Just when you thought you knew what you were putting in your mouth…

By on October 28, 2013

What started off as a simple article introducing you all to a new fruit hybrid that I came across several months ago, has ballooned into a controversial one as I began to look deeper and deeper on the topic of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) also referred as GE (Genetic Engineering) and the impact it has on the food that we put in our mouths.

Mother Nature vs. Science

I must admit that controversial topics such as this one, are normally one’s I steer clear of as this blog is not a place where I try to sway individuals such as yourselves to my line of thinking let alone to jump on my band wagon so to speak regarding highly debatable topics. I try to give informed opinions and that’s exactly what they are – MY informed opinions. You may agree with my words or you may not and that’s the beauty of this forum. I use this space to give out information and where I stand on the matter…be it a delicate opinion at times or a rather non-apologetic harsh one – all depending how deeply impacted the topic is to my heart.

I was not prepared to be caught up in all the literature that is out there regarding this topic and to read the ginormous impact that GMO’s have on our daily lives through consumption and otherwise. I am not saying that I had my head in the sand let alone in the clouds but I was not well versed on this subject. Like everything else in our lives, the more you know about a particular topic it automatically places you in a better position to make an educated and informed opinion. And believe me, this was an education of sorts for this foodie.

So where to begin…well first off I needed to be brought up to speed on what exactly were GMO’s or GE’s. I had heard snip-it’s on the news regarding GMO’ and glanced casually over newspaper articles regarding this biochemistry anomaly. But if I am being brutally honest, I tend to not be interested in those types of articles as they appear bore-some and too scientifically written that I am usually uninterested by the second paragraph…scratch that…by the second sentence…now that’s being brutally honest to an audience!

What are Genetically Engineered Foods / GMOs?

Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. -From the glossary on the Monsanto website.

Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. -World Health Organization

Food items that have had their DNA changed through genetic engineering. Unlike conventional genetic modification that is carried out through time-tested conventional breeding of plants and animals. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.” GM products include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

 This relatively new science allows DNA (genetic material) from one species to be transferred into another species, creating transgenic organisms with combinations of genes from plants, animals, bacteria, and even viral gene pools. The mixing of genes from different species that have never shared genes in the past is what makes GMOs and GE crops so unique. It is impossible to create such transgenic organisms through traditional crossbreeding methods.

 With every controversial topic comes along two sides to it. Upon researching GMO’s it became quite apparent what ‘side’ a large percentage of people were advocating. There was no shortage of documents and theories on how the modification of certain food groups can lead to potential abnormalities to our immune system down the road is a common argument that is being spread and with its merit. Without long term studies on animals and human test cases, we are at the mercy of the unknown. We don’t know the outcome of what years of GMO consumption will do to us let alone our children and their children. But like I mentioned before, there are two sides to every topic…

Benefits of GMO’s

  • The benefits of genetically modified food crops include being able to breed disease resistant crops and herbicide tolerant strains. 
  • Genetic modification can also be used to remove allergens from foods, potentially reducing the risk of food allergies
  • Genetically modified crops can also be made to include vitamins that may be lacking in some staple varieties
  • Future planned applications of GMOs are diverse and may include drugs in foods, for example, bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B, metabolically engineered fish that mature more quickly, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.
Arguments against GMO’s
  • One of the well-known risks of genetically modifying a plant or animal that is used for food, is that the modification may introduce an allergen (opposing point #2 in the benefits of GMO’s)
  • One concern raised has been the possibility of a horizontal gene transfer from plants used as feed to animals that are used for food, or from plants as used as food, to humans.
  • Of particular concern is that the antibiotic resistance gene commonly used as a genetic maker in transgenic crops could be transferred to harmful bacteria, creating ‘superbugs’ that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.
  • That the increasing use of GM in crops has caused a power shift in agriculture towards Biotechnology companies, which are gaining more control over the production chain of crops and food, and over the farmers that use their products, as well.
  • Unlike the strict safety evaluations for approval of new drugs, there are no mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and limited testing for allergenicity. There have been no epidemiological studies of the possible impacts of the consumption of GE crops on health. 
  • Studies have confirmed that there is reason for caution regarding the use of GMO’s. For example, scientists recently found that the insecticide in GE corn is now showing up in our bloodstream and the umbilical cord blood of pregnant women. More research needs to be done to confirm these results and determine whether consumption of GE crops is introducing new toxins into our bodies.

 List of genetically modified foods:

Some estimates say as many as 30,000 different products on grocery store shelves are “modified.” That’s largely because many processed foods contain soy. Half of North America’s soy crop is genetically engineered!

Rapeseed – Resistance to certain pesticides and improved rapeseed cultivars to be free of erucic acid and glucosinolates. Gluconsinolates, which were found in rapeseed meal leftover from pressing, are toxic and had prevented the use of the meal in animal feed. In Canada, where “double-zero” rapeseed was developed, the crop was renamed “canola” (Canadian oil) to differentiate it from non-edible rapeseed.

Honey – Honey can be produced from GM crops. Some Canadian honey comes from bees collecting nectar from GM canola plants. This has shut down exports of Canadian honey to Europe.

Cotton – Resistant to certain pesticides – considered a food because the oil can be consumed. The introduction of genetically engineered cotton plants has had an unexpectedly effect on Chinese agriculture. The so-called Bt cotton plants that produce a chemical that kills the cotton bollworm have not only reduced the incidence of the pest in cotton fields, but also in neighboring fields of corn, soybeans, and other crops.

