Content Last Updated May 2013
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. More people are starting to ask questions about the health and environmental safety of these foods, but 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?
What Is Genetic Engineering?
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.
What Are The Common Genetically Modified Foods?
GM foods appear in our food supply mainly as canola oil, corn, cottonseed oil, 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. See my post Which Foods Are Genetically Modified? for more information.
Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?
Who Controls The Safety Of Our Food?
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.
What Does The Science Say About Genetically Modified Foods?
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 the increasing incidence of allergies, but without labelling and testing, it is not possible to know for sure.
Can We Avoid Genetically Modified Foods In Our Diet?
Genetically Modified Ingredients In Processed Food
Current projections are that approximately 70-80% of the food in the grocery stores is GM, as most contain GM by-products such as oil, starch or sweeteners derived from the main GM crops soybeans, corn and sugar beets.
Why Aren’t Genetically Modified Foods Labelled In The USA?
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.
What Are Other Countries Doing About Labeling GM 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 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 agriculture 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. Instead, we see most of the GM technology going into processed foods that go to already overfed nations.
Medical Uses of Genetic Engineering
In the 70s the world entered an important new era in pharmaceutical development with the approval by the FDA of human insulin synthesized in genetically engineered bacteria–the world’s first recombinant DNA drug product. As the supply of animal pancreases declined and the prevalence of insulin-requiring diabetes grew, there were widespread fears of possible future shortages of insulin. Genetic engineering offered the promise of unlimited amounts of insulin that was identical to the molecule produced by humans.
Environmental Consequences of Genetically Modified Foods
Effect On Biodiversity
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.
The Story of Canadian GM Canola
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.
GM Foods and Herbicide Use
All GM foods have also been dosed in large amounts of herbicide 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. See my post Is Your Wheat Intolerance Due To Glyphosate In Canadian Bread? for more on the measured amount of glyphosate contamination in our food supply.
Glyphosate and Monarch Butterflies
Glyphosate is not only a concern for human health but also holds the primary role in the abrupt decline of monarch butterfly populations. The use of this herbicide has virtually eradicated milkweed, the sole food source for monarch larvae, in corn- and soy-growing regions of North America. In 2014 Monarch butterfly was found in only 1.7 acres during hibernation in Mexico, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996.
Is Eating Organic Better?
The Case For Organic Food
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 that have potential anti-cancer benefits. Phytonutrients are a plant’s natural protection method and are produced in response to stress (being attacked by a microorganism). When synthetic herbicides and pesticides are used, microorganisms contact is reduced, thus so is the production of phytonutrients. See my post What Are Antioxidants Good For for more information.
Organic Farming and Soil Benefit
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 of microorganisms.
Last Words on Genetically Modified Foods
Which Countries Have Rules Around GM 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.
The Consumers Role
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.
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.