For the most part, I choose organic food for my family whenever it’s available. My main motivation for buying organic is to avoid chemicals and pesticides. But after reading an article in the April/May 2011 issue of my KIWI magazine subscription, I have a new reason for paying the higher prices–avoiding genetically engineered (GE) food.
I’ve heard about the dangers of genetically modified food but have never really taken time to educate myself. The KIWI article was very well written and made a scientific subject completely understandable to the average person. Most genetically modified food is created in a lab where desirable genes are inserted into a plant’s cells, becoming part of the plant’s new DNA. Basically scientists are speeding up the natural course of a plant’s development, mainly so that they’ll grow faster and be more resistant to strong pesticides like Roundup. That way, farmers can use even more potent chemicals to kill weeds without harming crops. Supporters of GE food claim the process will help solve the world’s hunger problems, but skeptics don’t agree, calling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) “an uncontrolled science experiment.”
The heart of the problem is that there’s little scientific proof to back up either side–that GMOs are completely safe or harmful. And most Americans (especially our children) eat GMOs every day–whether it’s string cheese, crackers, cereal or conventional fruits and vegetables. Studies done by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine found that mice that were fed genetically modified corn for 30 to 90 days developed intestinal inflammation. Even worse: “A 2004 study in Italy showed changes in their blood cells, livers, and kidneys, which researchers believe could indicate the onset of disease.”
But not everyone is up in arms. While many countries–including Japan, Australia and England–have restricted the sale of GE foods, the United States is not on board. And skeptics believe it’s because of the country’s enormous dependence on the agricultural industry–especially corn and soy. According to the KIWI article, U.S. farmers planted nearly 87 million acres of corn and nearly 76 million acres of soy during the 2009-2010 season. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has backed the use of GMOs in an attempt to boost crop yield. “It would be profoundly disruptive to U.S. agriculture and our food system if evidence emerged that these crops posed some new and novel health risk,” says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit focusing on the environmental and consumer health benefits of organic food and farming.
So what are parents to do? Which side do you believe–and more importantly–what do you feed your family? The article has a great section on how to protect your family, with the main recommendation being to buy organic whenever possible. It also helps to know the major GE crops in the U.S. food system, which are soybeans, canola seeds, corn, cotton, and small amounts of zucchini, squash and Hawaiian papaya.
But since forms of these crops find their way into 80 percent of packaged food items (like cereal, salad dressing, canned soup, and even infant formula) it’s hard to know if the products you’re choosing are safe. Most major natural and organic brands (like Silk, Organic Valley, Eden and Whole Foods Market’s store brand products) are GMO-free, and buying local produce is preferred (so that you can ask the farmer about his crops). The article also recommends that families choose certified organic, 100-percent grass-fed meats whenever possible.
The unknown is the biggest threat. “Foods with GMOs make up the vast majority of what’s available to consumers, so there’s no non-GMO eating group we can compare against,” says Ali Carine, M.D., an integrative pediatrician in Columbus, Ohio.
For now–for my family at least–being cautious sounds like the safest bet.