Rice – Genetically modified to contain high amounts of Vitamin A. Rice containing human genes is to be grown in the US. Rather than end up on dinner plates, the rice will make human proteins useful for treating infant diarrhoea in the developing world.

Soybean – Genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides – Soy foods including, soy beverages, tofu, soy oil, soy flour, lecithin. Other products may include breads, pastries, snack foods, baked products, fried products, edible oil products and special purpose foods.

Sugar cane – Made resistant to certain pesticides. A large percentage of sweeteners used in processed food actually comes from corn, not sugar cane or beets. Genetically modified sugar cane is regarded so badly by consumers at the present time that it could not be marketed successfully.

Tomatoes – Made for a longer shelf life and to prevent a substance that causes tomatoes to rot and degrade.

Corn – Resistant to certain pesticides – Corn oil, flour, sugar or syrup. May include snack foods, baked goods, fried foods, edible oil products, confectionery, special purpose foods, and soft drinks.

Sweet corn – genetically modified to produces its own insecticide. Officials from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have said that  thousands of tonnes of genetically engineered sweetcorn have made their way into the human food supply chain, even though the produce has been approved only for use in animal feed. Recently Monsanto, a biotechnology food producer, said that about half of the USA’s sweetcorn acreage has been planted with genetically modified seed this year.

Canola – Canola oil. May include edible oil products, fried foods, and baked products, snack foods.

Potatoes – (Atlantic, Russett Burbank, Russet Norkatah, and Shepody) – May include snack foods, processed potato products and other processed foods containing potatoes.

Flax – More and more food products contain flax oil and seed because of their excellent nutritional properties. No genetically modified flax is currently grown. An herbicide-resistant GM flax was introduced in 2001, but was soon taken off the market because European importers refused to buy it.

Papaya – The first virus resistant papayas were commercially grown in Hawaii in 1999. Transgenic papayas now cover about one thousand hectares, or three quarters of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. Monsanto, donated technology to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, for developing a papaya resistant to the ringspot virus in India.

Squash – (yellow crookneck) – Some zucchini and yellow crookneck squash are also GM but they are not popular with farmers.

Red-hearted chicory – (radicchio) – Chicory (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is popular in some regions as a salad green, especially in France and Belgium. Scientists developed a genetically modified line of chicory containing a gene that makes it male sterile, simply facilitating the production of hybrid cultivars. Today there is no genetically modified chicory on the market.

Cotton seed oil – Cottonseed oil and linters. Products may include blended vegetable oils, fried foods, baked foods, snack foods, edible oil products, and smallgoods casings.

Tobacco -The company Vector has a GMO tobacco being sold under the brand of Quest® cigarettes in the U.S. It is engineered to produce low or no nicotine.

Meat – Meat and dairy products usually come from animals that have eaten GM feed.

Peas – Genetically modified (GM) peas created immune responses in mice, suggesting that they may also create serious allergic reactions in people. The peas had been inserted with a gene from kidney beans, which creates a protein that acts as a pesticide.

Vegetable Oil – Most generic vegetable oils and margarines used in restaurants and in processed foods in North America are made from soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed. Unless these oils specifically say “Non-GMO” or “Organic,” it is probably genetically modified.

Sugarbeets – May include any processed foods containing sugar.

Dairy Products – About 22 percent of cows in the U.S. are injected with recombinant (genetically modified) bovine growth hormone (rbGH). **I couldn’t find statistically for Canadian Dairy products

Vitamins – Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is often made from corn, vitamin E is usually made from soy. Vitamins A, B2, B6, and B12 may be derived from GMOs as well as vitamin D and vitamin K may have “carriers” derived from GM corn sources, such as starch, glucose, and maltodextrin.

The world divided on the ‘debate’

The genetically modified foods controversy is a dispute over the use of food and other goods derived from genetically modified crops instead of from conventional crops, and other uses of genetic engineering in food production. The dispute involves consumers, biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations, and scientists.

 The key areas of controversy related to GMO food are whether GM food should be labeled, the role of government regulators, the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, and the role of GM crops in feeding the world population.

A snapshot of where certain countries stand
in regard to GMO labeling

According to Environment Canada:

 Canada is the third largest producer of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the world. As the cultivation of GMO crops intensifies and expands, ecological risks are emerging, such as superweeds, pest resistance, and adverse effects on non-target organisms. GMO animals such as fish are also being developed, raising additional concerns about potential environmental risks. As yet, there is little information available on the potential adverse effects of GMOs on aquatic ecosystems.

Environmental scientists do not yet know what long-term impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem function could result from dispersing GMOs and related products such as herbicides and Bt toxins (Bacillus thuringiensis toxins) in the environment, what effects they could have on indigenous microorganisms and invertebrates in streams and soils, and what threats they might pose to water quality.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture:

The industry faces huge losses if mandatory labelling is implemented. The fear is that consumers will see the labels as a warning and avoid these foods, and that food processors will reformulate their products to avoid GM foods rather than place labels. It also says labels will increase the price of foods produced and processed in Canada.

At the end of the day, after all the facts have been laid out (I have only touched the surface in regards to the complexities and intricacies that GMO’s have with them), it all comes down to you, the consumer. You have the final say and you make that decision when you purchase your food.

I will leave you with this quote that I found to be very fitting….

Until we know without a doubt that GE crops are safe to eat, we should have a choice about whether we want to eat them.


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