What Does All of This non-GMO Stuff Mean?
I have received several requests to do a post on the debate surrounding GMOs and non-GMOs, and have been hesitant to do so. Not because I don't think it's important, actually quite the contrary, it is an issue I feel very strongly about and I want to ensure that I provide an informative opinion here and not be too "preachy". So here goes...
The non-GMO movement has gotten much more popularity and support recently, but in fact it has been an important topic for quite a long time, and impacts us and the world in many more ways than you can imagine. It is a topic that I have been researching and discussing for several years, including its impact on world hunger (something that I am passionate about). I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a conference/symposium on "Feeding the World Sustainably" several years back, during which young leaders across broad industries (including entrepreneurs, lawyers, lobbyists, biochemists, farmers, etc) met with Dan Glickman, former Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, to try to get a better understanding of why this important topic is met with such passion, and what we can do to move forward and make an impact. I learned so much from so many perspectives from those pro and con. I will try to break it down as much as possible here so that you can make the best choices for you and your family, but I know keeping my opinion out will be impossible.
First off, I should define what GMO means in terms of food- GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) are organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods. (wikipedia.org)
Why is this important for you? When species are created in the laboratory, and not naturally, we can't predict the results on the environment, on our bodies when we (or the animals we feed) ingest them, or what will happen once they begin to genetically mutate naturally. Will they become pests or dominant species that take over, or will there be no impact at all, we just don't know. Some of the species could be benign and no big deal at all, others can have disastrous effects on us and the environment- which we may not be able to see until farther down the road or in generations to come. I just think back to Agent Orange and those effects... effects we don't want to repeat.
Part of the problem that I have with how GMOs have been introduced, is that they have crept into our food stream and are now everywhere and in everything, and up until recently totally unregulated and unlabeled. I like to have a choice about what I eat and feed my family- that should be my right, That doesn't mean that I will never eat a GMO product or vilify those who do, but in my opinion, I should at least have a choice about what I eat and feed my kids. Thus, the labeling conversations that are so prominent politically and in the media have arisen- I am not alone in my desire for knowledge- phew!
Ok, so back to why this is a big deal. You may not know it, but some of the ingredients that you use, when grown in the US are primarily GMO (much of the world has been slower to adopt GMO because they see the risks and not just the financial rewards of using GMO). For example,
- Canola- approx. 90% of U.S. crop
- Corn- approx. 92% of U.S. crop
- Cotton- approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011
- Papaya- most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres
- Soy- approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011
- Sugar Beets- approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010
All of this information, and much more, is readily available through the Department of Agriculture.
The reason behind farmers wanting to plant GMOs is the following:
- Financial benefit- farmers get larger results by planting less. Many of the GMO seeds produce "high yield" crops, which means more $ in their pockets. This is a short-sighted view however. Long-term the GMO crops actually deplete the soil of nutrients much faster meaning that more fertilizers are needed, which contaminate the soil. Also, some crops such as corn in the US, is produced in such large quantities now, that we don't know what to do with it, so the government actually pays corn framers subsidies or buys the excess corn to keep the farmers in business and then tries to find something to do with he excess corn, such as turn it into feed or fuel. The problem is, that animals (such as cows) aren't naturally able to process corn and then get sick or need bacteria introduced into their digestive systems in order to digest the corn- welcome e. Coli...
- Herbicide ready crops- otherwise know as Round-up Ready crops means that the seeds themselves have been modified to better tolerate herbicides. So now farmers can drown the crops in Round-up in order to kill pests without worry that it will kill the crops- thus resulting in better yields, and yes $. A couple of issues arise with this; the excess herbicide that is used on the crops runs off and seeps into the soil and runs off into our water supply. Now we aren't just eating pesticides, we are drinking them too... Beyond that, this has huge impact on sea plant life and fish. as well as anything else in its path.
- We can help the world produce more food in areas where the population is growing or the climate is harsh, making it difficult to grow traditional crops- Alright, so seed purveyors of GMO seeds often make deals that they will provide inexpensive seeds that have high short-term yields to farmers, as long as those farmers agree to exclusively use those seeds. This may seem like a great deal for farmers in developing countries, but it isn't. Round-up ready seeds require- you guessed it- Round-up, so the farmers are forced to buy specific pesticides. These pesticides cause harmful effects on the environment as well as humans and animals (look up glyphosate if you want an example). Fertilizers are then needed in large quantities to replenish the already depleted soil. the cycle goes on. Honestly though, admittedly more expensive in the short term, traditional crops and crop rotation would have much better long-term effects on reducing hunger and malnutrition. Right now there is enough "food" produced in the world to curb hunger- but hunger and malnutrition differ. Our problem doesn't really lie in quantity of food production, it lies is the producing of good, natural food and distributing it to those who need it in a sustainable way. We have "food desserts" in urban US cities, such as parts of Detroit or Philadelphia, and on Native American Reservations where there is little to no access to fresh produce resulting in staggering malnutrition rates. I wish this was common knowledge so more could be done not only in developing countries where populations are exploding, but right here at home.
- GMOs keep foods affordable- this is marketing from the big food industries. They say that because GMO crops use less water, and are more pesticide resistant, they are more dependable and that saves you in the grocery store. Ultimately that isn't accurate. As described above there are many negative impacts to GMO crops, which also cost farmers $ both short-term and long-term and of course, they pass that on to consumers. There is a major movement to going non-GMO and organic from the farmers now- this isn't just because they see that demand for these products is increasing, they see that long-term it is better financially and environmentally for their farms.
- GMOs create better and healthier produce, which can help reduce obesity- Biotech companies producing these GMOs are saying that they can produce certain crops that are hight in beneficial vitamins or minerals than traditional crops, such as the "Golden Rice" varietal, and that will reduce obesity. Obesity is a major problem, not only in the US but globally right now. It could be a coincidence that when you look at a map that depicts the countries that have the highest obesity rates are ones that allow the planting, growth, and import of GMO crops and those who have the lowest obesity rates take the strongest stand against GMOs- however I don't think it is. Our bodies digest natural foods that better. Also, the increase in food allergies and intolerances has increased drastically and in direct correlation with the introduction and prominence of GMOs. The two best examples are peanuts and soy. We don't need GMOs to reduce obesity, we just need to make better food choices. The problem lies in education, not in the laboratory.
I know that there is so much information here (and I have hardly scratched the surface), that it is hard to digest :) So, these reasons, and many more have lead me to the personal decision to try to avoid GMOs as best as I can for myself and for my family. I hope that labeling becomes standard and more consistent so that this is easier to do.
Also, I want to note that I realize that I have not made many references to research here- but there is so much out there, and these are not uneducated opinions. I hope that this article stimulates your curiosity and motivates you to do more research and learn more. I will say, that there are two documentaries that absolutely changed my life and I strongly suggest viewing them- "Food Inc." and "Forks Over Spoons" . They are both super informative, as is the book "One Billion Hungry- Can We Feed the World?" by Gordon Conway. This is a topic that we will come across often, and it is heavily debated, but hopefully this is a good start to help understand the GMO/non-GMO debate.