GMOs and You

by Jenny Thacker, Director of Education and Environmental Programs

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You’ve probably heard about an initiative in WA state that would require labeling of foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Last fall and winter, initiative supporters collected over 350,000 signatures. I-522, known as the “The People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” will be on your ballot this November.

What are GMOs?

GMOs are created by inserting the genes from one species into another completely unrelated species. Most GMO crops used today have genes that allow them to tolerate a particular herbicide.

Why should we be concerned?

This new technology brings environmental, health and social consequences.

  • Environment – A study last year found that U.S. farmers are using more and more pesticides to fight weeds and insects, due largely to the widespread adoption of GMO crops. This is giving rise to pesticide-resistant and hard to kill insects as nature adapts to the new technology.
  • Health – The jury is still out on whether GMO foods are safe to eat. Given that inconclusiveness, other countries, such as those in the EU, have decided to ‘wait and see’ before widely introducing GMO foods.
  • Social – GM crops are proprietary technology, meaning that farmers cannot save seeds from year to year. Farmers whose crops have been contaminated by pollen from nearby fields have been sued by Monsanto for growing corn that contains the new genes. In India and elsewhere, farmers have been driven to suicide by the debt they incur to buy GMO seeds year after year.

What can we do?

Today most of the corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets grown and consumed in the US are genetically modified. Because these products are so prevalent in processed foods, many of us are eating GMO foods every day, whether we know it or not. Concerned? You can take the following steps:

Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. With the exception of papaya, sweet corn and some zucchini and yellow squash, most fruits and vegetables in supermarkets today are not genetically modified. This could soon change, however, since several fruits and vegetables currently under GM testing.

Choega Basket

Buy organic. Certified organic foods cannot contain genetically modified ingredients under current labeling standards.

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Grow your own. Growing your own food using heirloom or saved seeds gives you the most control over what you are eating.

Organic Seeds

Look for certified non-GMO labels. Look for the Non-GMO Project’s label on the foods you buy. Visit their website, nongmoproject.org, to get a list of non-GMO verified products.

Support GMO labeling efforts. I-522 will be on your ballot this November. If you feel strongly about your right to know, get involved, tell your friends and vote to approve. You can find out more at yeson522.com.

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Originally printed in Seattle Tilth’s newsletter, Way to Grow, August-September 2013.

5 responses to “GMOs and You

  1. As a Tilth and CSA member who every year volunteers at the plant sales, I am really disappointed to see such false information being spread to Tilth members. The scientific consensus is that GMOs currently on the market ARE safe to eat. The jury is NOT still out in any meaningful sense. See more here: http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/10/what-science-tells-us-about-the-safety-of-genetically-modified-foods/

    Every point under Environment, Health and Social are far more nuanced than you give here. GMOs are not causing Indian farmers to suicide: the social and economic environment is more complicated than that. Some better resources for Tilth members are Nathanael Johnson’s recent posts on Grist. Some good posts: http://grist.org/food/the-gm-safety-dance-whats-rule-and-whats-real/, http://grist.org/food/genetically-modified-seed-research-whats-locked-and-what-isnt/, http://grist.org/food/golden-apple-or-forbidden-fruit-following-the-money-on-gmos/.

    You can be in favor of GMO labeling without spreading blatantly false information about them.

    • Rachael,

      Thank you for your comment. The debate about whether GMO foods are safe for human consumption is something that is still of debate within the scientific community. Studies have shown the potential for allergic reactions in humans to GMO crops, particularly Monsanto’s Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, corn.

      William Freese and David Schubert, of Friends of the Earth US and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, respectively, published a paper titled “Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods” in which they address the human health risks, – focusing on Bt corn as an example — governmental regulation deficiencies, and environmental issues. There are, of course, many other published, scientific, peer-reviewed papers out there that report that GMO foods are either safe or unsafe for humans and our environment.

      The reality is that we just don’t know the long term effects of GMO foods.

      You are correct that the issue of Indian farmer suicide is complicated and nuanced and this issue deserves more attention and explanation. Nature.com reports that the introduction of GE crops to India is not a predominant reason for farmer suicide. However, the high cost of GE seeds, in addition to an economic system which forces farmers to take on hefty debt to be productive and the fact that there are some places where GE seeds are the only seeds available, may be attributed to some suicides in India.

      Nathanael Johnson sums it up when he says, “Perhaps it’s fair to say GM seeds are a synecdoche — a part that represents the whole — for the larger system that’s causing farmer suicide in India, especially in those areas where the only seed available to farmers is genetically modified.”

      Here at Seattle Tilth we teach people how to grow food using organic techniques which support a healthy environment and healthy source of food. With the current availability of information on GMOs there is no concrete, conclusive evidence that GMO foods are healthy for the environment or a healthy food source.

  2. There is broad scientific consensus about genetically engineered food crops. Saying the jury is still out is just dishonest. It’s very similar to saying, “we don’t know for sure that human activity is causing climate change.”
    All pest control methods will select for resistance, GE crops are no different in that regard. I am disappointed that Seattle Tilth is spreading fear and misinformation.

  3. I think it’s critical when discussing I-522 to distinguish between ‘genetically modified’ and ‘genetically engineered’, and to recognize that these terms have come to mean different things in Europe and the US. In Europe, they are interchangeable, but in the US the difference between genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered organisms is that genetic modification includes selective breeding (like making a tangelo or a specific hybrid rose) whereas, genetic engineering is actually splicing genes together from two different species such as plant and non-plant, or as I-522 states “Mixing plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes in combinations that cannot occur in nature”.

    I think this is an important distinction to make in your article as the issue is getting confused by conflating these two distinct terms and their associated meanings. Genetic engineering is a terrible idea. Genetic modification gave us edible corn, hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and roses, and some pretty cool fruits like pluots. If we are more clear in communicating the differences, then I believe consumers will better understand the intention of I-522, and better recognize the smear campaigns that prey on ignorance.

    • Kristen,

      Thanks for chiming in on the very important topic of terminology and how it can be a point of confusion and therefore used to distract people from the underlying issues of GMOs. Let us take this opportunity to clarify.

      The terms “genetic modification” and “genetic engineering” are synonymous. These terms refer to the same process of transferring genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally. Genes are selected individually and inserted in to plant genes by literally shooting new modified genes in to embryonic plant matter or by using a particular type of bacteria to facilitate the transfer. These genes don’t have to be from the same organism. With genetic engineering scientists can combine pretty much any two genes together, like inserting fish genes in to tomatoes.

      “Selective breeding” and “hybridization” are techniques that have been used by farmers for centuries. Much like dog breeders, farmers have been choosing two parent plants that have beneficial traits to achieve a new generation of plants with that trait. For example, a farmer notices that particular stalks of corn produce more ears of corn than the other stalks and another variety is especially sweet. He then breeds them in hopes of creating a strand of corn that is very productive and sweet.

      Hybridization is how we get things like tangelos, pluots and seedless watermelons.

      All of these terms fall under the umbrella of “agricultural biotechnology,” the science of creating products using biological systems.

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