Examining Genetically Modified Food

A green lifestyle is about treating the planet and the life it supports with respect. Genetic modification (GM) generally runs counter to a green lifestyle, especially when it comes to food. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — also known as genetically engineered organisms — are living things whose genetic makeup (their DNA structure) has been changed by the addition of genes from another living thing. This tampering is done primarily to make plants and animals more useful in food production. Human intervention in this way carries with it some major concerns that, for the green community, outweigh the pros.

Crops can be genetically modified so that they resist insects, herbicides, and disease or so that they contain extra nutrients or even vaccines. Animals can be genetically modified to produce lower-fat meat, resist certain diseases, or create less waste.

The primary beneficiaries of genetic modification are food producers in terms of higher production capacities, increased disease or pest resistance, or increased herbicide resistance (which actually allows farmers to use more weed-killing herbicides).

The biggest reservation about GM practices in the food chain lies in the field’s relative youth. Modern genetic engineering began with scientific discoveries in the 1950s through 1970s, so long-term consequences have yet to be determined. And given the amount of time generally needed to link cause and effect, it’s likely that these consequences won’t be identified for years — perhaps generations — to come.

Some short-term effects have been observed, however, including the potential of GM seeds growing in non-GM areas, meaning that the non-GM crops would no longer be considered free of GM material — a huge issue for organic growers who, through no fault of their own, would suddenly be prevented from calling their crops organic. Other concerns include the potential for organisms insects and viruses to evolve and become more powerful and overcome the resistant GM animals and plants. Some scientists also are concerned that GM ingredients may cause toxic poisoning, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, and even cancer in humans. Research hasn’t proven all the concerns, but there’s enough evidence to warrant caution.

GM crops are common in the United States, and no labeling is required; in fact, it’s believed that upwards of 70 percent of foods in U.S. supermarkets contain some element of genetic engineering. It’s highly likely that you’re eating GM ingredients in your food without even realizing it. Some of the foods and ingredients currently subject to genetic manipulation include

  • Soybeans: Soy is one of the main sources of genetically modified ingredients in food and can be found in everything from chocolate to potato chips, margarine to mayonnaise, and biscuits to bread.

  • Canola: Canola oil comes from certain types of canola plants. GM canola may be used for oils in making potato chips and animal feed.

  • Corn: GM corn is used as cattle feed but also is used in all sorts of packaged food, such as breakfast cereal, bread, corn chips, and gravy mixes.

  • Milk: Cows are injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone to increase milk production.

The best way to find out whether your food choices contain genetically engineered ingredients is to choose local options so that you can talk to the producers and find out from them exactly what went into the food. If you can’t do that, then try talking to the managers or owners of local grocery stores — they may not be able to tell you about production methods, but the fact that you asked them may help to convince them that they should pay more attention to this issue. If you can’t buy the groceries you need from your community, try contacting food manufacturers directly. Their Web sites often contain information about production methods and a consumer telephone or e-mail hotline for questions. If companies aren’t able to categorically deny that they use GM ingredients, chances are good that they use these products.

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