By Susan Davis Gryder 2014-05-01 20:29:27
As the debate rages on, are you prepared to answer questions about genetically modified foods? Get some help from our basic primer. IT’S A SAFE BET that sometime within the last two or three months, your eye or ear caught a reference to GMOs and their role in our nation’s food supply. Maybe it was a forcefully worded opinion piece on a web blog. Perhaps it was a news story about an attempt to legislate labeling changes. Was it the release of the findings from a research study? There are many strong and conflicting opinions about GMOs—and a lot of confusion. Do you know what they are? Do you know why they are controversial? Do you have an opinion of your own? What should you say if parents in your community ask you about GMOs in school meals? Have you ever reflected on the presence of GMOs in the meals you serve at home? School Nutrition last covered this topic way back in October 2001, and there has been little change since in either the GMO debate or its divisive quality. Arguably the main thing that has changed about the controversy surrounding GMOs in the last 13 years is the rise of social media and blogs and their inherent propensity to allow advocates and opponents alike to ratchet up the emotional intensity of this (and any) provocative issue. For this month’s focus on “The Future of Food,” School Nutrition revisits the topic in an effort to help you get up to speed, sort out the key points and allow you to make more informed buying decisions in the cafeteria and at home. Read on for a quick education in GMOs. What is a GMO? The term “GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism. In practical terms, GMO refers to a common plant, like a specific variety of corn or soybeans, which has been created using a scientific process that alters the DNA of the original plant to achieve certain desired characteristics. A food item that has been grown, manufactured or processed using at least one GMO ingredient is called a “GM food.” You might wonder why this is a big deal; after all, for thousands of years, people have been changing the genetic characteristics of plants and animals through selective breeding techniques. What’s unique about GMOs? The main difference is that the creation of a GMO doesn’t happen through the natural reproductive processes of the organism. Instead, it’s a genetic manipulation made through scientific technologies— and it usually involves the genetic material of a different organism. The reason GMOs are created is to give the plant certain characteristics. Maybe it’s a resistance to frost, in order to extend the growing season. It could be a resistance to a specific herbicide, allowing farmers to spray for weeds without harming the crop. Some GMOs have an inherent ability to repel pests—or they might contain a pesticide. Still others have been given characteristics that make the food item hardier for transport or less likely to spoil quickly. Another reason the agriculture industry develops GMOs is to make a plant resistant to a specific virus that threatens the original version of the food. Are GM foods something new to our supermarkets? It depends on your definition of new! As noted above, people have been breeding selectively for millennia, but genetic manipulation is a relatively new technology. GM foods have been available to consumers since 1994, when the Flavr Savr tomato was introduced. These tomatoes were genetically engineered to withstand long journeys from farms to supermarkets, and they were sold across the United States as fresh tomatoes, as well as an ingredient in tomato paste. Their popularity waned with the rise in public concern about GMOs. They were taken off the market in 1997. Are GMOs sold in the United States? Yes. In fact, the United States is the top producer of GMOs in the world today, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, papayas and sugar beets are the GMO crops grown in this country. (There are other GMO crops, including tobacco, cranberries, raspberries and walnuts, but these aren’t grown in the United States.) As the top producer of GMOs, the fact that the United States grows just six types of GMO plant crops makes it reasonable to wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s the volume of GMOs that’s really surprising. Today, a whopping 90% of U.S.-grown corn and 93% of U.S.-grown soy is genetically modified, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Most GMO versions of these crops are grown and sold as an ingredient for animal feed and biofuel, but they are also prevalent in the U.S. food supply. Plus, the agriculture industry isn’t just using GMOs in plant crops. Some of the soil used by farmers is enriched with genetically modified bacteria. And GMOs play a part in many dairy products, as well. A genetically modified hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (RBGH) is injected into many cows to increase milk production. And some ice cream manufacturers use a protein produced by genetically modified yeast that is based on the DNA of certain Arctic fish; the protein is resistant to forming large ice crystals, which gives the ice cream a creamier “mouthfeel”—and makes lowfat varieties taste more like richer, full-fat ice cream. Could I be eating a GM hamburger without realizing it? Strictly speaking, no. There are no GM fish, poultry or meat products currently approved for sale in the United States, although there is a GM salmon that is currently in the application process for approval. