Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 1: What is a GMO anyway?

It may be Shark Week on the Discovery channel, but here at The Conventional Foodie, this week's all about GMOs! I've had some great feedback and suggestions the past few days from some old high school friends (thanks Zach & Chloe!) and one thing they asked me about was GMO's! So, I'm going to break this down into three parts since there is a lot to cover. Part 1 will focus on what a GMO is, the history, and how its made. Part 2 will cover the implications of GMOs, myths, facts, and some surprising stories. Lastly, Part 3 will give you all some tips and tricks to watch out for when shopping!

Without further ado, let's get started! GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. I know, I know, most of you already know this, but you'd be surprised how many people avoid GMOs without even knowing what it stands for! This video by Jimmy Kimmel highlights this--totally makes me giggle! According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are plants, animals, or microorganisms "in which the genetic material does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." (Recombination is the rearrangement of genetic material, especially by crossing over in chromosomes, for those of us who didn't always pay attention in genetics class ;) ). Other terms that are referred to when talking about GMOs is "modern biotechnology," "gene technology,", "recombinant DNA technology," and "genetic engineering."

There are two main processes for creating GMOs. The first is by a "gene gun," where DNA from another organism is essentially shot via a vector onto plant cells. This DNA then is incorporated into the DNA of the recipient plant. Another method is the use of a bacterium to introduce the gene of interest into the plant DNA. When put this way, of course it sounds scary!

What should ease your nerves though, is that all this technology is just an application and advancement of the breeding of plants and animals from the field, to the lab. Think about how far we've come from the days of Mendel breeding pea plants to the real possibility of allergen free nuts! Another relief is that GMOs must undergo several tests and years of studying before they are released. For example, it takes 13 years for a GM seed variety to be released--that's 3x as long as it takes a new car to get to the market, and one year longer than it takes to get a new medication from the lab to the pharmacy. In addition, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have stated that there are no health concerns when it comes to GMOs. If their word isn't enough for you, check out these  1,783 studies that Italian scientists pulled together and GENERA is adding to which show no harm caused to humans or animals from consuming GM foods: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/ .

We'll get into more of the other pros and cons in Part 2, but for now, I'd like to give you a brief history on GMOs:
1973-Genetic engineering techniques developed
1982-US FDA approves first genetically engineered insulin
1988-Genes successfully inserted into soybeans
1992-US FDA declares GM foods not dangerous
1994-Delayed-ripening tomato first GMO to be produced and consumed
1996-Commercialization of GM crops

As of 2014, 94% of soybeans, 80% of corn, and 84% of cotton grown in the U.S. are grown from GM seed. What this translates to is that roughly 75% of our food contains GM ingredients or was fed GM crops, not to mention in many cases the shirts on our backs were made from GM cotton!
This means that for nearly two decades, we have been consuming GM products and in most cases, haven't even noticed it!

Ingredients of an All-Natural BananaSo why all the fuss now? I think a recent Washington Post interview with an agricultural economics professor I've had the pleasure of meeting this past year, Jayson Lusk, sums it up nicely. In the last decade, as natural and organic food came onto the market, many products were advertised as not containing GMOs, as a way to gain sales. And anytime a word shows up on a label we don't know, we tend to get wary of them. It's like when a high school teacher put together a list of all the components of an all natural banana (seen here on the right). At first glace, you probably wouldn't get anywhere near a food with this label, but as it turns out, its the ingredients in a very healthy fruit!

Hence the case of GMOs, where people have a "negative reaction to something that seems like an additive or unusual. The base issue is however, that consumers just don't have a lot of knowledge about GMOs and as humans we tend to have a fear of the unknown.

Stay tune for Part 2, where I'll dig into the pros and cons as well as myths vs. facts when it comes to GMOs. What are your thoughts on GMO's? I'd love to hear them! As always, I want this to be a forum full of various perspectives--feel free to disagree or bring up other points--this is how we all learn!










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