Saturday, March 28, 2015

All About GMOs

A few months ago, Jimmy Kimmel's people quizzed pedestrians in LA on the subject of gluten, footage of which made for a great intro to this post on gluten. Now, he's tackled another health topic in the same way. This time, farmer's market shoppers were asked about GMOs.

Watch this:

Dude! Those GMOs are giving up not-so-good vibrations.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a presentation at Boston's Museum of Science on GMOs. I found it to be very fair and evidence-based, and it's a topic on which I have been reading for some time. Here's what I've learned (and of course, my spicy opinions thereon.)

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically-modified organisms. This refers to foods that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Basically, they splice bits of DNA strands into the DNA strands of something else. Sometimes they'll use DNA from the same type of plant (as with wheat), other times they'll use other species entirely.

Scientists tinker with genes for a variety of reasons. Some genetic engineering efforts are meant to make plants more resistant to pests. Others are meant to 'improve' the nutrient quality or simply appeal to buyers' preferences.

For example, I recently read about a scientist who is trying to modify tomatoes to make them richer in folic acid, a nutrient shown to prevent birth defects. Pregnant women are now advised to supplement their diets with folic acid, and this new-fangled tomato would undoubtedly find it's way into tomato sauces for pizzas and other processed tomato foods. And since people eat a lot of pizza, the theory is this will aid in preventing birth defects.

I heard of another effort to create peach flesh that would pull away easily from the pit. I'll admit I do find it very satisfying when my peach willingly parts with it's pit... I don't know that I need a team of researchers to finagle this for me, but well... I'll save that for my rant.

Should you avoid genetically-modified foods?

[inhaling deeply] Ok... there have been studies done on the safety and nutrient content of genetically-modified foods which indicate they are safe and as nutritious as the natural kind. However, it should be noted that these studies are usually funded by the companies that develop, sell and profit from GMOs. It is difficult to find independently-funded studies on GMOs.

How do you know a food has been genetically-modified?

Here's the sticky wicket--you don't. Food companies are not required to include this information on the label, so they don't. But something like 90% of corn, soy and canola grown in the United States are genetically modified. These crops are used in some form in almost all the processed foods sold in supermarkets, and they are used to feed livestock, even though some of those animals are not meant to be eating those foods in the first place. (Think cows -- they're supposed to be eating grass, not corn.)

Generally, unless a label specifically indicates that it does not contain genetically-modified ingredients, you should assume it does. Of course, this doesn't help you if you are buying food that doesn't come with a label, but I have also read that produce SKUs that start with '8' indicate a food has been genetically modified or irradiated. The USDA Organic label prohibits genetic modification, so buying certified organic should be GMO-free.

There is a movement afoot to require GM foods to be labeled as such, and it is being fought tooth and nail by the industry. They say it will unfairly bias consumers against their products. There is one very large company that is at the forefront on genetic engineering research. This company does not hesitate to bring legal action against anyone who threatens their business. They've sued small farmers as well as municipalities that have voted to require GMO labeling. They also produce fertilizers and pesticides. I don't want to mention them by name because I'm afraid they might sue me. But their name starts with an 'M' and rhymes with 'ronranto.'

I first heard about GMOs when I was living in Scotland back in the late 1990's. There a Hungarian-born scientist by the name of Arpad Pusztai was conducting experiments with genetically modified potatoes. Pusztai caused an uproar when he revealed in a television interview that the rats fed GM potatoes demonstrated stunted growth and supressed immune systems, and he highlighted the need for further testing.

Pusztai was summarily silenced, fired and essentially black-balled from his profession. Since then, numerous suits have been brought against pretty much anyone who threatens their interests.

And this is what really chaps my hide about GMOs. If they are so wonderful and so safe and so nutritious, why wouldn't you want to label them as such? 

I mean, really, people?? If the tomato sauce on this otherwise crappy tasting frozen pizza could save millions of babies from developing spina bifida, wouldn't we want to brag about it? When's the last time any American industry said, 'wow, let's NOT tell the people how awesome we are?'

Never. That's never happened. So if GMOs are the best thing since sliced bread made from semi-dwarf wheat, why be all hush-hush about it?

And that, dear readers, is why I smell a rat when it comes to GMOs. Why all the secrecy, the bullying? The lawsuits? Why doesn't Ronranto-with-an-M and others divert some funds from their legal departments over to PR? Why not invest in educating the public on how wonderful it is to play with DNA instead of tormenting anyone who dares cross them?

Completely avoiding GMOs is nearly impossible, but we try to limit our exposure. Our wonderful CSA produce is organic, and we buy very few processed foods. Until this industry responds to concerns with something more than legal bullying, they can expect a suspicious consumer, labeling or not.


  1. Exactly. I don't get the resistance to labeling. The issues around GMOs are so complicated, and beyond the health questions, "Ronranto's" economic and legal practices are appalling. But if there's no health risk, why not label?

    Mark Bittman also wrote a great column the other day about this at the NY Times site.

    1. Thanks for the Bittman tip! Had a good discussion over on Facebook with a Colorado resident. She expressed concern regarding state-by-state labeling--that had CO farmers would have been at a disadvantage had the CO labeling bill passed, and I understand that fear. I think a national campaign is worth fighting for. It is shocking to me how Ronranto gets it's way all the time! Something smells rotten in Denmark...

  2. Stephanie, I'm so glad I "met" you through the Bloggy Moms April Blog Hop. Your blog title caught my eye and this post is really well done! I completely agree. If your product is so good for you, so honest in it's ingredients, why wouldn't you share? Secrecy = something to hide. And that combined with the food we eat? Not a good combo.

    1. Hi Ann! Thanks for your comment. I'll have to check out some of the other blogs... Easter held me hostage for a few days!