Here and there, my eyes would run across the acronym GMO, barely acknowledge it, and move right past the letters. I wasn’t sure what it meant or entailed—other than something had been genetically modified. I employed every justification technique to avoid tackling the subject:
- Any term with the word genetic in it was way above my head.
- I would read about it next week.
- GMOs must exist for some reason (like astronaut food), but surely it wasn’t in my food.
- I had labels down pat, and my food didn’t refer to any Recommended Daily Values of GMOs.
Avoidance of the subject didn’t make the enigma disappear. Like testing the temperature of a lake with my toes, I cautiously broached the conversation among intelligent, respected confidants. Surely, they would educate me in the intimacy of our own private conversation without mocking my knowledge of current events. Then I wouldn’t feel quite so ignorant. Refilling glasses of wine, I tentatively asked, “So. What do you know about GMOs?” Unsure themselves and wondering why we weren’t discussing the Red Sox, they shrugged their shoulders.
I pushed back gently to encourage my version of stimulating conversation: “From what I understand, a plant’s DNA can be altered to resist weed killers. Then, the farmer who sows the altered seeds can spray the crop with weed killers, and the plant comes through just dandy.” I paused to let my polite audience catch up on my play-by-play. “I just want to know, am I supposed to be concerned about eating altered plants?”
My dearest friend soaked up my roundabout statement and replied, “I guess I would be concerned if I found out my food was sprayed with pesticides.”
That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. I was caught off guard. All the lessons I had recently learned flashed through my head and raced toward my mouth in what could have been a passionate soapbox dissertation.
“Yes,” I replied slowly, and then reflectively added, “Yes, I too would be concerned about pesticides.”
I hoped I wasn’t condescending. In that brief conversation there was a lot I needed to absorb. First, I wasn’t the only one who was unfamiliar with GMOs. I found comfort in our equal ignorance. Or so I thought. The bigger revelation was realizing that many of us know so little about our own food sources. Evidently, as a newly-appointed advocate for my own human body (and maker of the family meals), it was up to me to self-educate and find out why this subject was so alien. I enrolled in a training course offered by international author and GMO expert, Jeffrey Smith, from the Institute of Responsible Technology. My goal was to learn about and demystify the elusive acronym. Then, regurgitate the ABCs of GMOs to others.
From my scribbled notes, I broke down the basics of GMOs:
- GMO is the acronym for a genetically modified organism, also referred to as genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM). What a relief! I only had to decipher one acronym, not three.
- GMOs are created when genes from DNA are taken from one species and inserted into the DNA of another species. The DNA’s highly specific mission can perform in the new host.
- Extracted genes may have come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or even humans.
The science and usage of genetic engineering was mind-blowing. We have taken genes from spiders and inserted them into goat DNA in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bulletproof vests. In another instance, cow genes crossed with pigs turned pigskins into cowhides. Or maybe you heard of the jellyfish genes that lit up pigs’ noses in the dark? I’ve yet to figure out why this would be helpful—except it would be a cool trick during evening barbeques. When it came to food, Arctic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost. (A straw-brrr-y.) Human genes have been inserted into dairy cows to produce milk with human breast milk properties.
We are brilliant humans! Who knew? In fact, I can think of at least a hundred animal qualities that would come in handy in my life. I’d love to inject myself with hummingbird DNA and be able to complete all my daily chores and duties at the speed of lightning. Or slip some bat DNA into my husband, so he’ll have finely-tuned listening skills capable of honing in on even my non-verbal female messages. Who wouldn’t want to inject their children with a few fish genes, so they would be born natural swimmers, eliminating the potential for drowning forevermore? The possibilities here were endless!
My brain was electrified, crackling with questions. What about my brother’s Bernese mountain dog? Was she a GMO? Surely, this was how the Jackalope manifested itself. Could we create a canta-guava-limon? What about those unfamiliar fruits that caught my eye at the grocery store? Did mixing my DNA with my husband’s after one romantic getaway produce offspring in this category? Jeffrey Smith clarified that genetic engineering was completely different from traditional breeding and just as importantly, carried unique risks. In traditional breeding, it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new species, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. (But don’t tell our guinea pig he can’t mate with the shoes on the floor. It’s his favorite pastime.) When two similar species do breed—a horse and a donkey for example—the offspring, a mule in this case, is usually infertile. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, allows scientists to breach species barriers set by nature. The results are plants or animals with traits that would be virtually impossible to obtain with natural processes such as crossbreeding or grafting.
Fascinatingly complicated, I thought. Maybe this would be a subject I accepted but never mastered, like my mother and her relationship with the DVR remote. As long as you have people around who understand, you can get by. As a modern world topic, maybe my children would carry that gene of understanding. Maybe I could schedule a Girl Scout field trip to one of these immaculate laboratories and watch the precise goings-on of scientists and geneticists behind plate glass windows. As I continued my studies, I was thrown a curveball. I didn’t need to visit a laboratory to find examples of genetically modified items. I simply needed to go to any local grocery store. Or, downstairs to my kitchen cabinet, as GMOs were introduced into our food supply in the mid-1990s. As of May 2010, IRT’s website shared that current, commercialized GMO crops in the United States included:
- Soy (91%)
- Cotton (71%)
- Canola (88%)
- Corn (85%)
- Sugar beets (90%)
- Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%)
- Alfalfa (currently at Supreme Court)
- Zucchini and yellow squash (small amount)
- Tobacco (Quest® brand)
- Possibly in the near future, salmon
What does that mean for our dinner plates? Slate Magazine stated, “No government body keeps precise statistics, but a popular guesstimate among university researchers is that around seventy percent of processed foods contain GMO ingredients.”
