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Why Exactly Do People Care About GMO Foods? (minus the hysteria)

Connecticut has passed a law requiring GMO foods to be labeled. It’s the first state in the nation to do so.

Recently a friend asked on facebook why people care about GMO foods. What was interesting was that she didn’t just ask about GMO foods but also added a note saying “be gentle” because she didn’t want to get virtually screamed at. I am going to attempt to share with you my knowledge of GMO foods without inserting anyone’s agenda.

GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. So a GMO food is involves the alteration of the RNA in a plant or animal. A GMO is not a hybrid which is what occurs when you cross pollinate a flower or fruit to get something like a pluot (plum and apricot) or graft a delicate rose variety onto a much heartier stalk. GMOs do not occur in nature, they occur in laboratories.

Conventional farmers like GMOs because they have been bred to produce larger crops that are resistant to pests. When farmers can grow more product in less space they win.

Farmers seem to lose with GMO crops too. Crops like Round Up Ready Corn are sterile so farmers need to purchase seeds every year. Organic farmers (or even non-GMO farmers) have the option of letting some or all of a crop go to seed so that they can plant again the next year.

GMO crops that contain pesticides cause reactions in the insects that dine on the bounty. Basically their GI tracts explode and they die because insecticides have become part of the RNA of the plant and it’s fruit (I will use the term fruit as a stand in for vegetables too). This is good for farmers but skeptics of the safety of GMO foods wonder if it’s a good thing to put non-target organisms at risk (ie honey bees, wild bees and other pollinators). Other skeptics worry about introducing inflammatory agents into the food chain and are wary of eating pork, chicken or beef that have consumed GMO feed. Still others are concerned that human ingestion of GMO foods could be the path to illness. Farmers like that insects will die off around their crops, this spares them from the laborious and expensive application of pesticides.

There are studies that support both the safety and the risk of GMO foods. I am having a hard time finding a single study that is both definitive and unbiased. The only studies that declare GMO foods absolutely safe are funded by the food producers and the studies that say OMG GMO CANCER tend to be anecdotal (as GMOs haven’t been in the food supply long enough to be researched) or hysteria inducing.

When I asked my online community about GMO foods there appeared to be a knowledge gap. As I suspected, many folks believe GMOs are present only in processed foods. Some folks believe that GMO foods are responsible for allergies (and they might be) but we haven’t any conclusive evidence around that.

Here are a few GMO foods. All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

GMO papaya Rennet is GMO in most hard cheeses Golden rice is GMO GMO tomato

GMO foods don’t look insidious. They look like fruits, cheeses, and grains. GMO foods aren’t the boogeyman. It’s not like McDonald’s where everyone knows you’re making a horrible decision but you’re making it based on economics, convenience or a clown who came to your kids’ school to teach them to share french fries. GMO foods appear to be innocuous, they look like all the other foods at your local health food store. Wthout labeling there’s no way to know if it’s a risk you want to take with your health.

As Jennifer Taggart points out there are more reasons than health to not buy GMO, there are environmental impacts to consider:

GMO seeds restrict biodiversity. GMOs are intellectual property, with the company producing (Monsanto) reaping great financial benefits whereas traditionally seeds have been a common resource. In other words, a renewable resource becomes a non-renewable, patented commodity. GMO seeds are a great, vast live trial involving not only our health, but the health of our planet. We have yet to understand all the ramifications of using GMOs. We may think we know what we are doing, but there are always unintended consequences.

And when asked about labeling my friend Jill says:

Connecting dots like “our country is getting more unhealthy so it’s probably the government.” is kind of a big jump. I would say our country is getting more unhealthy because we have become lazy. We don’t want to work for what is best for us. Who wants to make dinner when you can just heat up a bag of food in the microwave? The majority of people will just buy broccoli in a bag and call it a night. That’s not the FDA’s fault.. it’s ours. Jennifer.. I know.. you cannot prove something is bad for you unless, well, it’s proven bad for you.. it may take years to figure out that GM foods are giving us cancer. It may take years to figure out that they don’t. Either way.. it’s up to the consumer. I guess the labels are good for people who are completely incompetent and unconscious. I suppose it’s a good thing. I just don’t have the passion for these labels that others do.

At the end of the day they’re both mostly right.

If the only thing you’re looking for is a direct correlation between GMO foods and illness then you’ll be disappointed in the research available.

Things to consider as it relates to GMO foods:

  • Who, if anyone, owns the food supply?
  • Do we want to eliminate all insects?
  • Should farmers be buying seeds every year? Is this the economy you want to support at the grocery store?
  • Does biodiversity matter?
  • What would a genetically engineered animal look like?

