Whether you were examining the labels on your food products out of interest in the ingredients or simply because you were bored, you may have noticed over the past several months or so that many food products now contain some form of the circled statement in the above image. Federal legislation addressed the topic of product labeling with regard to genetically modified foods, partly as a trump to state-mandated labeling laws (putting in place ineffective and vague federal laws that nullify state-based regulations) and partly to simply put something on the books.
Regardless of the motivation behind U.S. food labeling laws, we now see more and more food items declaring the fact that they are the cobbled together sum of various parts and no longer a natural, organic, or reliably healthy addition to our daily diet. While the U.S. regulatory policy on genetically modified foods has existed for some time, it is neither definitive nor thorough and leaves much to be both desired and clarified.
Is there more to genetically modified foods than just more food?
With all the chemical and scientific ‘additives’ introduced into the foods we eat on a daily basis over the past two decades, it is no wonder that we are seeing more illnesses, both physical and mental, finding their way into mainstream consciousness. Does no one find it unusual at all or wonder about potential causes and connections? Obesity has become a national epidemic in America, in both adults and children, and is an escalating problem in many other countries around the world. Depression, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (unrelated to military PTSD), along with many other diseases and illnesses, have become increasingly prevalent diagnoses for anyone ranging in age from 2 to 120.
Things we accept as ‘normal’ today in terms of our health and wellness, or lack thereof, and the myriad professionals we must regularly consult or the medications we must regularly consume – these were not a daily part of life in generations past. In fact, they were not a daily part of life in just the past generation alone, a mere 20 to 30 years ago.
Not only are many of our foods produced, in whole or part, by genetic engineering, but it is highly likely that many of our ailments and disorders are, as well.
What are GMOs?
Before you can make assumptions about how they might affect us when consumed as part of our daily diet, or connect any visible dots to create implications about their culpability as a factor in the significant increase in certain medical diagnoses, physical ailments, or mental maladies, you first need to know what GMOs are. After all, a federal law requiring labels for GMO foods means very little if you don’t fully understand what ‘genetically altered’ means in terms of what you eat.
GMO stands for ‘genetically modified organism.’ These types of foods are also called ‘genetically modified foods/crops’ or ‘genetically engineered foods/crops,’ and the label is not exclusive to harvested plant crops or their derivatives. Animals used for food (pigs, cows, chickens, etc.) can also possess some level of genetic modification and are often referred to as ‘GM livestock.’ Over the past decade and a half, the use of genetically modified crops in the United States has seen a steady increase. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ‘nearly all of the GE [genetically engineered] seeds marketed to U.S. farmers are for pest management.’ That includes not only insects but also weeds and other organisms that are problematic for crop production.
Herbicide-tolerant (HT) seeds are preferred over insect-resistant (IT) seeds because weeds are a significant detriment for crop cultivation. In fact, the USDA reported that over 80% of corn, cotton, and soybean crops in the U.S. come from genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant seeds, as well as a large percentage of other crops like sugar beets, canola, papaya, alfalfa, and squash.
The numbers don’t lie…or do they?
Since genetically engineered seed use became prevalent in 1995, the USDA has been monitoring the use of herbicides for GMO crops. Cotton and soybean crops saw a small decrease in the amount of herbicides used through 2001, but herbicide quantities have been steadily increasing since then and surpassed the 2001 quantities in 2005 and has continued to increase. Corn experienced similar results, but the post-2001 increase has yet to exceed the figures in 1995 (as of 2011) when herbicide use for GMO crops began to be studied.
These figures regarding the use of herbicides, as well as data detailing the use of pesticides, is of particular importance for one key reason – a large number of studies relating to the benefits of genetically modified crops often cite as a benefit the substantial financial savings (and environmental benefits) realized by GMO-producing countries due to an allegedly significant decrease in the use of pesticides and herbicides. Despite the claims that the use of herbicides and pesticides has seen a dramatic downward turn, the numbers don’t lie. The downward turn was short-lived and herbicide/pesticide use has been on a steady incline for the past decade.
Why are we creating genetically modified foods?
Two of the publicly stated primary reasons for the development of genetically modified plant and animal food sources are, particularly in the case of plants, to create food crops that are more resistant or tolerant to herbicides and insects. GMOs are also desirable, from a food producer’s perspective, because they allow plants and animals that are destined to become consumable products to get fatter faster. Fruits and vegetables grow much larger and ripen sooner, and livestock put on weight more quickly. This allows for more food product to be derived from its respective sources and provides a faster turnaround for food producers.
The genetic tampering of consumable products is not limited to primary sources of sustenance. Plant and animal derivatives that are merely one small ingredient in a large batch of ingredients are also raised and harvested using genetic engineering, as well as textile crops (like cotton) and substitution crops (like soybeans, which are used as a meat substitute or a base ingredient for a variety of foods).
What GMO benefits are presented by scientific, pseudo-scientific, and agricultural studies?
