What Are Genetically Modified Foods And Organisms?
The human food supply has been subject to manipulation for centuries. Farmers have crossbred fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and livestock to achieve specific results — like meatier pigs or more pest resistant corn. In the last couple of decades, though, scientists haven’t been restricted to changing foods through selective breeding, cross pollination or grafting.
Now, science has a better grasp of how organisms are designed, and modern techniques are making it possible for agribusiness to modify organisms from the inside out.
This has caused some concern that tinkering with nature by making “modifications” may not be healthy for humans.
What are GMOs?
All living things contain a blueprint — the building blocks of an organism’s construction. The blueprint, or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), can be modified in some ways through human intervention to make an organism develop in a certain way.
For example, a slight modification to the DNA of a variety of wheat could potentially make flour made from that wheat more shelf stable (last longer on grocery store shelves). These types of genetically modified foods are typically referred to as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).
The Advantages of GMOs
GMOs are a hot topic in the press these days. Much of the coverage is cautionary if not downright alarming. The news isn’t all bad, though. Having the power to alter nature and the foods we eat has some enormous potential benefits.
Imagine being able to grow corn in the desert, or create a variety of potato that’s impervious to blight or insect predation.
Consider the advantages of modifying a variety of grass to absorb dangerous chemicals — and then planting that grass in landfills across the country.
This is the promise inherent in man being able to alter nature on a genetic level. It’s huge, but so are the potential disadvantages.
The Dangers of GMOs
Being able to change the DNA of a mushroom to make it taste more like a porterhouse steak sounds scrumptious, and that kind of research is being conducted in Japan today. It sounds almost too good to be true. And it might be. One of the big problems with choosing a desired result when changing nature is that thousands of different elements come into play — and not all of them can be anticipated or controlled.
Here’s a good example: In an attempt to make selected corn varieties more resistant to insects, an artificially modified bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), was inserted into the DNA of the corn. The modification worked well, but there was a secondary, unexpected effect from the change.
The genetically modified Bt was released into the ground, where it made the soil persistently infertile. This unanticipated and potentially devastating result showcases the inherent unpredictability of GMO modification.
Imagine that kind of mistake repeated a hundred times across the world as a result of dozens of companies changing the basic makeup of plants and animals. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, you’re not alone.
Health Concerns of GMOs
Because of the unpredictable nature of this emerging science, there is great concern that modified foods can make people sick. There are also growing fears that dangerous modifications may “escape” the confines of the lab, where negative changes could reproduce naturally beyond human control.
There is also the problem of primary, secondary and tertiary exposure to GMO’s to consider. This is the way it works: You think you’re eating a nice, normal chicken breast, only to discover that the chicken has not been modified, but it was raised on modified grain. Research may have determined that the modification to the GMO grain was benign, but what about the chicken that eats the grain, or the bees that pollinate it, or the humans that eat the chicken or the honey?
Although the research is ongoing and there are differing opinions about the impact of GMOs on chronic medical conditions, it’s probably a good idea to be aware of new trends in GMO technology and news concerning GMOs and health. There are significant emerging health concerns associated with GMOs. Here is an abbreviated list of potential risks:
- Allergic reactions
- Sterility (in animals)
- Nutritional deficits
- Liver problems
- Memory impairment
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
Recognizing GMOs in Your Diet
In the U.S., it isn’t necessary for manufacturers, distributers or retailers to alert the public to the presence of GMOs in food. This can be frustrating. Although more closely regulated, even some products labeled as “organic” may be genetically modified. If you decide to grow your own vegetables, even seed stocks may be modified.
Which Foods Are Most Commonly Modified?
- Cottonseed (oil)
- Canola oil
- Squash (zucchini and yellow crookneck particularly)
Both corn and soybeans are provided to livestock as feed, so secondary GMO exposure is common and very difficult to identify and eliminate from the diet. If you are concerned about consuming GMOs, consider shopping at “all natural” health food stores, and confirm that their produce is in fact grown without genetic alteration.