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The Basics of Genetically Modified Crops

The identification of a genetically modified ingredient on a food label from the UK, where labeling is required by law.

You’ve probably heard of some of the popular genetically modified crops being grown these days.  Even if you haven’t heard of them, you’re probably eating them.  Some scientists estimate that 60-70% of the food on shelves in American supermarkets contains some GM ingredients.  The most popular: soy, cotton and corn.

Let’s get some basics out of the way:

How they’re made: scientists are taking some of the genetic code from an organism and splicing into the genes of a crop.

 The purported benefits:

  1. Increasing production by enhancing the crop’s resistance to pesticides and droughts.  This could be great for farmers, one of the most underpaid professions in this country, as their livelihood can be lost in an instant.
  2. Increasing the yield and improving quality.  This benefit is multi-factorial – more food to support the increasing population might improve health and nutrition worldwide (if used properly).
  3. Negative health consequences for people allergic to foods could be controlled.  By genetically altering crops to eliminate allergens, the incidence of allergic reactions could be reduced.

The potential risks:

  1. There is no way to test this safely and determine its safety in the real world.  I don’t mean safe only for humans but for the thousands of other species that would be exposed.
  2. We could be building super-pests.  As we genetically “enhance” our plants with pesticides, the pests are going to adapt.  That’s evolution, right? Species survive by prevailing through trials and tribulations.  The same thing could happen if GM crops and non-GM crops cross pollinate – we could get super weeds.
  3. It’s not good for animals to eat (so maybe we should get the hint).  Recent research shows that animals that consume GM crops have a greater incidence of kidney, heart, and liver disease.  Granted, animals are not humans and what applies to them doesn’t necessarily apply to us but we shouldn’t ignore it either.
  4. Genetic homogeneity.  We like to celebrate diversity – among humans and among species.  Well, if we were all genetically identical and were exposed to any disease we’re susceptible to, we’d die.  Remember survival of the fittest?  Only the strong survive.  Some plants are stronger than others, and in the plant world, survival of the fittest still matters.

There are a lot of additional issues surrounding GM crops such as the lack of labeling regulation (you don’t know which of the products you eat are genetically modified) or giving GM crops food aid to developing countries (which then makes them dependent on the US for pesticides and other products).

I feel strongly that I want to know what’s in my food.  If it contains GM crops, I want it to be labeled!  What do you think?

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