"GMO's" - The term gets tossed around a lot, and I get the impression we all have some vague idea about what they are, and that we should be basically be afraid of them, right?
Well, it's a complicated topic. But, worry not, I'm here to [kind of] uncomplicate it for you.
What are GMO's?
Let's start with some basics first to get everyone on the same page. GMO's stands for: "genetically modified organisms". Technically, under this umbrella term, a wide range of concepts is covered, which we will get into, but likely when you hear the term these days - they are referring to crops that have been genetically modified in a lab.
Every living cell, whether it's a plant, animal or some sort of bacteria, virus or mold - all have DNA; unique genetic code that dictates how that cell or organism or animal functions. Within DNA are genes, which are sections of genetic code that have a specific function. So for example, as humans, we have genes that dictate what colour eyes we have. Each variety of plant is different because their genes are uniquely different.
Everyone still with me?
Scientists have learned how to insert genes from one species into another, to give it certain traits through the power of biotechnology. the genes are coming from other plants or bacteria genomes.
The argument for their existence is that we have been breeding plants and animals haphazardly for eons. Which does change the DNA and genetics, so technically most varieties of plants have had their genetic code "modified" purposely by humans. Now, we are simply doing it in a way that targets one gene, rather than making two plants have weird plant sex to make a new completely different plant (as our ancestors have done in the past). This is the other subsection of the term "GMO"; Plant breeding has been essential to civilization, however, this is not usually what people mean when people use the term GMO these days. Because of this, you might hear people say: "yes, but everything is genetically modified!" which technically is true, but they are very different concepts.
I admit I find the process of genetic modification in a lab a little discomforting, it just seems sort of unnatural. It's kind of like the difference between two humans making a baby, and putting an embryo in a lab and selecting a brown-haired, blue-eyed, short person. The concept is just kind of freaky. HOWEVER, as odd as it is, the actual process of genetic modification doesn't worry me all that much with respect to safety, nutrition and health. If it is used for good, I am on board.
For example, way back in 1999, they created something called Golden Rice. The rice was genetically modified to contain high levels of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene) in the rice, which it doesn't normally contain. It was created to help third world countries that were suffering severely from vitamin A deficiency. It is still rampant in many parts of the world; in fact, 75 countries globally are still plagued with vitamin A deficiency. Global estimates suggest 250,000 - 500,000 children become blind from this deficiency each year, with 50% of them dying within 12 months of losing their vision. Many of these countries were already growing and consuming rice, and with Golden Rice, they could also relieve their devastating deficiency at the same time.
Sounds like a lovely and innovative solution, no? Sadly, in reality, just the idea of it being genetically modified made the people very nervous and it never got off the ground.
Unfortunately, this type of good-hearted GMO practice is not the norm. In fact, some of the biggest GM crops on the market have been modified to survive excessive herbicide use. Which means instead of being selective to spray weed killer on just the weeds, they can use planes and spray weed killer on everything without having the plants die as well.
So in essence, the majority of GM crops are doing it to save time, money and effort. And loading up our foods with weed killer in the process. Which is another problem altogether.
Which crops contain GMOs?
I think it is important to be informed on this subject, but in no way do I want to be a fear monger about it. As I said above, I think the most important piece of knowledge we can have about GMO crops is not that they are GMO, but instead, focus on why they are GMO.
Corn and Soy are the two MAJOR ones you will see out there.
Round-Up ready Soybeans by Monsanto
Resistant to Round-Up weed killer (aka herbicide), meaning there is an enzyme present that prevents
GM soy is mainly used for soybean oil, which accounts for about 60% of the oil in your standard "vegetable oil".
The rest is used in processed foods and funky ingredients like soy lecithin
This soy variety benefits the farmers IN THEORY, by making their processes more efficient and in industrial farming efficiency also means time and money. There is an argument that it improves yield - which is not yet backed up by the science.
The reason I say 'in theory' above is because the seeds are patented, so each year you have to purchase new seeds (in the old days, they just saved seeds) but this practice is highly restricted. And there are some convincing stories about Monsanto bullying farmers, but again this is speculative.
Bt corn by Monsanto
This is called "number 2" or commodity corn
This corn includes a gene for a protein that kills certain insects when they eat the corn, from the inside out. This protein in humans is simply treated as a normal protein and is broken down in our stomachs, so it does not have any known impact on human health.
This corn is used mainly as animal feed, and the rest is broken down into funky ingredients for processed foods.
Many common ingredients in processed foods are from corn, such as mono and diglycerides, citric acid, corn starch, caramel colour, malt, the mass-produced vitamin C (like the kind added back into juices), and MSG. The list goes on and on.
The sweet corn we purchase at the market is not genetically modified. It's 'deliciously modified' by the addition of butter. Just sayin'...
The proposed benefit to Bt corn is actually ecological. There is a bug called the "European corn borer" and it can decimate a corn crop. The beauty of this corn from an environmental perspective is that you don't need to spray for insects - which would kill all bugs even butterflies and bees. You only hurt the bugs that are looking to eat your crops. This selectivity allows the ecosystem of nonthreatening bugs and birds to thrive.
The freaky part is that the thing killing the bugs is now in the corn, meaning we can't help but eat it. However, they INSIST that it doesn't affect us at all. I suppose it would be about the same safety risk, if not slightly better than if they were just spraying that corn with insecticide instead.
Most canola is GMO, about 80% of Canadian Canola grown is genetically modified
It is genetically modified much like soy, where it is resistant to herbicides.
It turns mostly into oil and oil for processed foods (think: what chips are fried in), the rest goes to vegetable oil or actual canola oil that we find on the shelves.
Most papaya is genetically modified these days. The Ringspot Virus would, again, completely ruin crops on family farms. Which new GM papaya is resistant to this virus, through the addition of certain proteins.
Are there nutritional differences?
Most evidence says no: vitamins, minerals, protein, calories all do not vary significantly. So you aren't missing out nutritionally based only on GMO vs non-GMO.
Are they safe?
Most evidence says that we have no idea, but signs point towards yes, they are "generally recognized as safe". A wishy-washy term that basically means, we have found no convincing evidence to say they are bad for us.
The problem is that if they have infiltrated our food system so swiftly, that they are hard to avoid. Which means long-term population studies, where they compare people who don't eat GMOs and people who do - all else being equal, is nearly impossible to find.
It is also nearly impossible and possibly unethical to create a study where they separate people into two groups and feed them both the exact same diet, with the exception of one containing no GMOs and the other containing them.
Essentially meaning: it is very difficult to even test this hypothesis in a scientifically valid way.
Are they a 'necessary evil'?
Some who argue on the pro-GMO side say that they are the only way we can "feed the world". I disagree, but I do think they are the only way to keep really shitty food, really cheap (pardon the language). So essentially, in my opinion, no they are not necessary. Having said that, its hard to say what the world would look like if we didn't have incredibly cheap processed food, all we can do is guess. Some studies suggest that these GM crops increase yield - by managing the weeds and insects more efficiently. But the real question is: why would we need more soy, corn, canola anyways? There are already mountains of them as it is. Not to mention, the mountains of processed food that we see in places like Costco and Walmart are not being used to "feed the world" or those who need it most, they are being used to overfeed North Americans.
Here is my main issue:
Even with all of this information in my brain, I truly do not fear GMO's. Take soy, corn, and canola for instance: their genetic modification happens in the plant. We are taking a piece of those plants and processing it in a trillion different ways, down into its component parts, that the protein which was genetically engineered in the first place, is not even present any more. The herbicide and insecticide residues are barely even present any longer, and not any different than conventional crops.
HOWEVER, my problem is the food system in general. The process of taking hundreds of acres of land and planting one single crop on it is what naturally selects for problems with soil health (therefore, needing chemical fertilizers) and with insects or weeds (therefore requiring further action, like genetic engineering, herbicides, or insecticides).
We as humans have a tendency to create these huge problems and then create (sometimes questionable) band-aid solutions to fix that problem.
By industrializing farming, nothing makes any sense anymore. We segregate the cows and try to fatten them up quickly so we feed them corn, instead of the grass that they are meant to eat. We can't make that much corn without using up immense amounts of land and GMO crops. We can't keep that amount of processed food cheap without government subsidies.
Now, we have to buy feed (when grass is free), pay someone to deal with their manure (when it should be used to fertilize the grass for free). Pay a vet to administer antibiotics because having too many cows in one place is bound to cause problems (but if you let them roam on grass and give them space they don't need vet). And now we have to fertilize our crops with chemicals because they are overworking the land. The bugs and weeds come because there is no balance.
What if instead, we treated our farms as complex ecosystems, that have amazing biodiversity, and has many different species regulating one another.
If only we could go back in time, where the cows eat for free and fertilize the fields of vegetables, the chickens eat the bugs, the pigs eat the scraps, and there are enough vegetables that can rotate the fields, prevent disease in the plants, and keep the soils healthy for generations to come.
So it's not the GMOs that are the problem to me, it's that GMOs are the solution to a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place.
How does this translate to real life?
At the end of the day, keep this in mind: The dangers of GMO's are not severe, as far as the evidence says. If there were truly serious concerns about occasional consumption, it would have shown up in the evidence, no matter how much money is at stake. As much as we are fed to distrust science, not all science can be swayed by money.
However, if you have repeated exposure and heavy reliance on processed foods, especially on a daily basis - the long term impacts are 100% questionable, and not only for the sake of GMOs, but simply because processed foods are not good for a billion other reasons too.
If you read all of this and you are still looking to avoid GMOs, your best bet is to be mindful of the following list: (These are common recommendations even unrelated to GMOs, so if GMOs turn out to be no issue you will still reap the benefits)
Avoid processed, packaged and fast foods. GMOs are one of the reasons we can buy burgers on the value menu for $1.39 and get Michellena's on sale for 1.00.
Be cautious about your cooking oil choose good quality olive oil, avocado oil or if continuing to use corn oil, canola oil or generic vegetable oils choose organic options if financially viable.
Be cautious about your meats - choose pastured, grass-fed when possible. If that is not financially viable, try simply reducing your consumption of meat/poultry/pork to 3-5 servings per week. (Remember a good chunk of corn is going to feed the animals that we eat)
If you are still unsure, you can look for organic options or check labels for the non-GMO label.
Whatever you lovely people choose to do, please don't judge others who choose to do something different. If you want to bring someone on to your side of the fence, encourage them to educate themselves, so they can make their own decision, rather than propagating fear mongering or just repeating things you've heard. There are always two sides to everything, and two people can lead very different lives and eat very different things, but still both be healthy in their own way. And others are as healthy as they can be, at that time in their lives, within their means, and within the context of their current mental health status.
We all have to find our own way.