Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear something about GMOs either in social media or on the news. Despite all the information out there, many are still confused about what a GMO (a genetically modified organism) actually is and what it does. Trying to determine whether genetically modified food is safe for human consumption can be a tiring and dizzying feat, especially if you’re not trained in reading scientific journals. It’s exactly the place I found myself just a few months ago, when I took on the task of cleaning up my family’s diet. People warned me against genetically modified food, and as a result, my simple grocery store trips became muddled with fear as I wandered the aisles feeling lost and overwhelmed.
Although I’m still learning, here’s what I know so far: GMOs are essentially plants in which the DNA has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases the purpose is to introduce a new trait to the plant that does not occur naturally in the species. Examples in food crops include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, or resistance to chemical treatments such as herbicides. These genetically engineered crops usually produce a higher yield and can in turn be more profitable for the farmer. Corn, soy, cotton, and canola are some of the seven genetically modified crops grown in the U.S. Wheat, interestingly enough, is not one of them, and the largest producer of genetically modified seed, Monsanto, says they’re still a few years off from releasing herbicide-tolerant wheat.
That’s why I found it perplexing to read that Bob’s Red Mill was in the process of repackaging their wheat flour to include the non-GMO verified label. Why on earth would a company go through the trouble and expense of developing and relabeling a product when the concerns surrounding GMO wheat is, so far, null? Not only does it seem slightly misleading, but it seems to inflate concerns of GMOs market-wide. While I can understand and appreciate Bob’s wanting to satisfy customer expectations, it seems that over-labeling could indeed, as the writer pointed out, dilute the impact of non-GMO labeling in the first place, thus increasing the public’s fears. We can relate this to the gluten-free labeling craze, which now includes some chip brands.
The debate on the safety of GMOs, and the subsequent growing demand from concerned consumers to label foods containing them, has become a heated debate embroiled in politics as much as science. In recent years, however, bills to require labeling of GMOs have been turned down in some states including California and Washington. Look up information on GMOs, and you’re hit with literally thousands of info graphics that mix facts alongside a big dose of fear tactics. While the war on food labeling goes on, those in the biotechnology field and the farmers who grow genetically engineered crops have had to fight back and have compiled a list of over 120 independent peer-reviewed studies that show food with GMOs is safe for human consumption. There’s also this info graphic that summarizes its apparent safety in neat and tidy soundbites. Those most concerned with GMOs have claimed that since the introduction of them in our food, there has been a rise in the cases of ailments such as obesity, asthma, allergies, and autism.
In the end, your comfort level of eating and consuming genetically modified food can be a deeply personal one that takes thoughtful consideration. I made the decision for my family based on scientific research and my ethical feelings on the matter. The rising prevalence of genetically engineered crops and the need for them is tied to other issues, such as our addiction to cheaply packaged junk food and the production of commodity crops to feed livestock on massive factory farm feed lots. While the science may point to its safety, I don’t necessarily like how and why it’s used — to make inexpensive food that’s not always healthy and to feed and fatten animals quickly and cheaply. At the end of the day, by natural selection we have eliminated most foods from our diets that would contain GMOs anyhow. But I’m not too concerned if I’m served a bowl of edamame when grabbing sushi, or if at a party my kids eat some corn chips made with GMOs. We eat nutritiously the majority of the time, so the potential threat to my family seems minimal.
Still, I’ll admit it’s hard to cover all the bases when it comes to GMOs, and there’s still much to be learned about them. Living in a society that’s growing increasingly skeptical of our food system and the government’s ability to look out for the best interests of our health, I’ll admit I have lingering concerns. But as consumers, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves beyond basic Google searches and resist companies’ tactics to feed into our fears — even if that means simply knowing which crops are genetically modified and which aren’t.
To sum it all up, I’m not advocating or condemning the labeling of GMOs, but I am advocating we arm ourselves with the most accurate knowledge possible and not rely on misleading labels to do the heavy lifting for us.
What do you think? Is labeling a product that’s presently impossible to be genetically engineered proactive or misleading?