During the holidays, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the last thing on most peoples’ minds, but foods produced by means of genetic engineering are becoming increasingly present in supermarkets and grocery stores. In some areas, GMO foods are actually more prevalent than non-altered foods, making it difficult to find alternatives without resorting to growing your own foods. For plenty of people, this is reason enough to seek out self-sustenance in the form of home harvests throughout every growing season. Although the long-term implications of consuming genetically modified organisms are not established, many people have a moral objection to genetic engineering, or are wary of the lack of supporting research. Getting ready to host a holiday meal can be nerve-wracking enough without the possibility of unwittingly serving GMO foods to your guests—and many GMO foods are ones that come up seasonally, including sweet potatoes, apples, and cranberries. Understanding the characteristics of GMO foods can make it easier to recognize these foods on the market and avoid them if you wish.
Why Are Foods Genetically Engineered?
Biotechnology companies conduct genetic modification experiments to alter the genetic material of organisms in order to make it easier for humans to benefit from the use of the organism. This is often done via gene splicing, or adding DNA from a different species to introduce a quality that is not naturally occurring to the species in question. This can include bacteria resistance, longer ripening periods, or increased growth, among other qualities. Legally, the source of GMO foods is known as a living modified organism, which can refer to any plant, animal, or other organism that has been purposely genetically modified. It can also be applied to micro-organisms, including yeast and bacteria, both of which are also used in creating GMO foods. In most cases, GMO foods are produced through genetically modified crops. Although they are becoming more notorious in recent years, genetically modified foods have been sold commercially since as early as 1994 with the FlavrSavr tomato, which would ripen well after picking and stay ripe for days in the grocery store without going rotten.
The most common genetic modifications done on crops include IR engineering (or insect resistance) and HT engineering (herbicide tolerance). Insect resistant crops are also known as Bt crops and are resistant to pests because they contain a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which is toxic to most pest insects. The plants themselves are essentially pesticides, and there is no washing away the toxin before ingesting the fruit of the harvest. Herbicide resistant crops aren’t genetically modified to introduce herbicidal qualities, but they do tolerate enormous amounts of toxic herbicides applied directly to them, allowing farmers to easily weed out undesirable plants popping up in their fields. Understandably, many people are uneasy about ingesting pesticides as an intrinsic part of their meal or ingesting leftover herbicides from a particularly heavy spraying.
Although these genetic modifications undoubtedly make it easier and less expensive to grow crops that are vulnerable to insect infestations or being crowded out by weeds, there are plenty of organic options for reducing infestations and removing unwanted plant growth without introducing foreign DNA into crops. Foods that are labeled as organic cannot be genetically modified, as the two practices cancel each other. Therefore, organically grown foods may be an alternative to purchasing unknown, potentially GMO foods. The more expensive cost of organically labeled foods may be prohibitive, however, and in this case, consumers should consider growing their own crops at home or seeking out alternatives. Local farms may not be labeled organic, but if you inquire, you might find that they practice organic growing practices, and almost certainly don’t grow genetically engineered organisms on the home farm.
Many consumers are worried about GMO foods in terms of safety, as genetically modified foods are not required to be identified as such on their commercial packaging during sale. Interestingly, the United States is one of the last remaining Western nations to allow GMO foods to be sold without identifying them. Because foods that have been genetically modified are not labeled here, individuals who want to avoid purchasing and consuming GMO foods for their own reasons cannot easily do so. Research conducted in Canada in 2011 examined the blood of a sample of pregnant women, and found that 93 percent of the women’s blood contained traces of pesticides sourced to GMO corn, and 80 percent of the women had the same pesticide in the umbilical cords of their fetuses. These statistics are troubling, and understandably can cause individuals to have reservations about buying unlabeled foods from the supermarket that may or may not be the result of genetic modification.
GMO Foods Undergoing Field Trials
The number of GMO foods currently undergoing field trials is enormous, although not all the foods in trials are currently for commercial sale. The GMO foods currently available for commercial sale include papaya, potato, radiccio, yellow crookneck squash, alfalfa, canola, cotton, soybeans, and sugar beets. Other foods undergoing field trials, but not necessarily widely on the market yet, include all manner of fruits, from apples to melons, pears, and strawberries; vegetables ranging from bell peppers to lettuce, radishes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes; legumes and grains such as barley, coffee, popping corn, and oats; and nuts and seeds including peanuts, walnuts and sunflower seeds.
Recognizing and Avoiding GMO Foods
The easiest way to avoid unlabeled GMO foods is to identify species that are likely to be affected by GMO practices and grow them at home or seek out a local source, such as a local organic orchard or farmer. Many of the affected foods are winter crops, although summer and fall crops aren’t unaffected. Until GMO labeling is enforceable in the United States, concerned individuals should stay educated on what foods are in field trials and what foods are commonly on the market, and make a point to avoid foods that could potentially be affected by genetic modification.