What’s the Big Deal About GMOs?

Child eating corn on the cob

GMO foods, those from genetically modified organisms, show up in the news every week. The information we get about them can be confusing because the issues are complex and the interested players putting their spin on the issues are many.

Don’t give up and move on, though. GMOs matter. Take the time to learn how GMOs have not in the past 20 years lived up to the promises made to consumers, but they have shifted control of global agriculture to a few corporate hands. Beyond instability introduced to global food systems, research connects GMOs to health and environmental issues.

The issues most often in the news are whether GMOs should be allowed into the food supply (in Canada & the U.S. they are; in Europe they are not), and, when they are allowed into the food supply, whether they should be labeled (in Canada and the U.S. they are not, though there is some voluntary GMO-free labeling).

What does GMO mean?

You might see references to GMO, GM, or GE in discussions of genetic modification of organisms.

  • GE – Genetically Engineered – Genetic material has been added or removed. This is a specific term.
  • GM / GMO – Genetically Modified (Organism) – Genes modified through any means. GM is an umbrella term that includes all GE.

In common (rather than scientific) discussion of these issues, you may see references to both as GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms.

Why genetically modify foods?

Crops have been modified to make them resistant to weeds and insects, to make them ready for specific (patented) herbicides, to make them resistant to weather damage, to make them ripen slower and travel better so it is easier to get them to market looking fresh.

GMOs benefit the corporations that profit from higher production and monocultures. They can benefit the farmers who plant these crops in some situations, though many traditional farmers have suffered at the legal hands of the major GE corporations.

Where are GMO foods found?

You are likely eating GMO foods every day without realizing it.

Over the past 20 years, GM foods have been approved in Canada. In Canada and the U.S. (unlike Europe), there is no government requirement to label these foods, either in the whole fruits and vegetables section of your grocery store or as ingredients in processed, packaged, and other foods.

Health Canada is charged with making sure any GMOs on the market are safe for consumption. Health Canada refers to these and other foods as Novel Foods. They provide GMO / novel foods factsheets, including details of their safety assessment process. There are no further plans to research safety of GMOs in Canada.

Some smaller areas in Canada and the U.S. have banned GMOs or required labelling of GMOs in their jurisdictions.

What are the problems with GMOs?

Outside the U.S. and Canada, 60 countries have bans or restrictions on GMOs—including Australia, Japan, and the European Union. A lot of scientists and global health professionals urge caution before accepting unproven modifications in our food supply. We can’t just take back GMOs. Once they are growing, they change wild plant and animal populations as well as agriculture. They change our ecosystems.

Your Health. Government agencies and those who sell GMO seeds and foods tell us that they are safe, yet research accumulates on the long-term harmful effects of GM foods. Abnormal structural changes are shown in animal feeding experiments. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine explains how the idea of “substantial equivalence” underlies the claims of food safety but why that doesn’t give us the full story.

For example, I know a lot of bynature.ca customers are concerned about food allergies and sensitivities. There is research into whether GM crops cause allergies. It’s tough, though, to get around all of the corporate-sponsored FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to find science that isn’t conducted under interested parties. Read one doctor’s view, tracing the gradual acknowledgment of the association between one disease and GM foods. Over time, we can expect to see more stories like this as more long-term health effects become clear.

Environmental Impacts. GMOs contaminate similar organisms as genetically modified genes spread. The spreading is natural, though the genes spread are not naturally occurring. Crops that have been modified to include their own herbicides or pesticides have resulted in weeds and insects that have grown more tolerant and resistant, which means pesticide and herbicide use increases to combat those.

Biodiversity. What may be weeds to a monoculture farmer are habitat for butterflies, bees, and other small creatures. Huge weed-free zones mean destruction of habitat. GMO forests could be devastating to biodiversity.

Sovreignty. Farmers save seeds to plant next year, right? Not with GMOs. Genetically modified genes together with gene patents mean corporate legal control over a growing number of the most commonly planted seeds. Terminator Technology results in plants that produce sterile seeds. Even in plants that do not produce sterile seeds, farmers are not allowed legally to save seeds patented by the massive GE corporations. This creates long-term dependency rather than self-reliance. Together with the massive corporate buying of seed companies then raising of prices for seed, you have every farmer at the mercy of the corporation that modified and patented the genes of the seeds that farmer’s family has been growing for generations immemorial.

What can that mean in the real lives of real people? Over the past 15 years in India, more than 270,000 farmers have committed suicide. Seeds and GMOs play a big role in this tragedy. Watch a short film about the connection.

What if I want to avoid GMOs?

Foods containing GMOs are not required to be labelled. If you want to avoid eating genetically modified foods, you will have to do the research for yourself to determine which foods are genetically modified or may contain GMOs.

  • Avoid the worst GMO foods: Canola, corn, soy, sugar (from sugar beets), papayas, dairy from cows treated with rBGH, zucchini and yellow squash. Look for high-risk crops and be aware of ingredients in processed foods. The introduce of new crops means you can’t rely on a list long-term. Check the food list at the Non-GMO Project.
  • Buy organic. Certified organic foods are not allowed to be genetically modified.
  • Plant your own. Though GM seeds are available for home gardens, you can find non-GMO seeds by asking your seed provider.
  • Look for GMO-free labels. Some smaller food retailers are also concerned. Shop where you can find the label “GMO-free.” The Non-GMO Project will help you find labelled foods.

Resources

“Human Health Risks of GMOs,” Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Genetic Routlette: The Gamble of Our Lives (2012). Documentary film.

GMO Trilogy. Watch “Unnatural Selection” online for free. Documentary films.

Jeffrey M. Smith, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating (2005). Also available bundled with the documentary films of the GMO Trilogy.

Dr. Vandana Shiva has long been an activist for food sovreignty and anti-globalization. Read her response to a recent campaign of doubt against her published in The New Yorker, August 2014.

Take Action

Join CBAN, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Organic Consumers Association works on a lot of issues that concern us. Dig through their section on GMOs to find the ways you can take action internationally, nationally, and in your own community. Includes the Report, GMO Myths & Truths: An Evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops by Earth Open Source.

U.S. based? Sign the MoveOn petition to Hillary Clinton by the Organic Consumers Association about support for Monsanto and GMO agriculture.

“Speaking at this year’s BIO International Convention, you reiterated your support for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You said the industry needs ‘a better vocabulary’ to change negative public perception about GMO agriculture. But mounting scientific evidence says the public is right to be concerned about the impact of Monsanto’s GMO crops and food on the environment, public health and global warming. We don’t need a better vocabulary. We need leaders who will stand up to Monsanto.”

Image © Alinute | Dreamstime.com - Pretty Child Girl Eats A Boiled Corn Photo

 

My Children, the Food Activists

Food, Inc.“I tell all of my friends about food,” my daughter told me. I’ve noticed that both of my children talk about food issues in casual conversation with their friends. “Dude,” my 9-year old son said to his friend, “have you read this book?” The book is the Young Readers Edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Yeah, dude. I read that.” And he has! We aren’t the only family who have created food activists.

My efforts to teach my children about food have been deliberate. My children and I worked together to plan a homeschool year focused on food. We eased in with the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, which we read last year. In Hungry Planet, 30 families from 24 countries around the world are photographed with food that they would eat in a typical week.

Every year since they were small I have chosen one book to be our social geography focus. We started with the Unicef / DK Children Like Me series then moved on to Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Women in the Material World, How People Live, and, this year, Hungry Planet. I can’t say enough good things about Dorling Kindersley books for children.

Apparently, my children stick out—in a good way. When a nutritionist visited her ballet academy to talk to the dancers, my daughter was right in the conversation with questions. When other dancers see in her food journal the food she eats, they seem confused. Seeing Jamie Oliver’s efforts to clean up school lunches, I’m not surprised that they don’t understand how someone could eat real food at every meal. This is one more reason I am glad we homeschool


Food Revolution

Have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? My family watched it online. We started watching late one night. My children were so fascinated that they wanted to stay up to watch all of the episodes (three so far).

Short version: British chef shows up in the town that, statistically, is the least healthy in the U.S., Huntington, West Virginia, to try to plant the seeds of a food revolution. So far, we see a lot of resistance.

We all laughed our collective cynical laughs (oh, I just can’t help it) to see an episode of Food Revolution sponsored by a soft drink company and another by a greenwashing laundry company. But, it is what it is: an opportunity to reach into the mainstream with information about how our food system is killing us. It’s such a potentially powerful message that I almost overlook the the reality TV melodrama, questionable sponsorship, and condescending endearments toward females.


Food Films

In addition to The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Hungry Planet, we have watched quite a few documentary films.

  • King Corn – as two would-be farmers cultivate one acre of corn and trace the systems of industrial corn in the U.S.
  • The Future of Food – tracing genetically engineered pseudo-food of multinational corporations and the potential alternatives
  • Super-size Me – as Morgan Sperlock eats at McDonalds every day for 30 days with devastating effects on his health
  • Killer at Large – on the causes of obesity in our culture
  • The Last Beekeeper – following the journeys of several beekeepers to the almond groves of California as their colonies continue to collapse
  • Food Inc – covering much the same ground as many of the other films listed, though this was the one that brought out the most emotional response in me. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature this past year.


The Most Important Lesson

I asked my son what was the most important thing he has learned about food in the past year.

“I didn’t know how horribly the animals are treated in feed lots and animal operations. They are fed corn and parts of other animals. They are all so close and packed together. If they left them long enough in the feed lots they would die because their stomachs aren’t meant to process corn.”

“Now that you know,” I asked, “what do you do?”

“Eat grass-fed beef. Stay away from any corn-fed beef.”

My daughter answered the same questions.

“Food isn’t always what it looks like. Quality of a burger isn’t as good as it looks.”

“Anything else?”

“The way that animals are treated in feed lots is outrageous.”

“Now that you know that,” I asked, “what do you do?”

“Avoid it. Look at the labels to find the what you are avoiding: corn syrup and corn-fed meat. People are dying with this food, and fast food restaurants don’t care that their food is killing people. Food should be made in the kitchen not a lab.”

I thought I had already made a lot of changes to my family’s food in the past 15 years, but my children are helping me to make more changes. I love how active they are in helping to set priorities and request changes. Hearing them converse easily about fair trade chocolate or phytonutrients gives me a little parenting buzz. What a pleasure it is parenting older children! (And, yes, of course every age has its pleasures.)

I’m quite sure that our homeschool study of food will continue to expand. I hope to cover more of the Facing the Future global sustainability curriculum next. It is important to me that my children learn more than how to take action and why it is important. I want them to understand both the personal application and the global implication.

Go to Food Inc to learn 10 simple things you can do to change our food system.