Monday, February 2, 2015

Genetically Modified Food

Using traditional breeding techniques of cross breeding and selection, mankind has been altering the genomes of plants and animals since the beginning of agriculture. Artificial selection where plants or animals that have specific desired traits are chosen to breed subsequent generations has resulted in a variety of different organisms, ranging from sweet corn to hunting dogs. In the past this selection has been limited to naturally occurring variations. However, advances in the field of genetic engineering have allowed for precise control over the genetic changes introduced into an organism. Today, we can place new genes from one species into a completely unrelated species through genetic engineering. This has been used for crop plants, farm animals and soil bacteria,

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms with artificially altered genes designed  to change their characteristics in some way. To date the most well know use of GMO technology is related to food crops, for example food crops that are altered to produce proteins with pesticide properties from within the plant. However, GMO technology is also used for biological and medical research, production of pharmaceutical drugs and experimental medicine, optimizing agricultural performance or facilitating the production of valuable pharmaceutical substances.

Nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified,  a variety of potato, sugar beet, oil seed rape are also genetically modified. A genetically modified apple has been approved by the USDA an is under review by the FDA. About 30 varieties of genetically modified maize, 7 varieties of GMO soybean, 1 variety or sugar beet and 3 varieties of oil seed rape, and a potato have been accepted in the European Union. Eight E.U. nations have banned GM crops outright and 64 require labeling of genetically modified crops. Throughout Asia, including in India and China, governments have yet to approve  GM crops, including an insect-resistant rice that produces higher yields with less pesticide and the potentially life saving Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a GMO crop engineered to deliver more vitamin A than spinach (rice normally has no vitamin A). This rice was engineered to eliminate vitamin A deficiency which causes more than one million deaths annually and half a million cases of irreversible blindness in the developing world. Yet, no country plans to grow it and in Africa, where millions go hungry, several nations have refused to import GMO foods with Kenya banning them entirely.

GMOs are a mixed bag, neither all good nor all bad. In the United States the vast majority of corn, soybeans, cotton, rape seed oil (canola) and sugar beets are GMO. The majority of these genetically engineered plants are used to make ingredients that are used in processed foods. These ingredients include; cornstarch in soups and sauces, corn syrup as a general purpose sweetener, and cottonseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil used in mayonnaise, salad dressings, cereals, breads, and snack foods. Thus, many of the non-organic snack foods and convenience foods and processed foods containing, corn, high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum (a thickener), baking soda, or soy and soybean oil contain GMOs. In addition, a GMO potato has recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most papaya from Hawaii are GMO and the FDA is currently reviewing a GMO Salmon that is genetically altered to grow twice as fast a wild salmon.

Different GMOs add different genes inserted in different ways. This means that genetically modified foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GMO foods. U.S. FDA has a “consultation process” that helps developers of GMOs determine the necessary steps to ensure their food products are safe and lawful. The goal of the consultation process is to ensure that any safety or other regulatory issues related to a food product are resolved before commercial distribution. According to the FDA "foods containing GMOs grown in the United States that have been evaluated by FDA through the consultation process have not gone on the market until the FDA’s questions about the safety of such products have been resolved." Nonetheless, I won’t eat farmed salmon, let alone genetically modified farmed salmon with or without FDA approval; and I don’t generally eat processed food; but it’s good to know the FDA thinks my baking soda is safe.

Though GMOs have been around for many years, the long term safety and impact of GMOs is not known fully known. The safety assessment of GMO foods generally focuses on: (a) short term direct health effects (toxicity), (b) potential to provoke allergic reaction; (c) the stability of the inserted gene; (d) nutritional impacts associated with genetic modification (can we fully digest the food); and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion. There is concern among some scientists and physicians that there might be subtle negative effects of lifetime exposure to GMOs that the short term studies have not identified.

Generally consumers consider that conventional foods (that have an established record of safe consumption over the history) are safe. When novel varieties of organisms for food use are developed using the traditional breeding method of selection, some of the characteristics of organisms may be altered, either in a positive or a negative way. In my house we believes that the selective breeding used to develop some grains, massive breasts on poultry, and feeding grain to beef and other animals has resulted in food that is not particularly nutritious or healthy.Though, I just love the results of selective breeding for apples.

Our choice is to buy grass fed beef, and pork from a local farm, Polyface. This is both about healthful eating and humane treatment of the animals. Years ago, as part of my job I evaluated the environmental impact of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations that are to me the hallmark of industrial agriculture) in the northwest. After a few inspections of both conventional farming operations and organic farming operations that use CAFOs (yes organic beef can be industrially raised in CAFOs) and comparing them to alternative models of agriculture the extra cost seemed more than worthwhile. The reality is my husband expects to eat some meat (or fish) every day and for health reasons and what I saw in the northwest I buy grass fed, pasture raised meat and wild fish. We also try to avoid grains by limiting processed foods, bread, pasta, and corn.

Most nations consider that specific assessments are necessary for GMO foods. Specific systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GMOs and GMO containing foods and their impact on both human health and the environment. Similar evaluations are generally not performed for conventional foods.
from Non-GMO Project Label
The current controversy in the United States that has been playing out in state after state is should require the labeling of GMOs. According to Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of over 1,000 people 92% of Americans GMOs should be labeled. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal launched in 2010 now appears on more than 22,000 products. There is a free iPhone app that allows you to search for products certified as non-GMO. I generally like labeling and information. However, there is massive confusion on the part of American consumers just what various labels mean and limited reading of labels. In truth you can avoid GMO foods if you wish by avoiding processes foods, papayas from Hawaii, corn and soy. Or buying certified organic versions. Nonetheless, there is a growing demand for labeling and a growing number of products that are labeled. Consumer Reports is a strong supporter of labeling and you might want to read their point of view.

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