This wasn’t going over so well with me. I was all for advancement, until I learned it was crossing over that one-acre property line of mine without being invited.
My hands, now highly skilled at product-flipping, went to work as my laser eyes rapidly scanned the front, back, and undersides of boxes, cans, and bottles in my cabinets. Nothing. Not a peep to indicate some or any of the ingredients within might be genetically modified. I was stupefied. You’re telling me I can find out if my groceries were made in a nut-free facility or when a beer was born but not if food was made with GMO ingredients? Why weren’t these companies proudly stating that my mac n’ cheese was enhanced at the hand of a scientist? Where was the former celebrity GMO spokesperson touting health benefits? The picture of the family laboratory proudly producing genetically modified food for a half a generation? The absence of a GMO label led me to believe they weren’t in the products I used.
If I have the inalienable right to life, and I equate that with the right to health, then I have a right to know. Let’s just call this strike one.
While scientists tinker and toil and research behind laboratory walls in controlled settings, cross-contamination occurs every day in the fields, altering neighboring crops. For me, this was strike two. In our biosphere, pollen floats, wind carries, bees share, and birds poop. Pollen from most GMO crops can contaminate nearby organic crops of the same type. We cannot reverse the contamination that has already happened. Due to cross-contamination, there was a very real chance that my right, my choice to decide, would disappear forever. I was nervous my kids would grow up and simply not have the choice to eat non-GMO food if they desired.
What made me uneasy about the GMO food story was it didn’t start with the advent of World War II or with my parents’ generation. This experimentation with the food chain was on my generation’s shoulders, yet few people I knew were informed. Decisions being made by government, corporations, and scientists were happening right now.
Some believe that GMOs could lead to the creation of new toxins or allergens or to changes in nutritional value or pose unforeseen threats to surrounding animals and wildlife. Some crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides, allowing crops to flourish while simultaneously eradicating weeds. Other plants are engineered to produce their own pesticide to kill or deter insects. Some people feel the toxins produced by these crops are far stronger than any found in nature. George Kimbrell, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, had this to say about GMOs: “They don’t help us feed the world, they don’t fight climate change, they don’t help us better the environment. They just increase [the use of] pesticides and herbicides. That’s what they do.”
I reflected how our reckless and abundant use of pesticides had influenced oceans, animals, and humans. We were just one decade into deluging our food supply with GMO-based foods. What would happen if we decided in twenty years that genetically modifying our crops and seeds was a terribly wrong decision? Where would we be then? What would our era be referred to, “The GMO Years?” The bottom line for me: GMO foods have not been in use long enough for me to feel convinced they are safe. There are still too many questions surrounding these foods and not nearly enough answers. I felt like I was being asked to play ball with a blindfold on. The unknown was strike three.
The benefit of identifying these issues here and now is that we can make a difference. What Rachel Carson attempted to do with pesticides, Jeffrey Smith is trying to do with GMOs. He believes that although GMOs are one of the most dangerous health and environmental risks we face, they are also one of the easiest to solve. According to Smith, just a small percentage of the population switching to non-GMO brands could create a tipping point, forcing major food companies to quickly replace GMO ingredients. When the tipping point of consumer rejection was reached in Europe in 1999, it became a marketing liability, and within a single week, virtually all-major food companies committed to removing GMOs from their products. While the controversy and data goes far beyond my introductory paragraphs, I passionately want the Everyday-Me’s to be aware. With a little GMO knowledge, you can have your own discussions and make your own decisions.
Personally, I am fascinated by science and applaud many advancements. My Herceptin medicine, for example, was approved the same year as my breast cancer diagnosis, which likely saved my life. But before it dripped into my veins, I understood and accepted all the possible repercussions. Herceptin only interacted with me through my hanging IV drip bag, but GMOs interact with entire food systems without my knowing and understanding the implications and possible outcomes. It’s all about choice. I should be able to choose whether or not I eat and purchase genetically modified foods; I don’t want the decision made for me.
It was now my turn to bat, but without the blinders.
Until our government mandates that all food products containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled, my simplest out-of-the-park swing was to buy organic—which does not allow GMO ingredients. Some may claim that the benefits of genetically modified food outweigh the negatives, but the long-term effects of those negatives make me hesitate. While having the speed of a hummingbird seems helpful to me, perhaps it would leave me unable to relax. My husband might listen more attentively to me with his bat-like hearing but would probably sleep all day and be awake at night. And the kids? Well, it’s hard enough to get the kids out of the pool now, never mind if they were natural-born swimmers. It might be inconvenient at times, but I’ll take my family, and my food, in their most genuine form.
After finding out more about GMOs, I was happy to grab a flag and join the non-GMO movement.
Author’s Note: California #37 Right To Know is on the November 2012 ballot. If this proposition is successful, most food items containing GMO ingredients will have to declare so on the label. While California is leading the way, this is not an ‘over there’ issue. If the proposition passes, the ripples will be felt by many and other states are waiting up to follow suit. Share this blog or discuss the topic with friends, relatives and acquaintances, especially if they are California residents. Please take the time to support CA Right To Know, learn how you can choose wiser and buy non-GMO products.