Many of us have heard the term GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and the debate around it as the answer to world hunger. But what exactly are they? What are the food safety issues we need to be aware of, and how do we navigate this while making the best choices for feeding our families and ourselves?
What is GM?
Genetic modification (GM) is also called genetic engineering or GE. With genetic engineering, scientists can change plants, animals or bacterium at the molecular level by inserting genes or DNA segments from other organisms using gene-splicing technology. Unlike conventional cross- breeding, the process of genetic engineering enables the direct transfer of genes between different species that would not breed in nature, thereby creating an unstable organism.
Over 60 countries worldwide – including Australia, Japan and all EU countries – have banned or have strict restrictions on the use and sale of GMOs. The US government has approved the production and sales of GMOs based on industry sponsored studies. Yet once GMOs are released into the environment, these organisms cannot be recalled and the long-term impact is unknown.
In Canada, GMOs were first introduced into the country 16 years ago. Today, four GE crops are grown: canola, corn, soy and white sugar beet (for sugar processing). Many of these crops end up as ingredients in processed foods, biofuel and animal feed. Canada is also importing papaya from Hawaii, squash (some varieties of yellow crookneck), cottonseed oil and milk products made with the use of Bovine Growth Hormone.
Health and environmental risks
GMOs affect the environment. Crops are genetically engineered to be immune to herbicides and/or produce an insecticide so that farmers can control pests and destroy weeds without harming their cash crop. But the process has spawned superbugs and super weeds requiring greater doses of chemicals and more toxic methods, of which the biggest GE seed producers are also the biggest suppliers of chemical herbicides and pesticides.
A growing body of work links health risks and environmental damage to GMOs despite proponents of GMOs, and a broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GMO crops poses no greater health risk than conventional methods of food production.
For consumers and shoppers alike, it’s become very confusing to distinguish between the different food standards and marketing claims. In fact, the food standard certification process is now a big business. As busy people, we work and care for our families, and it is additional work to stay knowledgeable in order to make good choices.
Sadly, many Canadians are unaware of the foods that contain GMOs because our government does not require labeling – despite lobbying for stricter standards by environmentalists and food advocates. But you can still make wise choices to avoid GM foods:
• Eat certified organic food as the best way to avoid GM food because GE is prohibited in organic farming. This includes organic dairy, eggs and meat because as animals are not fed GM grains like corn or soy
• Avoid eating processed foods with corn, canola and soy ingredients
• Buy cane sugar or organic sugar to avoid eating sugar from GM sugarbeets
• Buy food directly from farmers who do not plant GM corn, canola or soy or use GM grains for meat, dairy or egg production.