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get a serving of GM foods with your hamburger, however. In addition to the GM corn that the cow ate, there’s also probably GM corn found in the hamburger bun, in the form of sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and sugar from sugar beets. If you pick a cheeseburger, the milk used in the cheese may come from cows injected with RBGH. Alongside your hamburger, your French fries may have been prepared using GM cornstarch. And chances are that your soft drink was sweetened either with GM corn syrup or with aspartame, which contains amino acids derived from GM bacteria. In fact, unless you make a concerted effort to avoid GMOs and seek out alternatives, it’s almost certain that just about any processed food or ingredient used to assemble your meal will contain them. But that could be changing. What exactly is the concern? Are GMOs really bad for you? Different aspects of GMO production and use are regulated by USDA, the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government maintains that approved GM foods are not hazardous for human consumption and, in terms of nutrition and health, they aren’t any different from non-GM foods. The government’s position doesn’t stop many people from being concerned about the long-term effects of so-called “Franken-foods.” In Europe, for example, many countries have gone so far as to ban GM foods entirely, rather than risk the possibility of contrary scientific findings down the line. Opponents of GMOs point to small research studies that contend a variety of negative effects that range from reduced fertility to liver and kidney damage. One Scottish scientist produced research that found that consumption of a GM potato stunted the growth and weakened the immune systems of test animals. It’s important to note that in the last 20 years, there haven’t been any widely accepted studies that show negative effects related to the human consumption of GMOs. Still, some scientists contend that 20 years is not enough time to measure the cumulative effects of GM foods on human health. Others worry that the science of gene insertion is inexact, and that we don’t know the consequences if more of a particular gene is inserted than initially planned. Another concern of anti-GMO groups relates to food allergies: A genetic modification could wind up adding an allergen to a food or an unknown combination of proteins could provoke an allergic response that’s unanticipated— and for which there would be no diagnostic test. Are there concerns about the effects of GMOs on the environment? One of the biggest concerns about GMOs relates to their potential adverse effects on the environment. For example, because some GM crops are modified to be immune to herbicides, farmers can spray higher volumes of herbicides or with greater frequency in order to kill weeds, without risk to the crop. But a greater use of herbicides can have consequences on birds and animals, as well as on the water table or with run-off to streams and other bodies of water. Also, nature is always finding “work-arounds,” and some weeds are developing a natural resistance to commercial herbicides, leading to a cycle of stronger and harder-to-kill weeds, more herbicides and so on. For example, one popular herbicide, glyphosate (marketed as RoundUp by Monsanto), has been associated with the development of so-called “superweeds.” Today, glyphosate-resistant weeds have been found in 18 countries. What’s more, farmers that rely on glyphosate-resistant crops for weed control often fail to do other things, such as ploughing and crop rotation, that naturally control weeds and keep soil healthy for future harvests. Many fear that GMOs will have a negative effect on certain species and reduce biodiversity. Take, for instance, the monarch butterfly, which feeds on a milkweed that typically grows at the edges of cultivated fields. The introduction of a genetically modified version of corn called Bt corn (developed to be naturally toxic to the larvae of a particular pest called the corn borer) corresponded to drastic declines in the monarch population. Pollen from the corn was found in the neighboring milkweed, leading some scientists to conclude that the insecticide properties of the corn that killed the corn borer also had an effect on the butterflies. This conclusion is debated, however. USDA has taken the position that Bt corn has not harmed the monarchs. Meanwhile, others contend that a similar problem occurred with GM canola grown in England —its pollen has been found in honeybee hives miles from the nearest GM field. What are some of the pluses in support of GMOs? Many experts insist that GMOs bring tangible benefits to the marketplace. Proponents of GMO crops tout their benefits for both our country’s economic health and for human health, too, pointing out that GMOs have increased U.S. agriculture production by almost $100 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilos of pesticide use. GMOs also have the potential to help address the problem of feeding an exploding world population without using up scarce resources, and they could help address issues of sustainability, by adapting crops to conditions related to climate change. This doesn’t always require genetic manipulation—scientists recently applied genetic knowledge to selectively breed a new kind of rice (Sahbahagi Dhan) that requires significantly less water to grow. There are some GMOs in development that are expected to bring nutritional benefits to consumers. One example is Golden Rice, a product infused with beta carotene, which produces vitamin A. Some 400 million people worldwide suffer from blindness caused by a deficiency in vitamin A, and Golden Rice was specifically engineered to address this very problem. Unlike most GMOs, the Golden Rice seed is open source (not controlled by one agriculture company) and available to all. It is still undergoing trials to be approved for use in certain countries, but upon approval, its impact could be significant. Other beneficial GM