These days, three little letters are increasingly whipping our nation into quite a frenzy: G-M-O. But why? I hate to admit it, but up until recently I’d blacklisted GMOs right along with the rest of the seemingly health-minded, ecoconscious masses, lumping them into the same evil acronym category as bisphenol A (BPA) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but without really knowing why. So, I decided to dig a little deeper —and what I found was downright shocking, just not in precisely the way I had anticipated.
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It means splicing genetic material from one organism—say, a plant, animal, bacteria or virus—and transferring it to another. In most cases, the altered DNA imbues the organism with some useful trait. For commercially grown GMO crops (also referred to as “genetically engineered” or “GE” crops) in the U.S. (namely soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, cotton, papaya and squash), this usually means making crops resistant to pests, diseases and herbicides, thus reducing the need for chemical sprays. Genetic engineering also produces vaccines and alternative energy sources, and in the GMO pipeline are drought-resistant crops, fruit less susceptible to spoilage and soybeans with more beneficial omega-3s. Sounded pretty good to me, so why all the hubbub over genetically engineered crops?
It didn’t take long for me to find out. When I Googled “GMO risks,” an onslaught of say-no-to-GMO websites assaulted my screen. Framed as “Frankenfoods,” these biotech crops have been linked by animal studies to infertility, food allergies, liver damage, cancer, antibiotic resistance and gastrointestinal problems. In fact, based on such studies, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) called for a moratorium on GMO foods in May 2009. What’s more, the European Union requires labeling on GMO foods. So why is it that the U.S. doesn’t require mandatory testing or GMO labeling? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1992 policy, GMO foods don’t “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” Instead, GMO foods follow a voluntary process in which companies submit data that shows the modified crop is basically the same as its traditionally bred counterpart and therefore doesn’t pose any new health risks.
Corn image via Shutterstock