What are GMOs? Are you avoiding them because someone said they’re bad, or do you actually know what they entail?
The Issue of Misinformation
Did you know you can now buy GMO-free hummus?
When I saw the ad, I gave my husband a funny look. “Does hummus even contain GMO products?” I’ve written articles on GMOs in regards to seed saving. Were there now GMO chickpeas to make this labeling necessary? Grabbing my phone, I Googled and confirmed what I already knew. “Unless they’re using corn oil instead of olive, it wouldn’t have GMOs anyway.”
My husband shrugged. “Well, they’re also selling it as gluten free.”
Traditional hummus has chickpeas, sesame paste called tahini, olive oil, salt, and maybe spices like garlic, roasted red peppers, or olive tapenade. It’s naturally going to be both non-GMO and gluten-free unless their proprietary recipe also contains stuff like sugar, corn syrup, corn oil, cornstarch, or wheat starch. This is another reason to know what you’re eating and read the label. You could be paying more for wording.
So what are GMOs?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It is a plant or animal that has been scientifically modified, within a lab, to contain genes from another plant or animal. It can also be called genetic engineering.
Haven’t people been genetically modifying foods for years?
Cross-breeding and genetic engineering are different. Cross-breeding involves introducing plants or animals that can naturally interbreed, through traditional methods. Such as letting an Angus bull into a herd of Jersey heifers. Or cross-pollinating a small yellow tomato with a robust red one, in hopes of creating a larger, more robust variety. You cannot cross-breed a plant or animal outside its own genus. A wolf can breed with a domesticated dog but a wolf cannot breed with a mountain lion.
Genetic engineering goes further than this. Corn can contain genes from carrots; tomatoes can contain genes from fish.
Why are scientists doing this?
The intentions behind GMOs are good. Golden Rice, for instance, would have beta-carotene, giving it the golden color. Cultivating Golden Rice in third-world countries could prevent 670,000 childhood deaths per year from vitamin A deficiency.
But the crops created for humanitarian purposes haven’t gone very far because of public opposition. Including Golden Rice. What have gone far, though, are crops created for commerce. Soybeans and corn which don’t die when Roundup herbicide is sprayed on them, for instance. The intentions are to reduce work for the farmer. No weeds, more commodity food. Other GMO crops have been developed to resist viruses which could devastate an entire industry. Or to reduce carcinogens created during high-temperature cooking.
Are GMOs safe?
So far, GMOs have not been found to be any more dangerous or unhealthy than the non-GMO version of the same food…unless the food contains genes from something to which you are allergic. Such as cabbage containing genes from Brazil nuts, since Brazil nuts don’t naturally have insect predators. And some labs have tried this: fish genes in a tomato is one of them. The fish genes would have made the tomato resistant to long and cold storage during shipment.
Luckily, smart people realized this is a problem and stopped those projects before they ever hit the market.
What about the herbicides you mentioned?
That’s a different story. Organic and non-GMO are two completely different things, though they are often confused. Non-GMO does not mean pesticide free. It means it has not been genetically engineered.
But the United States and Canada do not allow products labeled “100% Certified Organic” to contain any GMO ingredients. So eating foods with this label guarantees you won’t consume GMOs.
So why should I avoid GMOs?
Whether you avoid them or not is up to you. It’s up to your budget and your ethics.
Some people avoid GMOs simply because somebody else told them to. Someone said they are bad so people cry out about them, go on marches to protest them, and spread the word. But they do this without even knowing what they’re protesting.
The main reasons to avoid GMOs are because cultivation of these crops often involves unethical agricultural practices: Broad-spectrum herbicides sprayed on something intended for human consumption. Monoculture on commodity farms that leave no room for biodiversity. Disappearance of old heirloom crop varieties. Lengthy, air-tight contracts that can strip a farmer of his livelihood if he violates them in any way. Even if he simply violates them by growing crops that acquired the GMOs because of wind drift from another farm.
