The Whys and Whats of GMOs
Since the beginning of modern agriculture, humans have been genetically influencing crops by cross-breeding to produce desired qualities. In recent times, scientists have leveraged the use of biotechnology to speed up this process and make it more reliable. The process of altering the genetic makeup of a plant to produce desirable characteristics is known as genetic engineering, or GE.
For now (though likely not for long), genetically engineered foods are available to consumers solely in plants—fruits, vegetables, and cereal grains. That’s not to say the meat you eat is free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Genetically modified foods make their way into your animal proteins through the grain cereals that these animals are fed, making the prevalence of GMO foods widespread.
What Foods Contain GMOs?
GMO crops are grown worldwide, with the U.S. accounting for the largest amount growth of any country. In 2015, there were 175.2 million acres of genetically modified crops planted in the U.S.
In 1994, the first GE crop approved for consumption by the USDA was tomatoes. Today, the vast majority of GMO food products on the market come from corn and soy, and their processed products. These biproducts include cornmeal, corn syrup, soy protein, soy lecithin, and various other food additives added to processed foods.
Other examples of GMO foods include:
- Canola oil
- Sugar beets (and the beet sugar derived from them)
Why Genetically Alter Food?
Crops are genetically engineered with the intention of providing an array of benefits—both to farmers and to consumers. The vast majority of GMO crops are altered to be resistant to either insects or weed killer—a huge benefit to farmers.
However, other applications of GMOs include:
- Reduced-nicotine tobacco
- Crops resistant to environmental hardship (frost, drought, etc.)
- Corn with increased omega
- Faster crop maturation or larger fruit size
- Altered gluten content of wheat
- Foods with higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals
To Eat or Not to Eat: A Two-Sided Argument
Arguments for GMO use:
- The USDA reports that insecticide use has decreased due to the use of insect-resistant crops.
They report that as of 2010, only 9 percent of corn farmers in the United States reported using insecticide on their crop.
- Genetically modified cotton and corn yields larger crops and, therefore, is more profitable for farmers.
- Genetic modifications that result in higher nutrients in foods could help supplement the diets of those living with food insecurity, such as those in third-world countries.
- The National Academy of Science released a report reviewing 900 studies over 20 years. This report found ”no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops.”
Arguments against GMO use:
- The use of herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops has resulted in weeds developing resistance; the effects of herbicide decrease over time. Populations of weeds also shift to become herbicide resistant. A report published by Washington State University found that GMO use has actually led to more—not less—use of herbicides than prior to the use of the GE plants.
- The same report also found that insects are beginning to develop resistance to insect-repellant crops, leading to an increase in the need for overall pesticide use over time.
- Some foods, such as those genetically modified to mature more quickly than non-GMO varieties, are suspected to provide lower nutritional value. While this assumption seems intuitive, scientific evidence does not exist to either support or debunk these claims. There is a need for further research in this area.
- Some have argued that GM wheat has led to increased gluten intolerance. The Celiac Disease Foundation reports, however, that there is no scientifically established link between the two.
Make Your Own Decision
At the end of the day, proponents on both sides of the matter can make a convincing case about whether to consume or avoid genetically modified foods. The FDA has yet to provide any independent testing of genetically modified products on the market. The best you can do is to educate yourself, and then re-educate yourself, since the genetic modifications on the market are always evolving.
If you choose to consume these foods, your grocery shopping will be easier, as an estimated 70 percent of products on the grocery store shelves contain GMOs. If you choose to avoid GMOs, look for “USDA-certified organic.” These foods are required to be free of any GM ingredients.
No matter your stance, it is undeniable that most, if not all, conventional, processed foods contribute the majority of your intake of GMO ingredients in the form of food additives. As part of any healthy diet, it is best to avoid or minimize these products in order to reduce consumption of sugar and unhealthy fats and oils.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center’s Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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