as corn that has been genetically engineered to thrive on less water, or even genetically modified salmon that grows much larger than traditional breeds. On the flip side, many people worry about the repercussions of GMOs and call for labeling laws so that these foods can be more easily identified and avoided.
A major deterrent for those opposed to GMOs is the fact that many genetically modified crops have been specifically bred to withstand large amounts of herbicides, particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp. These crops are easier to grow and harvest, and according to some, they're just as healthy as conventional crops.
In fact, this is one of the main arguments of the anti-GMO labeling crowd, and one of the principal reasons that the FDA has yet to back a nationwide GMO labeling initiative.
“The agency is not aware of any valid scientific information showing that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class of foods, differ from other foods in any meaningful way,” it writes.
However, one recent opinion from a Genetic Literacy Project article adds more fuel to the debate: the argument that GMO foods are not only just as nutritious as their conventional counterparts, but may even be more nutritious than these non-GMO foods.
Could GMO Foods Be Healthier than Conventional?
The article showed how the vitamin content of certain packaged foods dropped when non-GMO ingredients were used, seeming to show that GMO foods were healthier. However, there is more to this than meets the eye.
The decreased vitamin content of packaged foods that do not contain GMOs is is not due to a lack of vitamins in non-GMO foods themselves, but rather to the trend of fortifying packaged foods with vitamins, which usually come from GMO food sources, devoid for obvious reasons in non-GMO versions of the same foods.
The article offered the examples of foods fortified with vitamin A, which is processed from soy, and vitamin C, which is processed from corn--two of the most common GMO crops. These fortifications are permitted in certified organic foods, but not in Non-GMO Project certified foods; without these fortifications, it's no surprise that the vitamin content dropped quite substantially.
Setting aside the fact that a varied diet complete with fresh fruits and vegetables should allow you to get all of the necessary vitamins and nutrients into your diet without relying on vitamin-fortified packaged foods, this nutrient discrepancy does not by any means mean that genetically modified foods are healthier than non-GMO foods – in fact, it's quite the contrary. Here are three reasons why.
1. GMO foods are filled with herbicides.
One of the major reasons that GMO foods should be a no-no for anyone trying to eat healthy is that they are so heavily sprayed with herbicides. Crops developed specifically to resist Monsanto's glyphosate, notably soy, corn, canola, and sugar beets, can withstand a more toxic dose of these chemicals to make them easier to grow. However, these chemicals then end up in your grocery store and on your plate.
After World Health Organization experts concluded that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen last year, the FDA has finally agreed to begin to test different foods for glyphosate residue.
In the meantime, however private companies have begun testing foods for glyphosate, often with shocking results.
The results of a 2013 comparison between GMO and non-GMO corn found that the former not only contained glyphosate but also formaldehyde; the latter, meanwhile, contained far more calcium, potassium, and zinc than its genetically modified cousin, further calling into question claims of a nutritionally superior genetically modified product.
An April analysis of popular breakfast foods found that nearly half contained glyphosate, and while this was certainly to be expected for foods containing GMO corn and soy, the study found that trace amounts of glyphosate were present in many non-GMO foods, including organic, cage-free eggs, and organic bread.
The herbicide's presence in these foods shows that these chemicals are becoming much more pervasive than anyone had expected, building up in the tissue of animals who consume GMO feed and popping up on non-GMO crops -- like oats -- where consumers wouldn't normally expect to find them.
In fact, a May lawsuit against Quaker Oats targeted the popular food company for seeming to hide the fact that it uses glyphosate to dry out its oats before harvesting by putting the word "natural" on its packaging. Consumers were left to believe that the product was wholesome and healthful, even as they ingested the chemical, which remained in trace amounts on the finished product.
While non-GMO foods may be grown with fewer herbicides or no chemical herbicides at all, these recent cases show that coating GMO foods with herbicides isn't just unhealthy for those who choose to eat these foods, but also for those attempting, however valiantly, to avoid them.
2. Non-GMO foods are more diverse.
The development of GMO foods has negatively influenced genetic diversity in agriculture, privileging genetically modified traits and allowing many natural breeds of crops to die out. Natural selection has always been a key to agriculture, with farmers cross-pollinating to obtain certain specific traits, but when this sort of selection is executed on such a large scale, it can be devastating for biodiversity.
Scientists suggest we're in the sixth mass extinction (the fifth occurred when the dinosaurs were wiped out), due to the vast number of animal and plant species that are disappearing from the planet. In fact, scientists believe that the rate of loss is higher now than ever before. And despite what the pro-GMO camp would have us believe, growing the same super-specimens of grains on every farm actually puts our food sources at more of a disadvantage.
“Too many farmers grow the same one or two varieties of purchased seed,” Christine Campeau of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance told the Guardian. “But if the rains come too early or too late, too much or not at all, the entire crop may fail. As climate change increasingly hits agriculture, farmers are realizing that the seed varieties that they grew, saved, but the abandoned decades ago are the very varieties that they now need.”
This problem not only puts our food sources at risk, it also means that we risk losing out on plant species that could contain cures for diseases or offer important health benefits. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that we use approximately 50,000-70,000 plant species for traditional and modern medicine worldwide, and according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s crop diversity has been lost in recent years due to GMO food production, taking with it unimaginable resources for increased human health.
3. GMO foods are unhealthy for the planet and put our future at risk.
When we talk about health, we often think of our individual health on a day-to-day basis. But what about the health of the planet -- and the health of our future generations? Increased herbicide and pesticide use and decreased biodiversity can have major repercussions on the earth, and eventually, these problems will come back to haunt us.
The presence (or lack thereof) of natural pollinators like bees, unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change, and the ways in which different crops and animals interact with one another are all changing faster than ever before, and many of these issues can be linked back to the use of herbicides and the destruction of biodiversity, both of which are connected to GMO food production.
Individual health may seem important now, and GMO advocates would have us believe that these products, specifically engineered to grow larger than nature ever intended and fortified with GMO vitamins and nutrients, are the answer. But not only are these foods not as nutritious as non-GMO variants, they are also less healthy for the future of our agricultural system.
As farmers grapple with these changing elements, the future of our food system will prove to be the most crucial element in the debate over the healthfulness of GMO foods.
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Cereal aisle image via Shutterstock