foods in the works include: ■ purple tomatoes injected with snapdragon genes to increase anti-cancer antioxidants; ■ hypo-allergenic tomatoes that are missing a key allergen; ■ bananas that are resistant to a highly destructive blight; and ■ a line of Arctic apples that don’t turn brown when cut (with Arctic avocados, pears and lettuce also in the pipeline). Another new GM innovation in the early stages would replace crops that have built-in pesticides with crops that feature an “alarm gene” that signals pests to avoid eating the crop. This could mean that the crop would grow without any use of pesticides—and no adverse effects on the insect population or the surrounding environment. As scientists continue to improve techniques and methods for genetic engineering, it will help make for a more precise process with reduced risk of unintended consequences. And according to the respected science journal, Nature, the next generation of GMOs will come from the alteration of a plant’s own genes, without the need to import genes from other organisms. This evolution may alleviate some of the concerns related to the consumption of “Frankenfoods.” Why is there so much discussion about GMO labeling these days? Many consumer advocates want to ensure that you have a right to an informed decision about buying food items that contain GMOs. High-end grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have been proactive in labeling house brands that are GMOfree. General Mills recently announced that Cheerios (the best-selling cereal in the United States) will not contain GM ingredients (switching from beet sugar to pure cane sugar), and Post Foods is eliminating GMOs from its Grape-Nuts cereal line. This trend seems to be on the rise. Whole Foods announced that it will require all products sold in its stores to have GM labeling by 2018. Ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s will label all packaging with respect to GMOs by the end of 2014, noting that it currently sources more than 85% of its ingredients in the United States and Canada from non-GM ingredients. Even popular fastfood purveyor Chipotle has joined in, committing to removing GMOs from its food “to the fullest extent possible” and voluntarily disclosing when it can’t. Industry experts are predicting that more and more brands will do this, in response to consumer preference. The federal government is also considering the issue. While there are no current national requirements regarding the labeling of GMOs, USDA approved a voluntary GMO-free label in 2013. Some individual states, including Connecticut and Maine, now have laws that require food manufacturers to identify GMOs in packaging and labeling. In fact, in 2013, more than 50 genetic engineering labeling bills were introduced in 26 states. Meanwhile, a bill recently introduced in Congress (and purportedly backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association) would block states from having their own labeling laws. Until labels are more prevalent, if I do want to avoid GMOs, where do I start? Because corn, in particular, is so prevalent in processed foods (particularly as a sweetener), it’s unbelievably hard to eliminate GMOs from your pantry. One sure way is to buy organic foods, since federal regulations prohibit use of GM ingredients in any food labeled as USDA Organic. Try to avoid certain ingredients that are likely to contain GMOs (unless they are certified organic): sugar from sugar beets, soy products like tofu and tempeh, canola and cottonseed oil, papaya from China or Hawaii and, sometimes, zucchini and squash. Another frequent source of GMOs is sweetened beverages and candy, as these typically are sweetened with either corn syrup or sugar from sugar beets. Diet soda doesn’t present a GMO-free alternative, since aspartame is also derived from GM-based microorganisms. Condiments, oils and salad dressings usually contain GM ingredients, unless specifically labeled. And frozen, prepared foods frequently contain some kind of GM corn ingredient. Foods made from 100% wheat (like certain pasta brands), however, are GMO-free, as are plain popcorn brands. To help identify the presence or omission of GMOs in retail foods, look for seals from the Non-GMO Project or consult the list at NonGMOShop pingGuide.com. You also can download an iPhone app called ShopNoGMO that will provide you with guidance on the go. THE FUTURE OF GM FOODS With billions of dollars at stake and technology that’s advancing every day, we can be fairly certain that GM foods will play a part in the American diet for generations to come. It’s also reasonable to expect that some advocacy groups will continue to be concerned about their impact on human and environmental health—and insist upon more and improved labeling. Be prepared to answer some hard questions from parents, teachers and other school meal stakeholders. By staying abreast of the latest research developments, you will be able to respond knowledgeably to concerns, while making informed decisions about the foods you buy and the foods you serve. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by bbbrrn, YanLev, VladimirFloyd, Jovanmandic and nikolay100/Jiunlimited.com. TO YOUR CREDIT: For CEUs toward SNA certification, complete the “To Your Credit” test on page 48. SNAPSHOT ■ GMOs are created to give a crop or food certain characteristics, such as a resistance to frost or making them hardier for transport. ■ Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, papayas and sugar beets are the GMO crops grown in this country, which is the largest GMO producer in the world. ■ Many consumer advocates want to ensure that you have a right to an informed decision about buying food items that contain GMOs.
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