The Skinny on GMO’s
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants or animals which have had the DNA altered to produce certain traits in the organism. Large agribusiness companies hold patents on modifications which they license to farmers. If you follow politics these companies are trying to change laws which would require foods containing GMO ingredients to be labeled.
Recently Dr. Oz came under attack from a panel of 10 doctors who were angered by his support for GMO labeling. They went so far as to accuse him of promoting “quack treatments” and urged Columbia University to dismiss him from the faculty. In response Dr. Oz used his considerable resources to investigate those who brought these claims against him. What he found is a network of dishonest doctors and scientists for hire who have common interests with large food companies and big industry. Four of the doctors who signed the letter have at some point been associated with The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which has previously received grants from Monsanto, a manufacturer of GMO seeds. Dr. Oz has big time support.
Among others is Gary Ruskin, cofounder and the executive director of US Right to Know. Ruskin called the panel of doctors and the ACSH “rent-a-scientists”. Dr. Henry Miller for example was the main author of the letter. He has also been listed as an author on other scientific papers commissioned by the tobacco industry. These papers minimize negative health effects of using tobacco products. “What Henry Miller does is he speaks on behalf of big corporations and he tells big lies on their behalf,” said Ruskin.
What’s the message here? Some of the same voices that used to support the tobacco industry are now on the side of genetically modified foods. The bottom line is that we don’t know whether GMO foods are safe or not. The research is not definitive. “Many of the genetically modified foods will be safe, I’m sure. Will most of them be safe nobody knows.” Says Ruskin.
Let’s save the GMO debate for later. What does this mean for you right now? As Dr. Oz points out, some of the genetic modifications are designed to allow the crops to survive being doused with even stronger types of pesticides and herbicides. These pesticides get into the soil, and then leach into the water supply. Residents of south east Florida have front row seats to the downstream effects of water pollution. Only a fifth of the waters in the state of Florida met basic water quality standards. In the first comprehensive review of its kind, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) released a white paper, “Valuing Florida’s Clean Waters”. The paper states that algae and red tide outbreaks caused by water pollution cost Floridians up to $10.5 billion each year. Everything moves downstream. If big food companies aren’t required to label their products then we as consumers will have no way of knowing what we put in to our bodies, the long term health effects of which are unknown. We may also be unwittingly providing financial support to companies who would hire “rent-a-scientists” to further an agenda that has little concern for the well-being of the human race or the planet we live on.
The mainstream media has certainly taken the GMO bull by the horns. However, local farmer and entrepreneur, Michael Meier from Ground Floor Farms in downtown Stuart warns that the real issue with GMO foods is misinformation and alarmism. Ground Floor Farms is an urban farm which uses the latest in hydroponic technology to yield 2 acres worth of crops from just ¼ acre. While none of his crops are GMO he explains that it’s not just personal preference. None of the fresh produce you buy to consume directly has a GM analog says Mike. In this country the only GM crops currently grown are those designed for industrial processing such as sugar beets, field corn, soy, canola, alfalfa and cotton seed. These end up as high fructose corn syrup, oils, processed foods or even fuel. So whether you eat a head of lettuce from your local farmers market or you’re nearest big box supermarket you can rest assured that it is not GMO.
In fact Mike thinks the terms non-GMO and organic are often being confused. Organic foods and non-GMO foods are two distinct and separate things. By definition USDA certified organic products, whether it’s a pepper from the produce section or a box of macaroni and cheese can not contain any GMO products.
When asked about the effect of GMO farms on the environment Mike agreed that in some cases farmers have had to use more herbicide or pesticide than before due to weed and insect resistance. Even when the genetic modification was designed to reduce the amount of chemicals needed. Such as the case with Round-Up ready corn produced by Monsanto. But Mike points out that Round-Up is available at any home improvement store, and is used on lawns and around the house all the time.
Another criticism of GMO’s is that they contain fewer nutrients. While some genetic modifications do sacrifice nutrient density for increased shelf life, yield or resistance most of these crops are not intended for direct human consumption in the first place. Mike told us of one exception, Golden Rice grown in Africa has been genetically modified to contain more Vitamin A to address a deficiency in the area. If you are concerned about the nutrient content one option is to buy from a local farmer who uses heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are geographically specific. They come from a family line of plants that have adapted to thrive in a specific location and often have higher nutrient value.
So do GMO crops make it harder on the local farmer? Mike says it’s not the GMO’s, it’s the problem of scale. Massive corporations with huge commercial farms can produce food at prices a small, local farmer just can’t match. Again Mike points out that nothing a small farmer would grow is available as a GMO product. Organic produce is being confused with GMO’s.
So what’s all the to-do about? Mike says that some in the industry have likened the GMO story to the climate change story. He says the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of scientists believe that climate change is happening while popular opinion is still split. He says that the vast majority of scientist have come to the conclusion that GMO foods are not dangerous to our health, while popular opinion is violently split.
So who are you going to believe? I personally am not going to believe anything said by someone who told us tobacco wasn’t dangerous. And as someone who is accustomed to reading scientific papers I can tell you that a lot of the “science” out there is intentionally misleading. At this point it’s safe to say that we just don’t know what the long term effects of genetically modified foods are going to be on our bodies, on the environment or on the economy. One thing everyone can agree upon is labeling.
Consumers have the right to make informed decisions. What can you take home with you? Mike says if you are concerned about what you choose to eat you are safe for the time being choosing USDA Organic foods. And exercise your right to vote with your pocket book. Large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, Bayer and Dow are lobbying hard to prevent your right to information. I personally choose to support my local growers, I can taste the difference. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.