Food or Foe?
Local Experts Discuss the Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Organisms
Perhaps you’ve heard the term at your local health food store. Or maybe you’ve read that General Mills no longer uses them in Cheerios. Or that starting in 2018, Whole Foods Market will require all suppliers to label whether their products contain them. Wherever you’ve heard the term, it’s likely you have questions about GMOs — what they are, how they’re used, and what they mean for your health.
“GMO stands for genetically modified organism,” says Noemi Custodia-Lora, an assistant dean at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill who oversees the school’s Natural Sciences Department. That means the DNA of an organism is altered — usually by inserting a piece of DNA from another organism — in order to create a trait that the modified organism doesn’t have naturally.
Picture a chicken farmer trying to produce a bigger bird through traditional breeding techniques. It may take him several generations, and, in addition to breeding for size, he may also inadvertently create other changes in his flock. With genetically modified organisms, scientists can be very specific, honing in on a mere handful of genes out of thousands.
Although GMOs have been around for years, they’ve been popping up in the news lately. Custodia-Lora, who has taught nutrition and has a background in biotechnology, thinks that the growing interest has been driven in part by an increase in food allergies.
“People are becoming more conscious of how food is produced and processed,” she says. In addition, attention-grabbing stories such as the creation of the first genetically modified salmon and the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing review for possible approval are capturing the public’s interest. The modified Atlantic salmon, which are created by adding genetic material from chinook salmon and ocean pout (an eel-like fish), grow twice as fast as regular salmon. The FDA is in the final stages of reviewing whether to allow the fish to be farmed commercially for human consumption.
“If approved, it will be the first commercially available GMO animal to enter the United States’ food supply,” Custodia-Lora says. AquaBounty Technologies, the Maynard, Mass., company that has created the fish, has already been approved to produce salmon eggs in Canada for commercial purposes.
But this fish is a far cry from the first genetically modified food. Mindy Dopler-Nelson, an assistant professor of clinical laboratory and nutritional sciences at UMass Lowell, says that up to 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy is genetically modified. Other GMO foods, which often are modified to be herbicide and insecticide resistant, include soybeans, corn, rice, potatoes, cotton, flax, radicchio, tomatoes, cantaloupe, papaya, plums, squash and canola. In addition, livestock are fed genetically modified foods and then are eaten by humans in the form of meat, dairy, eggs and even honey.
“The challenge is that it is estimated that derivatives of GMO foods are in 75 percent of our foods, such as flours, sugars and corn products,” Dopler-Nelson says.
Proponents of GMOs say altered seeds benefit farmers because plants can be modified to grow more quickly, under harsher conditions, with fewer pesticides and with better yields.
“The bottom line is that food can be produced under conditions that previously would have destroyed crops,” Dopler-Nelson says.
Opponents can list an equal number of drawbacks, ranging from potential health risks, increased chemical exposure (due to the pesticides used on GMO crops), an increased number of food allergies, contamination of organic crops via wind drift of GMO seeds, and environmental damage.
It’s the last argument that concerns Michael Corcoran the most. Corcoran, an assistant professor of health sciences at Merrimack College in North Andover, says a potentially problematic area is the unforeseen long-term impact of genetic manipulation. According to Corcoran, it’s possible that a few generations from now, subtle changes in GMOs could harm consumers or the environment. A plant bred for hardiness but created to be sterile, for example, could eventually defy intentions and begin to reproduce, at some point overwhelming native species. (Jurassic Park, anyone?)
A more immediate concern for some people is the wisdom of eventually allowing corporations to control our food system. One company, Monsanto, has a monopoly on seeds for GMO corn, according to Dopler-Nelson, and has been aggressive in protecting its patented product.
“There is also a political and economic concern that other countries will not buy our products if they are known to contain GMOs,” Dopler-Nelson says. Mexico, for example, requires labeling and forbids the production of GMO corn, but allows genetically modified soy and cotton, she notes. She says that Europe takes a very strict approach toward regulating GMOs.
Whether the health concerns connected to genetically modified foods are valid or not is open to debate, Dopler-Nelson says. “The Food and Drug Administration, which has primary jurisdiction over food safety and labeling, has steadfastly refused to require labeling of GM foods since 1992, based on its conclusion that GMOs as a category present no unique or higher risks than other foods,” she says.
Although there are currently no federal laws requiring foods containing GMOs be labeled as such, there is a growing interest. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to require such labeling, Custodia-Lora says.
“Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) [support] legislation (H.R. 1699) aimed at requiring labeling on all genetically modified food,” Custodia-Lora says. In the absence of a federal law, states are moving on their own. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws requiring foods containing GMOs be labeled, although there are restrictions — the laws won’t go into effect until a certain number of neighboring states have also passed such legislation. New Hampshire is considering a similar law.
“I tell my students that nutrition is a trendy area — more trendy than Hollywood,” Corcoran says. “What interests people regarding food can change dramatically from year
But he doesn’t think the issue of GMOs will fade away anytime soon. He’s not optimistic about seeing legislation on the federal level because of powerful lobbyists, but he thinks consumer interest will drive companies to label their foods.
“If consumers want it,” Corcoran says, “companies will give it to them.”
Concerned about GMOs in your food? Here are some tips from the experts.
Choose organic. The USDA National Organic Standards and those of Canada prohibit the use of GMOs, says Dopler-Nelson. When eating processed food, remember that ingredients are listed on the packaging in descending order of prominence by weight, according to Corcoran. Choose foods with fewer ingredients, with ingredients you recognize, and with ingredients you can pronounce. These foods tend to contain fewer GMOs.
Check out farmers markets. “An alternative to buying organic food is to use local farmers,” says Custodia-Lora. “Their farms may not be classified as organic, but most likely are not using GMO seeds, and often utilize environmentally friendly farming practices. If you have any questions, you can always talk to the farmers. At the same time, you are supporting the local economy.”
Educate yourself. “One thing I would say to readers is be careful where you get your information. There’s a lot of hype, both pro and against GMOs,” Corcoran says. “Try and look at reputable sources and websites.” He suggests USDA.gov as a start.