Planet Savior or Sci-Fi Nightmare
A Look at GMOs
For many of us, it’s a gut reaction. Consume food genetically engineered by scientists? No way! Let’s be honest, the idea of eating “Frankenfish” – so dubbed by critics of the genetically modified salmon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration initially approved for sale late last year – is disturbing. It brings to mind images of a dystopian future, where a polluted, over-populated planet depends on sci-fi technology to feed itself. But GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, aren’t exactly Soylent Green. In fact, they’ve been around a lot longer than you might think.
“GMOs aren’t a thing, it’s a process,” explains Dr. Troy Ott, Penn State professor of reproductive physiology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, “and there are several ways that they can be made. In the 1940s and 1950s, scientists would take plants and expose them to gamma radiation or chemicals. They’d randomly knock out parts of the DNA and screen those plants to see if anything good had happened. There are about 1,600 crops currently available that were made this way, like the Ruby Red grapefruit.”
But science never sleeps, and biotechnology’s quest for better ways of producing food, and better food itself, continued. By the 1970s, scientists were transferring genes (transgenesis) between species, hoping to generate plants and animals that were more disease-resistant, better-tasting and faster-growing. Most of the genetically engineered food we consume was created this way. The latest technology involves editing existing DNA (cisgenesis) and has already resulted in blight-resistant potatoes.
Since 1992, when the FDA declared that GMO foods are “not inherently dangerous” and do not require special oversight, the amount of GMO products on our shelves has skyrocketed. Some 90 percent of U.S. crops, such as corn, soy, sugar beets and canola, are genetically modified. Because they are popular additives, and many foods are derived from them – more than half the sugar sold nationally comes from sugar beets, for example – it’s estimated that as much as 80 percent of all processed food contains GMOs. While no bio-engineered animals have yet to reach our supermarkets, GMO corn is a staple of livestock feed.
So what’s the problem? It depends on who you ask.
Corporations like Monsanto that develop GMO products, much of the agricultural industry and many scientists sing the praises of biotech foods. According to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Communications Director Mark O’Neill, “GMOs have a spotless safety record. GMO food has been available for human consumption for more than 20 years, and there has never been a single case of harm to people or animals over that time. …More than 600 scientific studies support the safety of genetically engineered foods, and they are supported by countless health organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.”
A burgeoning number of anti-GMO organizations disagree, as do 19 European Union members. Last October, countries – including France, Denmark and Italy – pledged to abstain from growing GMO crops. Groups, such as GMO Free PA, cite health risks and environmental damage as the troubling consequences of genetically engineered food. One area of concern is the increased use of pesticides associated with GMOs. While Monsanto claims pesticide use has decreased thanks to their products, a study by Penn State researchers released last year showed the use of neonicotinoids on GMO corn crops alone has increased some 100 percent in recent years. These insecticides are one of the culprits believed responsible for pollinator death and can be deadly to human embryo cells.
One of the biggest GMO controversies currently revolves around the lack of identification on bio-engineered food. The same organizations that consider GMOs dangerous want a federal mandate that every product on grocery shelves containing them must be labeled. The same groups that believe GMOs to be safe are pushing for less drastic measures. For example, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding notes that his department doesn’t support mandatory GMO labeling but instead backs “a single, federal science-based, voluntary GE labeling standard.”
The Biotech Labeling Solutions Act – dubbed the DARK Act by its opponents – recently passed the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. Pro- and anti-GMO forces have been engaged in a political tug of war over whether the bill, which would codify a voluntary-labeling measure, will become law. If it does, it will remain virtually impossible for consumers to tell genetically engineered products from GMO-free food.
Does that matter? Scientists, like Ott, who believe GMOs to be the answer to feeding a planet that will add three billion people by 2050 say no. An estimated 90 percent of Americans who believe they have a right to know how their food is produced say yes. Whoever wins may well help determine the course of history.
Editor’s Note: Shortly before this article went to press, the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act was voted down in the U.S. Senate.
Want to keep GMOs out of your diet? Karen Stark, co-founder of GMO Free PA, has some handy tips.
Buy Organic, Not Natural
Look for the certified-organic label when shopping at your local supermarket. “USDA standards prohibit the use of genetically engineered seed in foods labeled organic,” notes Stark. Also keep an eye out for foods bearing a “Non-GMO” label from the Non-GMO Project. Third-party verification of genetically modified-free products was approved by the USDA in mid-2013.
But be aware that the term “natural” is a marketing ploy. The government does not regulate its use, rendering it meaningless. According to a 2014 study by Consumer Reports, most packaged foods labeled “natural” actually contain a substantial level of genetically modified ingredients.
Community Supported Agriculture is a nifty way for consumers to buy locally grown food direct from farmers. However, all CSA farms are not necessarily organic. “You have to do your homework with CSA,” Stark says. “They’re all across the board…you may have someone who is using pesticides, someone in transition to certified-organic or someone who is certified-organic.”
Certified-organic CSA farms who deliver to the Harrisburg area include Spiral Path Farm in Loysville, Jade Family Farm in Port Royal and Everblossom Farm in East Berlin.
Dine Out Mindfully
Avoiding GMOS while dining out is a challenge, but patronizing restaurants that pride themselves on serving dishes made from locally grown products rather than processed ingredients helps. “There are some very good restaurants in the Harrisburg area that use local farms,” Stark details. “I recommend Home 231 and The Millworks. I’ve also heard Bricco is very good.”