The food news this week is that genetically modified (GMO) potatoes will be in our grocery stores very soon. This achievement is designed to eliminate the easy bruising that happens to regular potatoes. Hmmm. As a consumer this isn’t high on my list of priorities. My guess is that mass users of potatoes, like fast food restaurants which sell huge volumes of french-fries, will be happy with this development. But what's your reaction to the news?
If you're like me, you're not ready to trust GMO foods.
I encourage you to explore the subject of genetically engineered food on your own. It's a huge topic, and some of the information is confusing and contradictory, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.
We're all fascinated by the evolution of plants and animals. Over the centuries scientists have studied how the DNA* of species naturally adapts to changing environmental conditions. So why not mimic nature? Why not create the changes we would like to have now?
One of the first ways science found to mimic nature was to crossbreed two different species to create a hybrid — the offspring of two varieties of animals or plants. Using natural methods of fertilization and pollination, new species have been created with new, desirable features.
The best known animal example of crossbreeding is a mule, which is a hybrid of a donkey and a horse. Mules have the sure-footedness of a donkey, and the strong muscles of a horse. They are bred to be work animals, carrying heavy loads in uneven terrain.
Tangelos are a plant example of crossbreeding — a hybrid that results from the cross of a Dancy tangerine and a grapefruit. Tangelos are larger than tangerines and have the nutritional benefits of both citrus fruits, without the grapefruit’s bitter taste.
“Genetically engineered” (GE), is used interchangeably with “genetically altered” and “genetically modified” as in (GMO). With the ability to splice genes, scientists can engineer the DNA* of an organism by inserting a foreign gene. Scientists alter the genetic code of an organism to produce a characteristic that nature hasn’t given it — usually by implanting a strand of DNA containing a genetic instruction from a different species.
The first genetically engineered food was the “Flavr Savr” tomato in 1994, modified to ripen slowly to enhance its flavor. It was a commercial failure because of high production costs, but more GMOs followed. In 1996, genetically engineered varieties of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets were ok'd for farming in the United States.
Since then more than 100 genetically modified foods have won government approval including non-browning apples, and Atlantic salmon that grow to market size in half the time of wild or farmed salmon. GMO potatoes are one of the new additions to the list.
Genetic engineering creates new life that does not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. And until recently there has been little oversight of GMO crops — they’ve been considered the same as natural foods, so we have little independent research about whether GMO foods cause health problems.
Leading digestive and autoimmune specialists say GMO foods damage the delicate microbiome* in our guts. The balance of microorganisms is critical for good digestion, brain and immune function, and overall health. These same specialists also say that when patients eliminate genetically modified foods from their diet, autoimmune diseases improve.
The U.S. and Canadian governments have approved GMOs. But more than thirty-eight other countries consider GMOs unsafe and have either significant restrictions, or outright bans on their production and sale. Ready for a confusing and surprising fact? Although the European Union bans the growing of GMOs, it’s one of the world’s biggest consumers of them. The EU imports more than 30 million tons of biotech corn and soy for livestock feed each year, making Europe the largest consumer of GMOs in the world.
I'm enthusiastic about scientific progress in genetics. But the long-term impacts of GMOs in food are unknown, and once released into the environment, these novel organisms can't be recalled. I worry that GMOs are going to be one of those things we look back on and can’t believe we let happen, like:
Using lead paint in homes and schools
Spraying pesticides on fruits and vegetables
Adding hormones to the feed of animals
One of the challenges right now is that genetically engineered foods are hard to identify. In July of 2016 Congress passed a GMO labeling bill, giving the USDA 2 years to decide what will and won’t be required.
In spite of the uncertainty about GMO labeling there is a way around the situation. Organically produced foods are by definition non-GMO, and the law allows producers who are "certified organic" to put a “GMO-free” label on their products.
That's a lot of information to digest. (My apology, I couldn't resist the pun!) How does this add up for you?
Nothing I'm learning erases my skepticism about GMOs. Whenever possible I prefer organically-fed animals and organically-grown produce.
I vote for being safe not sorry.
Sources: nongmoproject.org, nutritionaloutlook.com, eatingwell.com, modernfarmer.com
Photograph: Potato DNA www.sciencemediacenter.co.nz
DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid is a self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms as the main constituent of chromosomes. It is the carrier of genetic information; the fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of plants and animals.
MICROBIOME — a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment, especially the collection of microorganisms living in or on the human body.