What is a GMO and Why You Need to Care

I recently had someone ask me to explain what GMOs really are. What is the entire hullabaloo really about? Why clamor for labeling when we have been engineering genes for thousands of years?

The question made me realize that I can’t assume I have an audience always well versed in such details. Thus, it is always good to clarify and cover the basics. So if you already know this stuff, dear reader, STOP READING NOW! Instead, forward it to someone who may not know, share it on Facebook with friends, and give it a tweet.

You’ll be doing what I intend to do—educate, motivate, and activate another person, family, and friend.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms?

GMOs are plants or animals that are created through the process of genetic engineering (GE). This relatively new technology literally forces the DNA from one species into an entirely different species. The resulting GMOs are often unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that could never occur in nature or through traditional breeding practices. Different species have evolved separately and have never before been able to comingle in this curious way.

The majority of GMO crops are genetically engineered (GE) to withstand direct and often heavy applications of herbicides and/or to produce an insecticide inside the plant. Despite claims of glory, none of the genetically engineered traits in commercial production have offered increased yields, drought tolerance, or nutritional superiority, or for that matter any real benefit to consumers.

How prevalent are GMO products?

It has been just 20 years since genetically engineered crops were introduced. Now about 90 percent of the planted acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton in the U.S. are GE. Many of these crops end up as ingredients in a variety of packaged foods in the form of oils, corn syrup, meals, and sugars; unsuspected ingredients literally baked into many of the foods we eat.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that GMOs are now present in more than 80 percent of conventional processed Foods.

The most common genetically engineered Foods from A to Z are: 

-Alfalfa—If a cow eats it, it’s in the milk and meat

-Canola—Contained in many processed products and labeled as a “healthy oil”

-Corn—Sweet corn, feed corn, popcorn, and corn syrup in sodas and candy

-Cotton—Cotton seed oil, cellulose, and feminine hygiene products

-Papaya—Grown almost exclusively in Hawaii

-Soy—Most processed foods, textured vegetable protein, soy protein, soy sauce, teriyaki, MSG (monosodium glutamate), soybean oil

-Sugar Beets—White sugar added to everything sweet
-Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash—Conventional

Who cares?

Over 64 Countries have some kind of labeling or restrictions on GMO products. As you can see from the World GMO Map from The Center for Food Safety, Europe, Asia, and Russia all maintain vigilance around GMO foods.

This is because the studies around their safety and long-term effects have not been conclusive. The technology has only been around for 20 years, not long enough to know the long-term biological, environmental, and health effects that can take generations to unfold. 

Our right to know!

The real issue has been to identify GMO foods and be able to make an educated choice about what we eat and what we feed our families. There have been multiple state and local initiatives across the country to gain this simple right of transparency. To date, we have the state of Vermont poised to enact a GMO labeling law. We have seen multiple large national food companies like Campbell’s, General Mills, Mars, and ConAgra, who in deference to the Vermont law will now begin labeling their products. Senator Merkley has recently introduced a bill that would require national mandatory GMO labeling in the U.S. If you believe we have the right to know, this is the bill to urge your senators to support.

How then do we avoid GMO’s?

Until we have a National Mandatory labeling law, you can avoid GMOs by purchasing organic products or those with the "Non-GMO" verified seal. GMOs are banned in organic production. The Non-GMO Project verifies that products do not contain GE material, but unless they are organic, they may still be grown using herbicides and pesticides. 

Always seek out the USDA organic label. Support the Non-GMO verified products if you can’t find organic. Keep clamoring for labels by supporting the Just Label It Campaign.

Someday we will join the rest of the educated world and then be able to identify the foods that contain GMOs.  

For more information on GMOs, visit http://organicmattersblog.com.

Photo Credit: iStock