Where can I buy non-GMO seeds?
Anywhere. They are not available to the public. You cannot purchase them from seed supply companies because acquiring this seed means entering into these lengthy contracts. It’s something companies like Monsanto do with commodity farmers, not hobby farmers or gardeners. And if the seeds you purchase are from crops that do not yet have GMO versions, you’re completely safe.
The only way you can acquire GMO seed is if you receive it from someone who saved seed from a GMO crop or saved seed that was grown in very close proximity to a farm with GMO crops. And that is possible, especially with corn. That’s why companies like Baker Creek grow their heirloom corn in very isolated areas, because pollen can drift over a mile in the wind.
What foods are GMO?
- 90% of all corn and soybeans grown commercially within the United States. If your food contains corn or soybeans in any form, it probably contains GMOs. Corn is also used extensively as food for almost all livestock.
- Canola, which is used in cooking oil, margarine, and processed food. If the ingredients say “emulsifier,” it might be canola.
- Sugarbeets. Unless your sugar specifically says it’s 100% cane sugar, it could contain beet sugar.
- GMO alfalfa is available to feed animals. Livestock which may consume alfalfa include cattle, sheep, poultry, and rabbits.
- Cotton, which is available in food form as cottonseed oil or within food for livestock.
- Papaya, with GMOs specifically for insect resistance. Grown mostly in Hawaii, approved in the United States.
- Several varieties of commercially grown potatoes. This is most likely to appear in processed foods like French fries.
- Several varieties of commercially grown summer squash, like zucchini.
- The first GMO apple has been approved for the market. It’s called Arctic and isn’t yet widely available.
- AquAdvantage salmon was approved for food use in 2015.
- GMO eggplant is approved only for Bangladesh. GMO sugarcane is only approved for Indonesia.
- Though it’s not a food, tobacco was the first GMO crop.
- GMO tomatoes have been created but are not approved by the USDA and therefore aren’t available. The same with beets (other than sugarbeets), rice, and flax.
How do I avoid GMOs?
Know which crops could be GMO. Why spend more on the “Non-GMO” hummus when the cheaper variety also doesn’t contain ingredients that could be GMO? Learn which foods could be culprit and purchase heirloom varieties of them, such as ancient creole corns or wild-caught salmon. Read labels. And if you can’t completely avoid them, learn why the crops have been modified. To avoid papaya mosaic virus? Or to resist Roundup? This allows you to make choices based on agricultural practices, which helps you avoid herbicide consumption.
Grow your own. If you have a little garden space, use it to cultivate the crops you’re trying to avoid. Great choices are heirloom potatoes or sweet corn.
Know your local farmer. Is she growing heirloom corn? Does she raise her beef using alfalfa and feed corn which are non-GMO? Purchase from her and spread the word. You’ll support her livelihood, create awareness, and feel more secure about your own diet.
What else can I do?
The two strongest things you can do are to stay educated and to vote with your wallet.
Currently, there is a huge battle for GMO labeling. The armies are food advocates vs. corporations, and the warriors are sitting within Senate and Congress.
If you don’t know which crops are GMO, it’s difficult to avoid them. And thinking that all foods are GMO just builds unnecessary panic. Eat a sweet potato instead of a potato. Eat quinoa instead of corn. And don’t go spreading misinformation. If you want your community to also avoid GMOs, tell them what GMOs are and why it’s a problem. Don’t just insist they avoid GMOs because “they are bad.”
Voting with your wallet means simply not purchasing products you don’t agree with. That March against Monsanto loses a lot of meaning if you go home and eat cornbread, or French fries cooked in canola oil, afterward. If you keep buying it, farmers keep growing it and corporations keep providing it. Consuming heirloom corn still supports farmers. And the more you buy the heirloom varieties, the more farmers will be convinced to invest in them.
Again, whether you decide to avoid GMOs is a personal decision. But ensuring it’s an educated decision goes a long way.