by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

Today’s article is the first of two parts on the subject of Genetically Modified Organisms known as GMOs.  GMOs are being hotly debated within the food industry.  The question is:  can you tell the product you are buying contains ingredients that were sourced from genetically modified organisms and do you have the right to know that information.  Let’s begin with some background understanding of GMOs.

What is a GMO? GMOs are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered to add traits deemed desirable by producers.  The World Health Organization defines them as organisms in which the genetic material or DNA is altered in a way that does not occur naturally.  Basically the genetic material of an organism is modified by inserting or mutating selected genes from another unrelated species.  It is a process that starts in a laboratory and cannot happen in nature.

Gardeners, farmers and stock breeders work years with traditional breeding techniques to produce a beautiful rose or a faster race horse.  They are improving a trait with genes coming from each parent.  This breeding is limited to the traits of that species.  Genetic engineering accelerates the process by making the desired traits in a lab, not in nature.  Once a desired result is achieved it is put into commercial use.

This genetic engineering of products has only been in existence for approximately twenty years.  The first product in 1994 was the FlavrSavr tomato which was designed to delay ripening with a gene from E-coli (bacterium that occurs naturally in mammalian gut).  Apparently the tomato was saved but the flavor wasn’t so the product disappeared from production.

Today GMOs can be found in soybeans, corn, sugar beets, cotton, papaya, and yellow summer squash.  Other products are presently in consideration or various stages of approval.

Why did this start in the first place?  Crop yields are at the core.  For example, a yield would be increased if a plant were resistant to the herbicide used on it to prevent weeds.   This is not a naturally occurring phenomenon so genetic engineering helps it along.  Currently, GMO crops are herbicide-tolerant and can survive glyphosate herbicide which kills most weeds.  The plants modified this way are corn, cotton, canola and soybeans.  Due to weeds, known as “super weeds”, becoming tolerant to glyphosate currently stronger herbicides and new herbicide resistant seeds are being introduced into the environment.

Another trait which can be altered is insect resistance.  In 1996, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacteria toxic to insects, was inserted into the DNA of corn.  The corn subsequently manifested the ability to produce the insecticide within itself.  Bt used alone degrades quickly in UV light.  Bt produced by the plant may not degrade or wash off.

Also in the works in genetic engineering are projects aimed to produce viruses, human vaccines, and the increase of weather tolerance of crops.

 People around the world are lining up on both sides of the GMO issue including both the medical and environmental concerns.  The companies producing GMO seed have tight control over them as intellectual property meaning some seed saving is in danger of extinction.  Because we “can’t fool Mother Nature” some weeds are becoming tolerant to glyphosate so consumers question the resulting increased use of herbicides.  One side says GMOs are harmless and there is no evidence to substantiate adverse health effects.   The other side says there is not definitive evidence saying they are safe.

Ultimately, the GMO discussion boils down to a single issue, “do you have the right to know if the foods you buy contain GMOs”.  As a consumer, you should have the right to make your own decisions on the foods you eat.   Next month I will continue this subject with a discussion of which products in our food supply are genetically engineered and how you can know which products are not.

Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way.  Reach her at natureswaymh@gmail.com.  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.