GMOs: Promising or Poisonous?

gmo cornOn November 6, 2012, Proposition 37, a Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food Initiative, was defeated on the ballot in California. This ended, at least temporarily, the battle in California over identification and labeling of GMOs. For months prior, individuals and groups from both camps spent countless resources in the debate and the fight over this ballot issue. Sources from each side cited scientific data, anecdotal evidence, and ethical rationale regarding the use of genetically modified organisms in our food system. The fervent debate has resonated ever since, putting the important issue of consumer freedom in the public arena and resulting in 13 states now having measures pending regarding the labeling, sale, and distribution of genetically engineered foods.

The timing of this specific situation comes during an impasse of health and nutrition in our society – as many consumers are seeking to return to more traditional foods and means of distribution such as farms and farmers markets. The organic movement is strong and grows more so each year, continuing to envelope an even larger segment of the food industry (with expected growth to over 12% of market by 2014). “Prop 37” embodied the current broader debate over the safety and efficacy of genetically modified foods and consumers “right to know”.

The controversy over GMOs is multifaceted including concerns by opponents over genetic mutations, untargeted gene expression/activation, competition with existing species, antibiotic resistance, development of resistant insects and weeds, and transfer of allergenic genes. While proponents tout the benefits to food yield, resistance to environmental stress (i.e. drought tolerance), and nutritional enhancement, the lack of long-term empirical data to support this has many scientists and researchers warning of the potential far-reaching implications.

Although I am very interested in and supportive of scientific endeavor for improving the greater good, the broader issue may be that as a society we have lost touch with basic truths associated with our relationships to our bodies: how we move them, rest them, nourish them, and heal them. As a culture, we have specifically lost this relationship with respect to food. Many individuals rarely take the time to prepare their own meals and spend time in gratitude with that which serves to nourish their bodies. Perhaps it's time for a return to healthy practices that serve to help us reconnect with food and our bodies:

  • Spending time to create meals during which everyone contributes
  • Paying attention to the senses
  • Engaging in play while eating
  • Eating foods of all colors
  • Eating foods that provide a balance of tastes
  • Giving gratitude for meals
  • Allowing emotions to be expressed

New technology, albeit potentially beneficial in monetary and industrial ways, when taken in isolation and out of the context of so many other relevant factors, ignores the integrative manner of Mother Nature and the intricacies of the human experience and interaction with our very own environment. Here, I believe Michael Pollan summarizes the concept well in his work In Defense of Food:

“Traditions in food ways reflect long experience and often embody a nutritional logic that we shouldn’t heedlessly overturn. Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism. Innovation is interesting but when it comes to something like food, it pays to approach novelties with caution. If diets are the product of an evolutionary process, than a novel food or culinary innovation is like a mutation: it might represent revolutionary improvement but it probably doesn’t.”

According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” The alteration of genetic makeup results in the creation of transgenic organisms with combinations of genes from plants, animals, bacteria, and even viral gene pools. The long-term effects of GMOs on the body and physiological health appear to be largely unknown at this point. While GE testing is conducted on GE foods, the testing is voluntary, not mandatory, by the FDA. The safety assessment of new GM foods is initially based on the use of the concept of “substantial equivalence.” This concept is based on the following principle: “if a new food is found to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as being as safe as the conventional food”. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists this does not; however, take into account the potential risks of new allergens in the food supply, antibiotic resistance, production of new toxins, concentration of toxic metals, and the enhancement of the environment for toxic fungi. In addition, researchers from the FDA have espoused various safety concerns against possible health risks associated with GMOs. In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine issued a statement regarding genetically engineered foods and asked physicians to advise all patients to avoid GM foods:

“Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”

Genetically modified organisms and the science surrounding them is sure to continue to be explored with the goals of food progress; its food process and health that antagonists will likely continue to rail against both in the public sector as well as via government acts. The hope may be that this healthy, although often rancorous, debate will spark an increase in interest by the general public towards food sources and bring awareness to the variety of available market options. Ultimately, combining science with traditional practice may be our best opportunity to create sustainable change, as these elements are not mutually exclusive, but complementary as long as consumers make nourishment a priority in their lives and the lives of their families.

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