In an effort to keep our waistlines in trim and our hearts pumping strongly, many have decided to ditch the processed and packaged food and opt for “real food”. Instead of having your eyes glaze over while your kids have massive meltdowns in the grocery cart while you pour over each and every label in the store, you simply eat food in it’s natural form. That makes it easy: an apple is an apple, right?
Wrong, maybe. As if we don’t have enough to worry about in our food, here’s one more thing to add to the list. In my opinion it’s a rather frightening one. I don’t make it a habit to get involved in politics and activism and so forth, but you can’t help but see our food supply and big business collide when it comes to this particular issue. What is it? GMOs. Genetically modified organisms.
If that sounds like a middle school science project, you’re not too far off. GMOs are plants and animals that have had their genes altered using DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. The genes are combined in experimental combinations that wouldn’t otherwise happen in nature. GMOs are used in a multitude of ways, such as medical research, pharmaceutical drugs, agriculture, and more. Maybe some of it is good- if gene therapy can lead to a cure for cancer or cystic fibrosis, then I might be all for it. But one place I don’t want to see humans messing with experimental DNA combinations is in my food.
Unfortunately, you’re probably consuming GMO in food on a daily basis and don’t even know it. GMOs are used in food in order to make crops resistant to herbicides and pests, to create new colors and crop variations, to increase shelf-life, and to increase tolerance to harsh environments. (Click through slideshow below to see the crops most at risk for GMOs.)The controversy over genetically modified crops, also known as biotech crops, is multifaceted. It’s debated whether genetically modified food is safe for human consumption, whether modified crops are necessary to help with global food supply, and what role big business and intellectual property law should have in food production.
You might be asking how we go from talking about crops and science and then leap over to big business. Well, here’s the thing. When you create something that didn’t already exist, you then have the ability to patent it; to claim it as your own. Things you own can be sold and regulated. The biggest producer of genetically modified crops is the US-based company Monsanto. (Other companies include Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, and Du Pont, among others.) Since it’s founding in 1940, Monsanto has been a major producer of plastics, LEDs, and at one point, the toxic insecticide DDT, Agent Orange, and recombinant bovine somatotropin (an artificial growth hormone for cows). The company first genetically altered plants in 1983 and led the way in using biological patents and creating uniformity among plant breeders. Monsanto’s proposed practices directly conflicted with those of farmers, which was to save, reuse, and share plant varieties instead of owning them.
Monsanto is probably best known currently for the development of glycophosate, the main chemical used in Roundup. Monsanto is also known for it’s genetically modified seeds, which they dub “Roundup Ready”, meaning they are resistant to the herbicide. The development of such seeds meant farmers could plant crops closer together, thus producing a greater yield on the same amount of land because they didn’t have to worry about herbicides killing their crops. It’s also increased the use of Roundup 15 times over.
What used to be simple farming is now a potential lawsuit waiting to happen because Monsanto holds patents on many of these seeds. That means farmers cannot use these seeds without paying Monsanto. But what about crops that blow into a farmer’s land and grow? (You know, the way it works in nature.) Well, Monsanto holds these farmers responsible. According to The Center for Food Safety, Monsanto has filed 112 lawsuits against farmers for violating patents. You can imagine the effect the looming threat of a lawsuit leaves hovering over farmers, for things they can’t control like cross pollination. Small farms don’t stand a chance against multi-billion dollar companies. While the fate of small farms may seem inconsequential, their loss of business has a widespread effect.
The long term effects of GMOs is unknown. Although genetically modified foods are currently deemed safe, there is much debate over the issue, especially since the use of GMOs is heavily restricted or banned in other countries. Some studies have shown evidence of GMOs decreasing fertility, changing fat and carbohydrate metabolism, altering the liver, spleen, and pancreas, and disrupting the immune system. While more research needs to be done on whether GMOs cause these health issues in humans or not, there is one other thing that is a big concern when it comes to altering the food supply at the genetic level: allergies. If you are allergic to nuts or wheat, you know to avoid them. But how do you know what’s in your food if it’s been modified? The FDA now requires that companies must label food items with the potential for allergic reaction if they cannot prove they did not use an allergen in the modification of a food.
There are currently no mandatory regulations when it comes to labeling whether a product contains GMOs, so just because it’s not written on the package doesn’t mean they’re not lurking inside. What’s really frightening is that foods containing GMOs can use the word “natural”. Prop 37 in California recently tried to fight this. This weekend protestors engaged in a “March Against Monsanto” in over 50 countries.
That’s a lot to wrap your head around, huh? And that’s barely scratching the surface. Think GMOs don’t affect you? Think again.
Here are the most common genetically modified crops: