Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Defeat of Prop 37?

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is this cherry a (GMO) Genetically modified or...

is this cherry a (GMO) Genetically modified organism? (Photo credit: Kalexanderson)

Prop 37 has been defeated.  This issue has been the topic of food blogs for a number of months now and in reading some of the discussions about this issue  from some “experts” from the medicaland nutrition field  it became apparent to me that there was an awful lot of confusion about exactly what these GM foods are.

As I have stated before, there is such bias on this issue  – both pro and con as to whether they are beneficial or harmful to health and the environment.  Either you love them or you don’t.  So it is difficult to sort out the truth.

The point of this post is to at least present some facts about GMO’s that hopefully cannot be disputed to make some sense of this continuing debate about genetically modified foods.

There seems to be a great deal of controversy on their effects on human health, their impact on the environment, and their overall benefits or risks to society.  The debate will continue – do we need to fear them or will all the proposed benefits be realized?

What exactly are GM foods?

The difference between conventional breeding and genetically modified crops needs some clarification.  In order to achieve the desired results, traditional breeders must continue the process over and over again until the desired traits are reached.  The genes are similar in the cell they join. They are conveyed in groups and in a fixed sequence that harmonizes those in the partner cell.

In contrast, genetic engineering isolate a gene from one type of organism and splice it haphazardly into the DNA of a dissimilar species, disrupting its natural sequence.  This process results in the transplanted gene being foreign to its new environment in the DNA.

Put another way genetic engineering is the transfer of a gene that confers a specific trait, from almost any plant, animal, or microorganism into another organism. The resulting organism is referred to as a genetically modified food (GM food), a genetically engineered food (GE food), or a transgenic plant or animal.  The term genetically modified organism or GMO is no longer recommended.

Here’s the basic recipe:

  • Take the DNA of the host plant, corn.
  • Gene from a bacteria (Bt gene) that produces a protein toxic to the European corn borer is inserted.  The gene is from the bacteria Bacilllus thuringieneis (Bt).
  • The corn plant is now genetically modified.
  • It then makes the Bt toxin and so is resistant to the European corn borer.

Genetic engineering is widely used in agriculture.  The U.S grows about half of such crops with Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada, and China.  Recently, India has recommended banning all GM field trials until some conditions are met.  To name a few:

  • A panel of qualified scientists has scrutinized and analyzed the safety data.
  • A requirement for biosafety tests prior to field testing including toxicity tests in small animals.
  • A 10-year moratorium on field trials of all Bt food crops, including Bt cotton and Bt eggplant.

GM soybeans, corn and cotton are planted on almost half of U. S. cropland; other GM crops include papaya, canola, squash, sugar beets, an alfalfa.  In this case, cotton provides seeds for the extraction of cottonseed oil.   Cottonseed oil is used for salad oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing.

Labeling of GM foods or ingredients is required in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries.  Germany produces no GM corn; Ireland has banned GM crops and has voluntary labeling.  Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, and Luxembourg have all banned both cultivation and sale of GM foods.

What are the safety issues?

  • The possibility of “gene flow” from GM crops to plants not intended for modification.
  • The development of Bt-resistant insects which may lead to increased pesticide use by nonorganic farmers.
  • The loss of genetic diversity – e.g. the use of conventional seeds may decline and these plants may disappear.
  • Insufficient regulation and testing of GM plants and animals.

Who knows at this point where this debate may lead.  Some of the proposed benefits have yet to be realized, namely better crop yields, and more nutritious foods. It has been reported that there is greater use of herbicides which may lead to super-weeds.

If you want to avoid GMOs in your food, look for the Non-GMO verified label on the package. Organic food is also a good bet, but may be cross contaminated with GMOs.

Read the ingredient list for soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed oils.

You can also use the GMO feature on Fooducate’s Android and iPhone app.

NON GMO Project

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