Do you know GMO?

  • Monday, August 4, 2014

I watched a documentary a couple nights ago, released in 2013 titled “GMO OMG.” A bit late on my part I admit in catching this flick and even having studied nutrition in a master's program, my knowledge about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is by no means complete. The topic is quite controversial, but I can say that I gained some insight from the documentary and the investigating I conducted afterwards, so I wanted to share.

The documentary takes the perspective of a concerned father trying to understand the farming practices and course of events that have led to such a large percentage of our food supply being grown from GM seeds. Genetically modified means just that – DNA modification using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases the intention is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally – for example, making the crop resistant to pesticides or chemical treatments such as herbicides. Whether or not this poses a risk to human health and the environment is debated, with research defending both sides. But an important note is that GMOs are banned or heavily restricted in over 60 countries, but are allowed (and not labeled) in the U.S. The fear is that with the predominance of GM seeds for one, they will pose a health risk, but also that we will see more resistance to antibiotics, food intolerances, superweeds requiring heavier use of pesticides – or perhaps this is already occurring. While the documentary was largely one sided and by no means a say all, end all to the GMO debate, I was impacted by the moral and spiritual dilemma the filmmaker presented.

He highlights a situation that occurred in Haiti. After a devastating earthquake that shook the country, Monsanto, a dominant (emphasize dominant) agricultural biotechnology corporation in the U.S., donated treated hybrid corn and vegetable seeds to the country. The seeds are patented (read owned) by the company and with their use often require particular fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and herbicides that are produced by the same company selling the seeds, potentially tying the farmer to big business. The Haitian farmers denied this offer and protested by burning the seeds. For the farmers, the seeds represented a threat to the diversity and health of the land.

“They were fighting for something that we had lost without even knowing that we were giving it up. They believe that the seeds of life are the common inheritance of all humanity, as numerous and diverse as the stars above, owned by none and shared by all.”

It is the omnivore's dilemma. We gain much from science, but where do we draw the line when we begin to own nature? After watching the documentary, I did more reading up on the Non GMO Project. And until GMOs are labeled, I think it is best to be informed, so that you as the consumer can determine your personal stance on the matter.

The Non GMO Project is a nonprofit organization aimed at informing consumers of non-GMO products. The Non GMO seal guarantees products have gone through a rigorous verification process, participating in ongoing testing and undergoing annual audits to ensure products are GMO free, as best can be determined. Efforts are made to protect the purity of the seeds and avoid cross contamination from GM seeds. The seal cannot 100 percent guarantee the product is free of GM seeds, as mere gusts of wind can transport GMO seeds to non-GMO crops. But the seal represents the best label we currently have to inform. Check out www.nongmoproject.org for more information on the project.

Organic, as defined, is also free of GMOs. Organic farmers must prove they are not using GM seeds; the feed for livestock is GMO free and measures are taken to preserve the integrity of the seeds, such as altering planting times to not coincide with conventional farms so that cross-pollination is avoided as much as possible. Know that “100 percent organic” is just that; while “organic” is 95 percent organic. Organics also undergo residue testing to certify the methods in place are in fact resulting in produce/products free of antibiotics and certain pesticides. Even here there are loopholes, but that is another debate entirely. But a recent study funded by the European Framework Programme 6 that examined over 300 peer-reviewed publications, found that organic farming resulted in a greater concentration of antioxidants, polyphenols and phenols from the crops (all good things in terms of health) compared to the yield from conventional farming. Antioxidants were found to be 18-69 percent higher in organically grown fruit, vegetables and cereal grains. Pesticide residue was found to be significantly higher in produce conventionally grown.

High-risk crops grown from GM seeds include alfalfa, canola (approx. 90 percent ), corn (approx. 88 percent), cotton (approx. 90 percent), soy (approx. 94 percent) and beets ( approx. 95 percent).

Common ingredients derived from GMO risk crops are amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins and Yeast Products.

Best ways to avoid GMOs as much as possible? Purchase organic, shop the local farmers markets, purchase from farmers practicing sustainable agriculture and participate in community-supported agriculture. More reason to support our local farmers!


Lauren Zimmerman is a registered dietitian originally from Rock Hill, but has made the Old Village home over the past few years. She works in a cardiac rehabilitation center where day to day she teaches a heart healthy diet to her patients through weekly education classes and one-on-one counseling sessions. She lives and breathes healthy eating and enjoys making it practical for those she is helping. Outside of work she enjoys cooking, art, music, bike riding and seeing the ocean as frequently as possible.

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