Advances in technology and innovation are generally considered good: they improve on existing products or create new solutions to existing problems. Recent concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have shown that not every technological development is well received. The question then is, are GMO foods really bad for you?
Laws have been introduced in many countries that help consumers identify foods that involve some level of genetic modification, but it turns out that it’s more than likely that we’ve all been eating GMO foods without even knowing it.
What Are GMO Foods?
There’s a lot of confusion around what a GMO food actually is.
The simplest definition describes a genetically modified organism as the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of a foreign species are introduced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal.
This foreign gene often comes from a bacteria, virus, insect or animal. The introduction of the foreign gene is often an attempt to change the natural characteristics of the plant or animal that the gene has been introduced to.
Changing the genes of food isn’t anything new, it’s been happening in nature and in farming for centuries. Farmers have been cross-breeding flowers, seeds and crops by hand for a long time.
Genetic engineering is simply taking this cross-breeding practise one step further and adding a scientific process to it, where different genes are experimented with and tested in a laboratory.
What’s All The Fuss About?
If gene manipulation of crops and food has been happening in agriculture for so long already, what’s all the GMO fuss really about?
The answer lies in the types of genes that are being introduced and how the introduction occurs. In traditional cross-breeding practises farmers rely on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms to breed two genes together. This is not the case with genetic engineering where scientists are often introducing a gene that would not occur in nature and are effectively forcing them together.
Modern day GMO foods can most often be classified by the intent behind the modification.
One class of modification aims to introduce resistance to disease or tolerance to pesticides. The primary objective behind this type of modification is economic gain – the ability to produce crops more effectively and/or for less cost.
The second class of modification aims to improve on the nutritional or health benefits of a particular food. This type of modification is generally being targeted at foods eaten in developing countries in an attempt to reduce malnutrition and remove vitamin deficiencies.
The fuss about GMO’s centres around the issue of not knowing whether laboratory cross-breeding is introducing any side effects that haven’t been identified during the gene modification process.
People from all backgrounds are raising concerns on the ethics and the non-natural nature of the manipulation of genes and food products.
Are GMO Foods Really Bad?
While many of the intentions behind genetic modification are valid and worthy, there is yet to be any overarching research performed that can unequivocally state that GMO’s have no negative impact.
There have been several research initiatives which set out to investigate the health impacts of GMO’s. To date there has been no evidence to support the idea that GMO consumption causes any issues for humans, and a recent literature review conducted in 2011 supports the claim that there have been no documented evidence of harm.
Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) state that GMO’s are safe to eat.
Yet, despite all this research there are still major differences of opinion among scientists and health professionals. Where does that leave the rest of us in terms of making decisions regarding GMO’s?
GMO Labelling Around the World
Governments around the world have reacted differently and have enforced specific restrictions around the production, distribution and labelling of GMO foods.
In the European Union any genetically modified food or feed must be authorised to enter into the marketplace. The authorisation process involves extensive, case-by-case, science-based food evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Each member state also has the right to temporarily restrict or prohibit a GMO food that they believe to be harmful while an investigation into the product is undertaken.
EU countries can also opt-out completely of accepting GMO’s.
In addition to these regulations, any food which contains greater than 0.9% of approved GMOs must be labelled.
In total there are currently 64 countries around the world that require GMO foods to be labelled, including Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and even China, in addition to the entire European Union of 28 member states. At the moment there is no requirement in the United States or Canada but this is soon to change after the US Senate recently approved new GMO labelling legislation.
GMO Food You’re Probably Eating
Even with all this new legislation, it’s entirely possible that you’ve already been eating GMO foods without knowing it. Here are some some ways in which GMO foods may have made their way onto your plate:
- Hawaiian papaya – in the 80’s and 90’s there were issues with a particular virus that affected the papaya. Scientists remedied this by developing a papaya that was resistant to this virus. The new GMO papaya was commercially available from 1999 and now makes up 77% of Hawaii’s papaya output.
- Animal products fed with GMO feed – while there are no bioengineered meat, fish or poultry products made for direct human consumption, it is likely they are fed on GMO feed. The majority of animal feed contains some proportion of corn, soy or other grains that have been genetically modified. The only way to ensure you are eating animal products that were not fed GMO’s is to buy certified organic products which are guaranteed to be GMO-feed free.
- Corn – the majority of GMO corn is grown for animal feed, but there is no guarantee that GM strains haven’t corrupted unmodified strains. Because corn is a wind-pollinated crop it is possible that fields near GMO crops have been unintentionally affected.
- Honey – bees that pollinate genetically modified rapeseed crops are likely to produce honey that contains GM pollens. In Western Canada, an area where 80% of the rapeseed crops are genetically modified, has led to one third of Canadian honey containing pollen from GM rapeseed.
Should We Avoid GMOs?
The big question still remains – should we avoid GMO foods altogether?
The answer to this question is a personal one; one that each person has to make individually.
While the overwhelming majority of scientific research says that eating GMO’s are safe, it’s essential that we all understand the implications of genetic modification and make informed choices.
Keep an eye out for food labels that help identify whether a particular product contains GMO ingredients or not.
So, do you think GMO’s are good or bad? Have your say and join the conversation on our Facebook page.