I’ve been hearing a lot of discussions about GMO’s lately. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. Until recently, I wasn’t familiar with the term. The more I asked people, “what is a GMO?,” the more I realized nobody was sure, beyond the sense, it was likely bad for you. When I asked, “Why do you think it’s bad for you?,” the answer almost always came back to, “because producers won’t label it as a GMO product, and are fighting to prevent it from being labeled.” This stopped me in my tracks, and I decided more investigation was required. My two primary tasks, find out how are GMO used in food production, and to what extent we are consuming products made from this process.
This is what I learned; Organisms like animals, fungus, plants, and us, are built according to a very specific set of instructions. These instructions are written in a chemical language. We call that chemical language, DeoxyriboNucleic Acid or more commonly known as DNA. The language is used to create instructions in the form of code, known as a genetic code.
Nature has been in the business of making genetic modification since the beginning of time. Natures modifications take the form of mutations or breeding or crossbreeding. If a mutation supports the survival of the species, it is passed on through natural selection. Sometimes a mutation, which is good for one species, is not so good for another. An example of this would be the eel, who’s raw blood is toxic to most mammals. While the eel must give it’s life to express this deterrent, the species as a whole benefits. The draw back to natures technique is the amount of time required to find a successful mutation. Of course this is no big deal if you have eternity to find the perfect mutation for your need, as in nature’s case.
We humans, have a very limited span of time to arrive at these conclusions. Hence, we developed a way to speed up the process. Selective Breeding or Artificial Selection, is a method of breeding or pairing, with best of a species in order to attain a better product. Classic examples range from dogs to corn. It’s generally accepted that dogs are descendants of wolves. We befriended the most docile, plying them with food. Over time, we bred the qualities we preferred, resulting in the domesticated dog. Corn of today, with it’s bright yellow seeds, set in nice tight rows from top to bottom, didn’t start out that way. We used a a similar process, in that the most desirable features were cultivated. We have been eating food that has been modified in this way for almost 2000 years. In the last 200 years we have all been exposed to foods that have been heavily influenced by this technique. Yet, this was still a slow and sometimes unpredictable process.
As our understanding of nature progressed, we discovered the chemical language that switches on and off different features of almost everything. This discovery meant we didn’t have to wait for nature to make a better tomato, nor did we have to practice hit and miss through artificial breeding. We can now manipulate the genetic code directly via chemical switches and Genetic Modifications, thereby altering the tomatoes to grow in places they couldn’t possibly grow before, like Florida.
At this point I thought perhaps the process is so complex, that the manufactures feared it would be misunderstood by most consumers and therefore rejected. Genetic Modifications can target the plant or the animal directly, but can also target the organisms indirectly through food sources. Basic food sources such as water and soils. We can now grow something in a place it was never meant to be grown. A number of questions come to mind.
Why do this, and what are the long term effects on all the living creatures that are touched by this behavior? The answer, depends on who you ask.
Within the Agriculture industry there are a number of business sectors. The Sustainable Agriculture sector, is primarily engaged in the development of Genetically Modified Organisms for use in food and livestock. Their websites say they want to make affordable food to all. They cite reports that the human population will soon out grow the capacity of standard farming techniques. On the surface, it sounds very altruistic. Almost too good to be true. Which is why we should question their motives.
Above all else, these are businesses who’s objectives are to increase margin and profits. Market prices are driven by supply and demand. The more demand on a finite resource like food, the higher the profits. Why would a company in this business want to increase product supply and reduce demand? The answer comes into focus, when you realize what the real product is and who is the actual customer.
The products they offer are not towards a direct consumer, but at an industrial level. An example would be the genetically altered insecticides they sell to the farming industry. The insecticides prevents anything from growing on that land, except the genetically altered seeds that the Sustainable agriculture companies provide. The seeds will not propagate naturally, must be purchased seasonally and because the soil has been treated with the genetically modified insecticides, nothing except the modified seed will grow for a number of seasons. The soil must be treated with a special fertilizer, also provided by the agriculture company. There is the issue of un-intended cross contamination. The run off from these farms goes somewhere. That somewhere is likely ground water and water treatment plants, and everywhere in between. Animals drink the run off water. Evaporation accounts for a portion, which means it rains down on someone, somewhere. Long term nobody knows yet what the impact will be, to the natural food chain, or to the living creatures (that’s you and I) who are consuming the products from this laboratory experiment.
At the time of this post, in the United States, you cannot avoid eating these foods, because they are not labeled as GMO altered. Sadly the United States has fallen behind in public safety when it comes to food, mostly due to a lack of regulation and oversight. Europe is showing leadership in this area by taking steps to adopt a labeling system to inform the consumer. At a minimum, the public has the right to know what is in their food and how it is made. You may elect to eat it anyway, but at least it was your informed choice.