Genetically Modified Foods - Should We Avoid Them? And If So…How?
Firstly, let's step back a bit and talk about what genetically modified organisms (GMO) are. It's necessary to make it clear that GM foods are not hybridized foods. That gets thrown into the debate sometimes, but it's not the same. Hybridized foods take two similar organisms, like a pear and an apple, and combine them - like the grafting of trees. Genetically modified foods are unique because they are created when genes from completely different organisms are combined - like a salmon gene combined with an apple gene. That would never happen naturally.
Okay, so we're clear now on what genetically modified (GM) foods are, but why does it matter? Do we really need to be worried if a gene from a salmon is combined with the genes of an apple? Well, the answer is yes because, among other health issues, the process of inserting the gene creates what is called collateral damage - and this damage is random and unknown and may cause a slew of genetic changes that can be detrimental to our health.
When the companies that create genetically modified foods speak of the food engineering process they use words such as "place" and "insert". However, what they really do is shoot the genes into a petrie dish of cells, hoping that some get into the right area. It's very indiscriminate and oftentimes the outcome is quite different than desired. It's this random nature that causes the problem, as the DNA of a cell is fragile and easy to change - hence mutations, etc. There are many scientists who warn that these resulting changes to the genetic make-up of our food can create new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.
But what about scientific studies? And what about the governing agencies like the FDA and Health Canada? Shouldn't we be able to depend on them to make sure our food is safe? Unfortunately, no. Both regulatory agencies have implemented a self policing policy to make it easier and cheaper for corporations to introduce new products to market. Specifically, as far as GM foods are concerned here in Canada, the Health Canada policy states that the onus is on the company introducing the food to do its own testing. Afterwards, based on those tests, the agency will decide if the food is safe for consumption. I don't know about you, but I'd be happier if an outside, independent body did the testing on these foods instead of the people who have the most to lose if the studies don't turn out as hoped.
At this point, you may be thinking "Crikey - how do I avoid these things?". Well, the best thing you can do is become aware of what these foods are and where they're found. The genetically modified crops are easy to remember if you just think CCCSS. The acronym stands for canola, corn, cotton, soy, and sugar. These are the most common genetically modified crops grown in Canada.
Unfortunately, it's not enough to just know the acronym, because these crops become a myriad of ingredients that you may not recognize as suspect. Here is a partial list of ingredients that, unless labelled organic, are most likely genetically modified:
- vegetable oil (soy, corn, cottonseed, or canola)
- soy flour
- soy protein
- soy lecithin
- textured vegetable protein
- corn syrup
- citric acid
- lactic acid
And what about the products themselves? Here is a list of many foods that, unless labelled organic, probably have genetically modified ingredients:
- infant formula
- salad dressing
- hamburgers and hotdogs
- fried food
- veggie burgers
- meat substitutes
- frozen yogurt
- soy sauce
- soy cheese
- tomato sauce
- protein powder
- baking powder
- powdered sugar
- peanut butter
- enriched flour and pasta
As well, there are other sources of GM foods besides the crops themselves. For example, meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals fed GM feed can pass on the same health problems as eating the genetically modified crops. However, eggs, milk, and meat from organic chickens and beef will be much healthier.
As you can see, the list of GM food is quite extensive. Most people would not want to avoid all of these foods - it would make our diet limited…and boring. So what can we do instead? The easiest thing to do is to buy organic as much as possible. Foods labelled as organic have to follow stringent standards, which include the food not being genetically modified. The good news is that organic food used to be prohibitively expensive, but the prices have been coming down. Specifically, as the demand for organic food rises, more food manufacturers decide to go organic - and this higher buying power lowers the prices.
Lastly, it's important to ask our policy makers to begin the process of labelling genetically modified foods as such. It's our right to know what we are eating.
This article isn't meant to create stress. Instead it's meant to inform and empower. It's not exhaustive by any means - if you want to know more I suggest you refer to the books and websites mentioned in the sidebar. Most importantly, keep in mind that whenever we shop we vote with our purchases. We send a message to the grocery stores and the food manufacturers when we choose to buy an organic product. In essence we're telling them that our health is important to us, and we choose to purchase foods that support our health. As well, when we decrease our consumption of genetically modified foods we help to create a tipping point that will show the food manufacturers that GM foods are no longer profitable. That's what happened in Europe, and it can happen here too.
For further reading:
Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith
Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey M. Smith
The Institute for Responsible Technology provides opportunities to learn and get involved. www.responsibletechnology.org