I cannot write this without noting that my home is GMO free. I’m a fortunate woman in that I live in Los Angeles and have the financial means to buy organic foods. Currently in California this is the only way to ensure that the food you’re ingesting isn’t GMO. I cannot state with 100% authority that purchasing organic foods will increase my lifespan but I can state with 100% authority that it increases the lifespan of the men and women who harvest my food, that it does less damage to the earth around me and it feels like the right thing to do. I don’t know if GMO foods will give your child allergies, your mother Alzheimer’s or your cousin cancer. I wouldn’t be willing to say that any these things will happen as a direct result of GMO’s in the food supply but with labels consumers can make their own decisions.



23 thoughts on “Why Exactly Do People Care About GMO Foods? (minus the hysteria)”

  1. Great post Jessica! Very well written and informative (boy does this sound like a spam comment or what?) But seriously, thank you! This is an easy share…off to do just that.

  2. Nice post Jessica. Thanks for including my quote. I find the GMO debate frustrating when it is just approached as a health issue. The economic ramifications of taking a common resource and limiting it, and then charging individuals when your patented seed drifts onto their fields, is staggering. Plus, the elimination of biodiversity scares me. Not to mention the fact that we are foolish to think that we can control Mother Nature. Our genetic tinkering is likely to lead to consequences we don’t intend – be they good or bad. What about the 2011 reports of western corn rootworms developed a resistance to the natural pesticide in Monstanto’s GMO corn? And those resistant worms devastated the expensive GMO corn crops.

  3. There was a time I went anti-GMO and went out of my way to purchase organic foods but then something dawned on me. The cigarettes are gonna kill me before my food does (unless of course I choke on something) so why waste time worrying. I got one hell of a dose of “life is too short” this year so I’m just done with the worrying.

    1. You don’t have to worry, but it is good to be wise and avoid stuff that causes cancer. Otherwise you’re making your life shorter, but maybe that is your intention.

  4. Very nice, but I cannot believe your friend Jill said this… “I guess the labels are good for people who are completely incompetent and unconscious.” Really? Did she really mean that? For those that can’t afford all organic, having a label identifying GMO foods would be invaluable. Does she have a magic way of knowing what is and isn’t a GMO product? I am giving her the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t really mean wanting that label would make me incompetent and unconscious. I am actually baffled how a consumer can think that labels for GMO foods are a bad thing. Now for the manufacturing end, I get that.

  5. I work at an organic juice company. We harvest and bottle the fruit juice in Sicily and ship it everywhere, we are organic and if you are organic supposedly you are non-GMO. Not true. Even though our company and MANY trustworthy companies claim to be organic there is ABSOLUTELY NO GUARANTEE in the organic certification, or the non GMO certification that we carry. The only certificate that we or ANY company can 100% guarantee is OU Kosher. GMO or non GMO labeling is becoming as ridiculous as gluten -free labeling. I guarantee you that in the very near future companies like pillsbury will be gluten free and bananas will have non-GMO labels stamped on them. It is out of hand in my opinion.

    Really, the whole nation has lost common sense. With a tad bit of common sense and some knowledge I believe most people can enjoy a healthy lifestyle with foods that are locally grown and as free from pesticides as possible. GMO foods are not going to be what kills our nation, stupidity will.

  6. I would just like to add something slightly off topic: a pluot is 75% plum and 25% apricot. There is a fruit called an aprium, which is 75% apricot and 25% plum. I volunteer at a farmers’ market and learned this last weekend from the lady from whom I buy organic pluots.

  7. Regarding your question of “what does a genetically modified animal look like?” . The simple answer is any pedigree [insert species]. A Labrador was “genetically modified”, so was a Poodle, the Meyer lemon, the beautiful azalea you bought, the prize Quarter Horse etc. The difference is that it took generations (and maybe hundreds of years) and didn’t happen in a lab.
    Plus organic? You’d better hope that all the farms sharing the same watershed share the same pesticide philosophy otherwise those darn chemicals will get everywhere.
    Food for thought?

    From your “PhD have worked in genetic engineering/gene therapy friend” :)

    1. PS Forgot to add – I loved your assessment of a very complex situation. And I’m a great fan of apriums and pluots!

    2. Okay I get that and I know a bit of your background so I appreciate the chiming in.

      As far as I know both azaleas and meyer lemons are hybrids and can be created with cross pollination which (you must admit) is very different than changing the molecular structure of a plant to include a pesticide.

      The animal breeding is tricky because we’ve had so many disasters there too. Just look at the American Bulldog, they’ve been inbred to a point where reproduction is almost criminal and the existing salmon farms (from non GMO salmon) have proven to be a blight and aquaculture as a whole is not without controversy.

