Living in Australia for the last 9 years I was relatively sheltered to the dangers of industrial farming. That is until I started following the works of authors such as Michael Pollan, an American author, journalist and activist. Being back in North America there is no doubt that genetically modified (GM) foods, which coincides with industrial farming, is a hot topic at the moment. More and more people are starting to ask questions about the health and environmental safety of these foods. In Canada and America GM labelling of foods is not required. Regardless of how we feel about GM foods, how can we as consumers possibly make an informed decision on a topic that potentially affects our health if we don’t have all the information? And do we also have the responsibility of ensuring the health of our environment for generations to come?
What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
Genetic engineering is the method of taking genes from one living organism and inserting them into another. This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. GM foods appear in our food supply mainly as canola oil, corn, cotton, sugar beets, summer squash, soybeans and zucchinis. Animal products are also highly likely to expose the consumer to genetically modified organisms (GMO) as the animals are commonly fed a diet rich in corn and grain.
Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?
When GM foods first entered the market, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was in charge of testing and ensuring their safety. Instead they declared that they were no different from traditional foods and that no independent testing was necessary. Journalists have since uncovered that the man in charge of FDA policy at the time, Michael Taylor, was a former attorney for Monsanto (one of the leading producers of GM crops) who later left the FDA and returned to Monsanto as Vice President.
Many studies have been done into GM crops since, but mainly by the multinational companies that own the technology and not by independent scientists. Despite the lack of independent testing, with more than 10 years of use in the USA, it is obvious that GM crops don’t kill people. Still, there are some claims that they are the reason for increasing incidence of allergies, but without labelling and testing, it is not possible to know for sure.
Can’t We Just Avoid Genetically Modified Foods In Our Diet?
Current projections are that ~70-80% of the food in the grocery stores is GM (most containing by-products such as oil, starch or sweeteners derived from the main GM crops- soybeans, corn and sugar beets). Recently in the media, Monsanto contributed $8.1 million to help squash prop 37 in California which would require all products containing GM foods to be labeled. The state of Vermont is now trying to pass mandatory labelling of all GM foods and Monsanto is fighting back and are threatening litigation against the state.
Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods
Many countries including China, Mexico, Russia and 21 countries in the EU require some form of mandatory labelling of GM foods which allows consumers to make up their own mind on if they wish to consume GM foods.
- Australia – Food Standards ANZ requires all GM foods to be labelled, although exceptions occur for bakery products, restaurants, highly refined foods such as oils, highly processed foods, flavourings, food made using animals that were fed GM crops, and foods unintentionally contaminated by GM ingredients. GM canola is a new introduction to Australia and requires no labelling.
- America – California had a failed attempt at issuing mandatory labelling of GM foods only last year. The Vermont Government is now attempting for mandatory labelling of GM foods. The fastest growing products in the supermarkets today are the products that are labelled GMO free.
- Canada – Like America, Canada does not require labelling of GM foods.
What Are The Benefits of Genetically Modified Foods
Big biotech agricultures companies claim that GM crops are the solution to world hunger. They claim that by producing seeds that are resistant to drought, weeds and pests, the less developed nations won’t go hungry.
Environmental Issues Relating to Genetically Modified Foods
One of the main problems with GM foods from an environmental perspective is that once the seeds are released into the ecosystem, they cannot be removed. These living organisms can travel by wind, road and sky to destinations they are not intended to be and where they can corrupt non-GM crops by crossbreeding. In 1996, GM canola was introduced to Canada and spread so rapidly that now all canola from Canada is considered to be GM and organic canola has all but disappeared. All GM foods have also been dosed in large amounts of herbicide and pesticides as they are genetically engineered to be resistant to them, allowing farmers to use larger amounts compared to conventional crops which can threaten biological diversity.
Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.
-David Suzuki, 2009
What Are The Alternatives To Genetically Modified Foods?
Research is increasing into the case on the benefits of eating organically. A few studies have reported the presence of more natural plant compounds (phytonutrients) in organic foods which have potential anti-cancer benefits. Phytonutrients are plants natural protection method and are produced in response to stress (being attacked by a microorganism). When synthetic herbicides and pesticides are used, microorganism contact is reduced, thus so is the production of phytonutrients.
The only way to truly avoid GM foods is to choose organic. Not only will it increase our phytonutrient intake but recently Swiss researchers have found that soils managed by organic principles are much healthier and house a larger and more diverse community or organisms.
Are Canadians and Americans Being Left Behind In The Battle Against Genetically Modified Foods?
Sixty-four countries around the world, including Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Russia and a number of countries in the EU, have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs.
Last Words on Genetically Modified Foods
I believe it is up to the consumer to make up their mind about how they feel about GM foods. If you’re not sold on the potential health side effects then maybe you can believe that the main safety concern involves the environment. Without proper labelling of GM foods we are not even given the choice. If you are concerned about GM foods, some steps you can take include choosing organic, avoiding highly processed foods especially those that may contain GM corn, soybeans and sugar beets, and advocate for proper labelling of GM foods in your community and state.
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Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.