GMO: boon or bane

As the number of GMOs in the offing, for commercial use, as well as the talk about increasing awareness about the pitfalls of GMO (genetically modified organism) use, are both on the rise, one wonders which side of the fence is a safer place to be. One of the cases for eating organically grown food is to escape the dangers of GM (genetically modified) food that have been known to potentially be responsible for the unprecedented spike in all food allergies and numerous other health issues that have become rampant “lifestyle” diseases in present day. According to the US CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) peanut allergy is now the leading cause of anaphylactic shock. The prevalence of this allergy quadrupled from 0.4 percent in 1997 to more than 2 percent in 2010. This 2017 study surveyed over 3000 citizens of the USA, and found a significant improvement in a range of health conditions including digestive issues, low energy, food allergies, joint pain, gluten sensitivity, eczema and auto-immune diseases, when participants either switched to a non-GMO diet, and in some cases even just reduced the quantity of GMO foods consumed.

Ironically enough, GM foods contain specially inserted genes of  carefully selected species into their DNA. The movement began with the intention to develop foods that could alleviate certain disorders and diseases by modifying the properties of these foods that trigger issues for some. But that was just the beginning. A major reason for an ongoing interest and continued push in developing more GM foods is their increased shelf life, which opens up a whole range of business potential.

The push for continued use of GM seeds and produce is an entirely economic one, as they are very versatile when used in all kinds of processed foods that require long shelf life. However, in the absence of a strong regulatory board to keep the quality and composition of GM seeds in check, and a market replete with producers willing to compromise the quality of the outcome and produce, it is difficult to assess which metabolites of GM food will cause potential harm when consumed. And that is only the producers of raw material.

Manufacturers who use GM ingredients to produce packaged food that costs less to make and lasts longer are not always required by law to state the exact contents and composition of everything that has gone into the making of the food. This poses a host of issues for the consumer, who may inadvertently subject themselves to food that could be problematic. In recent time, several health issues such as antibiotic-resistance and food allergies amongst others have been linked to strains of GMOs present in much of the food we grow and consume.

The fundamental premise is that GM food is injected with new strains of proteins, and the testing mechanisms for these new organisms dont allow for any way to conclusively know how they will metabolise or react on consumption. Until they are actually consumed, in large quantities by large groups of people, that is. Therefore its near impossible to tell which of these could also trigger allergic reactions, unless enough time has passed and there is a noticeable spike in cases of allergy outbreak.

It was only in the 1990s when soybeans modified with a gene taken from the Brazilnut in an effort to produce a healthier variant were introduced that the first instances of severe allergic reactions were witnessed. This form of soybean never went on to be marketed. But the principle remains the same and several other GM foods can, for the same reasons, still carry the risk of causing allergies. Even in cases where none existed. Other forms of GM soy continue to be rampantly used in a range of processed foods. This apart, a whole host of GM crops currently form much of the staple sources of food we consume. Today, there are eleven GM food crops widely circulated and grown for commercial use. Six very well-known crops among these include soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa, all consumed by humans and animals alike. Products like oils and sugars sometimes use raw materials like GM-cottonseed and GM-canola or GM-sugar beets, which alters the effects of their consumption too.

Aside from the genetic modification itself that is known to cause a host of health issues, there is also the aspect of genetically engineered herbicide tolerance to enable crops to withstand high dosage spraying of weedicides, which contain the active ingredient Glyphosate. The US Environmental Protection Agency states low toxicity of this ingredient when used in controlled amounts. However, new studies have emerged that show the presence of “inert” ingredients — including “solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides” that could have potentially harmful effects. When used in high amounts, on GM crops, the compounded effect is questionable. According to the piece linked above, “Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

A lot of the processed food and other quick-fix solutions that are fast replacing the slow food we would traditionally eat, is likely composed of some form of GM food or another. It’s crucial to be aware of what we’re putting in our body. We are what we eat, after all. And the bio-chemical composition of everything we consume has long-term effects on the way our bodies react and perform essential functions.

One way or another, it is beginning to look like a return to sustainable agriculture – one that takes into account the health of the end consumer as well as the environment and every touch point in between – is possibly one of the most accessible ways to fight the ill-effects of the GM food. Yes, it means we’ll have to make certain lifestyle changes – get involved with what goes into our food, engage with our sources, prepare handmade, homemade meals – but also invest in the a bigger fight to maintain soil fertility, overall ecological balance and nourish the environment. This is the only way to return to truly cleaner produce that is more balanced in nutritional value. Food that is designed to nourish you, rather than sit on a shelf.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse