What is GMO?

July 05, 2016

Food is a commodity that is essential to life. There are continuous efforts to create new ways to produce food while keeping the food supply safe. Consumers desire to have healthy foods at affordable prices. And the marketers of food products never miss an opportunity to jump on the most current and popular issue to promote their products. The gluten-free proliferation is a good example of this type of promotion. Now new terms seem to be emerging on food packaging: “GMO-free” or “Made without GMO foods.”

 So what are GMO foods? Are they better for you? Are they safe? This is a question you will have to decide for yourself. GMO foods are a controversial issue, with proponents and opponents. The issue of labeling such foods is also a heated debate. Learning about GMO may help you to understand some of the issues. This column summarizes the main issues.  

 A GMO is a genetically modified living organism that has been created in a lab by altering the genetic makeup of a plant or animal. For example, a potato that is resistant to bruising, a salmon that grows twice as fast, or a food that contains a high level of a nutrient that it didn’t previously have. The use of GMO foods has been in existence for many years, with vast proliferation into crops around 1990. In the U.S., most of the corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, yellow squash, zucchini, alfalfa and cotton crops are GMO produced. Many processed foods made with these foods come from GMO crops.

 Therefore, proponents say that since consumers have been eating these foods for over 15 years without any credible identified adverse health effects, they are safe to consume. This is the official stance of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) as well as the WHO (World Health Organization.) However, opponents say that this does not mean that they have been proven “safe” as adverse effects can take years to develop. Clearly more research needs to be done. Neither side of the debate can scientifically demonstrate their position at this time.

 Why GMO? The pros for GMO foods include more rapid production of crops, bigger crops, reduced costs, ability to sustain temperature and soil extremes, reduced pesticide use and increased resistance to insects, viruses or plant diseases. In theory, this can help to feed more of the world’s population. Cons include increased possibility of allergic or toxic reactions, new diseases in humans, plants and animals, antibiotic resistance, and unknown effects on the immune system. Some researchers speculate that the ecosystem may be affected by cross-over wild pollination. Again, more research is needed on this topic.  

 GMO labeling has become as controversial an issue as the use of GMOs themselves. GMO labeling is mandatory in over 60 countries. Labeling would allow you, the consumer, to decide if you want to choose a certain product or not. In 2013, Connecticut became the first state in the U.S. to enact legislation to have mandatory labeling of foods that contain GMOs, but there was a catch. It only gets  enacted if at least 4 other states pass similar laws, although it can be voluntarily used as many stores and products have begun to do.  (As of 2016, only Maine and Vermont have passed such legislation although it has been proposed in many other states.) There is a non-governmental project called the “Non-GMO Project Verified,” launched in 2010 that will review a food and allow a label that verifies it has been reviewed according to certain their own standards. It is not a GMO-free claim as that is virtually impossible to scientifically prove. Rather, it is a label that shows a product has been independently reviewed by their reviewers and what they have deemed to be the best practices for GMO avoidance in the product preparation. Is this useful? Maybe. The key issue really is that if there was a way to have a standardized label that identified GMO in a product, then you could make a decision for yourself based on your beliefs and emerging scientific information. Time will tell whether such labeling will be standardized and implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.)

 Hopefully this column will help you to understand some of the new labeling you are seeing on food packaging. Ultimately you will have decide how important this issue is to you and if you will make your food purchases based on the GMO status. Without any mandatory GMO labeling in effect, you can’t assume that a food has been genetically modified just because it doesn’t have a label saying “no GMO products.” That can be a marketing gimmick to get you to purchase a certain product.  

 The information in this column comes from a review of multiple articles on the internet. You can further research the topic, but beware of bias in articles unless it is clearly stated.  Look for information that presents the whole picture, rather than one that takes a pro or con stand. For District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) without internet access, call Quinnipiack Valley Health District for written information. For other health information, visit our website, www.qvhd.org . Check out our Facebook and Twitter which you can access from the website.