      I obviously don’t want to eat GMO foods but recognize that I do so every day. People repeatedly ask me why I don’t want to eat them and I don’t want my family to and I don’t have an answer that will appease everyone. The research isn’t in. There haven’t been enough years of round up ready corn or GMO wheat for a longitudinal study to have been conducted.

      My instincts are that our bodies aren’t ready for small doses of pesticides so I’ve opted out. I’ve tried to explain both sides as I see them to my readers in the plainest language possible.

      Also, did I see you in the Gelson’s parking lot today? White jeans, peach top… looking good?

      1. You did a good job explaining Jessica. I was just trying to point out that the whole arena of genetic manipulation is very complex and not reported fairly from either side’s perspective in many instances, hence a huge amount of confusion.
        I too await the empiric data and until it’s there I’m still on the fence regarding GM foods. If it’s a questions of adding a fish protein to fruit to enable them to survive in adverse temperatures then no, I’d rather not eat it thank you! Is it all bad though? Probably not, in the same way that not all sugars are bad for us and neither are all fats – drive both down to low enough levels and you’ll get sick.However, we have genetically manipulating animals for years with disastrous results in some cases (as Morgan’s rescued Persian cat shows…no nose, sounds like Darth Vader!).

        And yes, it was me in Gelson’s lot and it’s been way too long since we had a drink together!

    3. That is an argument known as ‘equivocation’, where a word that has two slightly (or completely) different meanings is ‘equated’. For example “A ham sandwich is better than nothing, nothing is better than world peace, therefore a ham sandwich is better than world peace”.

      In this situation ‘Genetically Modified’ is not the same as ‘Selective Breeding’. Breeding will only introduce genes that naturally occur in a given species (or two species) – and are generally a ‘known’ in their effect on humans and the food chain. Genes introduced in a laboratory are not ‘known’, particularly when said genes are created to produce specific toxins. A Chocolate Lab has essentially the same genes as a Black Lab, while a Mule or Liger has genes from their parents – nothing ‘new’ introduced. However, a mouse with green fluorescent hair introduces something into the food chain that did not exist before, as does a plant that produces nicotinoids.

      So, while the question of ‘what does a genetically modified animal look like’ can be answered as you did if you want to misdirect – the reality is that the question is meant to ask whether animals whose genes have been genetically altered in a way that would never happen simply through breeding could be distinguished from ‘naturally’ occurring ones, and would they have any impact on the food chain.

  8. Good points, but your friends’ comments kind of ruined the whole thing. Wanting a label to help identify foods, to make it easier for restaurants to offer GMO foods, for whatever reasons you may have, does not mean you are lazy and incompetent.

      1. Hmm, I didn’t really interpret it that way. Now I see where you were coming from. I think if you had summed up her response with a comment like that, i.e. “a lot of people don’t realize that you can’t tell the difference,” it would have been clear to me why you included it. For me, I just felt like it was snobbery because some people think that they can just buy local or organic and never eat out at a restaurant or buy something non-organic. I wish I could live that way, but sometimes we compromise in our lives and it is sad that we have to be exposed to these potentially toxic foods despite our efforts to be healthy.

  9. Regarding’s Elizabeth’s comment. Well, yes, from the most basic standpoint, the efforts to selectively breed desirable traits result in animals or plants which may be “genetically modified.” However, those are not the GMOs of concern or being discussed in the various legislative pushes for labeling. The labrador retriever was the process of breeding varieties of dogs – if I remember right, St. John Water Dogs and Newfoundlands. (I might be wrong there). Similarly, the Meyer lemon is believed to be the product of breeding a lemon with a mandarin. But, the GMOs at issue are the products from several species or species that generally wouldn’t mix — a phenomenon that almost never occurs in nature. For example, genes from bacteria transferred to a plant, such as the corn variety developed by Monsanto, for instance, which includes genetic material from the bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills European corn borers. To simplify probably too much, you can’t really compare “hybridization” which occurs naturally or with man’s help by selective breeding and which COULD occur naturally versus something that would never occur naturally. Unless you think bacteria is going to breed with corn.

  10. Great post. It still feels sort of surreal that this is even a war we’re having to wage.

    I try to buy as much organic food as possible and we cook from scratch more than the average Joe, but I’ve found that if I create a situation for myself where I HAVE to do anything when in comes to food, I will make myself insane. And possibly not eat.

  11. Thank you very much for a thoughtful and well reasoned post about GMO’s. What I appreciate the most was the part where you pointed out that the pro and con information is either skewed or inconclusive and that you pointed out that concrete results are not yet in. Thank you again.

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