In order to tout the appeal of genetically modified foods, there are a variety of studies across several different industries and disciplines that enumerate the supposed benefits of genetically engineered crops and livestock. These benefits include:
- reduced use of pesticides and herbicides
- decrease in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions
- biodiversity conservation via land use reduction
- increased profitability and improved way of life for small farmers and their families
- reduced farm production costs (i.e., plowing, labor, pesticides)
- lowered rate of deforestation via land use reduction
- increased commercialization of GMO textile crops in impoverished countries
- reduction of agriculture’s environmental footprint
- fossil fuel savings and decreased use of fossil fuels
- drought-tolerant GMOs aid water conservation efforts
- sustainable food production despite rapid and/or varied climatic changes
Despite the listed benefits of genetically engineered food, feed, and fiber crops, as well as any benefits that have yet to be realized or enumerated, public sentiment toward genetically modified organisms remains entrenched on the negative side of the debate.
Don’t you want to know what you’re eating?
While you may think a tomato is just a tomato, consider the case of Juan Pedro Ramos of Madrid, Spain. His death in January 2017 is the first confirmed case of death by GMO. Specifically, Mr. Ramos ingested a seemingly harmless tomato that was interlaced with fish genes, and he died from a ‘violent and lethal allergic reaction.’ The fate of Mr. Ramos could easily be the fate of anyone with a severe food allergy because companies are not required to divulge the extent of their ‘tinkering’ when it comes to modifying the genetic makeup of their products.
In fact, the United States – at the federal level – is attempting to camouflage GMO labels altogether by hiding them within a QR code (which can only be interpreted with a code-reading app on a smartphone) rather than requiring a clear and easy-to-read printed statement. Consumers and others have argued against QR code labeling for genetically engineered products because it restricts label access and interpretation to those who have smartphones or access to code-reading apps on mobile devices.
Food labeling laws and regulations for genetically engineered crops and livestock vary greatly from country to country. Oddly enough, the United States – which is the largest producer of GMOs in the world – has no mandatory labeling laws or requirements for genetically modified crops. Recent legislation by the United States government voided existing and pending state-level GMO labeling laws and initiatives.
In a 2016 poll of registered U.S. voters, 89% of respondents stated that they are in favor of mandatory labels on foods that have been genetically engineered or which contain genetically engineered ingredients. A telephone survey conducted by Consumer Reports in 2014 revealed that 92% of respondents were in favor of mandatory labels for GMOs, slightly lower than the 95% result they attained in 2008. The New York Times polled readers in 2013 on the same topic and found that 93% of Americans want specific labeling for genetically engineered foods. In 2010 the Washington Post achieved the same results, as did MSNBC in 2011.
Are genetically modified foods really safe for us to eat?
While there have been numerous studies over a 20 year period that attest to the safety of GMO crops and livestock, public sentiment still remains on the skeptical side of the fence. As of 2012, over 60 different countries have granted over 3,000 approvals for over 350 different genetic modification traits for over 25 crops [source]. Does this broad range of approvals around the globe mean GMO crops and livestock are ‘safe’ for human consumption?
Despite the number of studies conducted over the past two decades, there remains no solid scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified food, feed, and fiber crops. In fact, many researchers, scientists, agricultural specialists, and other relevant professionals have stated that many claims of a safety consensus are actually falsely perpetuated artificial constructs. Those same professionals do not assert that GMOs are safe or unsafe. To the contrary, they maintain the position that there is a substantial lack of definitive data to provide a determination of safety or the lack thereof.
One of the biggest problems with the introduction of some new products, like pharmaceuticals or genetically engineered foods, is that they hit the market and achieve mass distribution and widespread use before the consequences of their consumption can be adequately and thoroughly studied. This dilemma is compounded by the rapid increase in the use of genetically engineered seeds for crop cultivation on a global scale. The five countries producing the most GMO crops as of 2012 were:
- United States: 69.5 million hectares (8 different crops)
- Brazil: 36.6 million hectares (3 different crops)
- Argentina: 23.9 million hectares (3 different crops)
- Canada: 11.6 million hectares (4 different crops)
- India: 10.8 million hectares (cotton only)
No other countries surpass 5 million hectares of GMO crops, and most other countries use genetically engineered seeds for the cultivation of corn or cotton, with soybean crops taking a distant third place.
Conclusion…of a sort…
Genetically modified and engineered foods are becoming more popular in both developed and developing countries, for a variety of reasons. From a consumer perspective, we should demand more transparency in how these foods are grown or raised and what, exactly, is done to them to ‘genetically alter’ them before we consume them. 100 years ago, our ancestors didn’t eat GMO foods and enjoyed a much healthier lifestyle.
Are the additives and modifications of GMO foods contributing to the numerous health issues and medical ailments plaguing society today? Perhaps. More study is definitely needed to reach a conclusive answer.
Until that answer is found, however, I would much rather eat a tomato grown on a vine in a garden outside in the sunshine than one grown in a bacteria-infested hothouse (humidity, heat, and moisture are excellent breeding grounds for all types of bacteria). I would also much rather enjoy fried chicken or a thick steak that was harvested from a free-range, stress-free animal than one that is kept in a tiny cage in artificial light or, even worse, an ‘animal’ that was grown in a petri dish.