What You Need to Know about GMOs

This piece was commissioned in March 2015 by an online health publication as part of an ongoing series about developing a more holistic understanding of what goes into our bodies.

These days, you would be hard pressed not to have heard the term Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, floating around in relation to the foods we eat. Over the last decade, the topic has become a hot-button issue for many people, with 70% of the population stating they would prefer not to eat GMO food. Still, there is some confusion about what exactly GMOs are, why they are bad for us and how we can avoid them.

What are GMOs?

According to the experts at Whole Foods Market, GMOs are “organisms whose genetic make up (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” This can be done in a number of food sources, including various types of plants and animals. In the case of crops, this process makes them impervious to herbicide treatment, enables them to produce their own pesticides and ensures resistance to certain diseases. The largest crops using this technology are corn and soybeans. The latest protein source to undergo such genetic change is salmon. Dubbed as the “AquAdvantage” salmon, this fish has been altered with growth hormones borrowed from two other fish, allowing it to mature in half the time and require 25% less food than its counterparts. The fish, approved by the FDA in 2012, is expected to be on the market within two years.

While GMOs are widespread in America (take a look at this chart to see the percentages of commercial crops grown from GMO seed in 2013), it is important to recognize the issues present. In the UK, GMO crops are prohibited from being grown, as much research about their possible health risks is still inconclusive. While some commodities containing GMOs are imported, these are mainly used as animal feed. Any food for human consumption must be clearly labeled. Meanwhile, the FDA requires no labeling, meaning consumers have limited options for understanding where their food comes from or how it is being grown.

Why are GMOs bad for us?

The most important thing to know about GMOs’ harmful effects is that research is still outstanding. While certain health risks have already been identified, more findings are steadily being released, meaning consumers really don’t know the potential extent of effects as of yet. Those already identified include exposure to new allergens in genetically modified foods and the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes to human gut flora. Antibiotic resistance is particularly troublesome as it extends past humans and has the potential to cause ecological imbalances, possibly “allowing previously innocuous plants to grow uncontrolled, promoting the spread of disease among plants and animals” according to Nature.com. Additionally, vertical gene transfer between GMOs, specifically within fish, has been shown to have alarming consequences. In a study of genetically modified fish released into the wild populations of the same species, there was a reduction in the reproduction abilities of the next generation. Scientists concluded that as these new genes propagate into the wild population, the viability of both the wild and genetically modified fish could be threatened.

How can we avoid GMOs?

Given the FDA’s stance on labeling GMO foods, unfortunately there is not a simple answer to this question. Cutting out packaged foods is a good first step, as over 70% of these products contains GMOs. Organic products are required to be GMO free according to the USDA National Organic Standards. This extends to any product, be it produce, meats or packaged goods. Additionally, most frozen fruits and vegetables will be non-GMO crops with the exception of corn, Hawaiian papaya, edamame, zucchini and yellow summer squash.

While labeling is not required, some companies are voluntarily letting customers know they are GMO-free with a “Non-GMO Project Verified” marking, so keep an eye out for these labels. For those looking to keep their grocery bill low, dried products are a good way to avoid GMOs. With the exception of corn and soy, great options include dry beans, grains, nuts and seeds that can be bought in bulk without breaking the bank.

Common sense will also go a long way towards knowing whether or not an unlabelled product may have GMOs present. The largest GMO crops are corn, canola, soy, cotton and sugar beets. If you keep these items in mind when doing your weekly shopping, you can easily avoid many GMO products without feeling the need to research every item in your cart.

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