“Let thy food by thy medicine” said Hippocrates in an age where food was naturally organically farmed and prepared. How do we follow this most basic law of nature when our food has been genetically modified?
In 1994, genetically modified (GM) foods started populating the grocery aisles across North America. In just under 20 years, GM foods have been incorporated in mostly all processed foods containing corn, wheat, canola and soy. In Canada, GM foods do not have to be labeled, and as a result you have no way of knowing if your food is genetically modified or not (CBC news, 2013). Makes you feel a little powerless doesn’t it?
So let’s back this up a minute. What are Genetically Modified (GM) foods? And why the controversy? Genetically modified foods are organisms that have been genetically altered to give them a new property. The genetic engineering process involves the transfer or removal of specific genes into plant or animal to confer a desirable characteristic. Ultimately the goal is to alter the organisms’ (plant or animal) metabolic function to enhance nutrition, increase resistance to environmental stresses/conditions, and increase resistance to pesticide use (European Commission, 2013; Health Canada, 2013; Konig et al., 2004)
Why the Controversy of GM Foods?
Good intentions of genetically engineered foods do exist believe it or not. For instance, it is now possible to cultivate plants that produce pesticidal proteins themselves, hence reducing pesticide use (ex. Bt Corn*); increase nutrient content of staple food items like rice, therefore preventing vitamin deficiencies (ex. Golden Rice*); and increase crop production to produce more and more food, thus curing famine (ex. Dwarf Wheat*). Innovative biotechnology at its best! …. Right?
But this model of thinking is fairly linear is it not? It is often thought that logically, A+B= Outcome C, however nature does not work in a linear manner. Often time’s more than just one outcome occurs.
In reality, scientists have observed that random or targeted insertion of gene fragments into a plant or animal genome will disrupt normal metabolic function (Liu et al. 2012). We then see secondary effects.
Environmentally these secondary effects include: development of super weeds and superpests resulting in increased use of pesticides, loss of biodiversity, contamination of organic and conventional crops; and harm to vitalorganisms (bees, butterflies, animals, etc that may graze or pollinate these crops). Health risks associated with GM foods include increased potential for allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, and toxicity. These last three factors can translate to: inflammation, digestive concerns, gastritis, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, joint pain, and the list goes on (Halsberger et al. 2003; Pusztai et al. 2003; Smith, 2007). For this reason, one of the biggest controversies that do exist about GM foods is their unproven safety due to these unintended effects (Pusztai et al. 2003; Smith 2007).
Current review of the latest research studies shows some diligence in that new scientific techniques are being developed to detect and assess these secondary effects (Gong et al. 2013; Liu et al. 2012). However, GM foods are still a new biotechnology and the published animal/human studies on toxicity and nutritional wholesomeness of these foods are few and far between.
Are you concerned about these unintended effects? Do you want to know more about GM foods? Do you want to know what you are putting into your body? These are all questions to think about.
Taking Control: Tips on how to be GMO Free
If you choose to be GMO free, there are a few things you can do to ensure your informed choice:
A) Organic foods
Any produce that is certified organic under the Organic Products Regulations cannot use GMOs. To be considered as “organic,” a farmer must protect against GMO contamination. This can be by methods of late planting to ensure that pollen producing flowers bloom at different times then neighboring fields; 8 meter buffer zones to mitigate GMO drift from neighboring fields; using certified organic seeds or GMO free seeds, and documentation for their certifying body (Canadian Organic Growers, 2013). If organic is too expensive for you, choose to buy organic for the specific GM foods in Canada. These include corn, wheat, soy, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa plants, tomatoes, potatoes, sunflower oil, and ready to eat meats (Health Canada, 2013). For more information the Health Canada website has all GM foods available in Canada posted.
B) Avoid top GMO crops in Canada: corn, canola, wheat, soy, tomatoes, potatoes
Read your labels to avoid the top GMO foods in Canada. Note: although these are the GMO foods grown in Canada, many others are imported as GMO, including: lentils, potatoes, rice, squash, and tomatoes.
C) Minimize/avoid the consumption of processed foods.
A lot of processed foods like candy, chips, cookies, chocolate, soup mixes, canned soups, cereals, and baby formulas will have ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, soy/canola oil, wheat flour products; all of which have a high likelihood of being GM.
- Focus on whole foods including plenty of vegetables and fruit. The farther a food is from its natural state the lower the nutritional value.
- Start with 6 portions of vegetables and fruit per day and work up from there.
- Prepare your meals with colour and texture in mind and include new veggies each week.
- Include raw, living foods as either snacks or salads each day.
By shifting your focus to whole foods, there won’t be room for processed foods.
D) Shopping Guides
There are many organizations which provide a GMO free shopping guide. A few examples to look into include the NGOs like Greenpeace, Institute for Responsible Technology, Food Matters and Non GMO shopping guide. Take a look and bring it with you to the grocery store.
E) Talk to your farmers! Ask Questions
When you go to your farmers market or the grocery store read your labels and ask questions. Some questions to consider include:
- Where is your farm located?
- What are your farming practices?
- Where do you source your seeds from? Are they certified organic or GMO free?
- Do you use synthetic pesticides? If not, what farming practices do you do that reduce pesticide use?
- How do you farm your cattle? What kind of living conditions are they in?
- Are you cattle grain fed or grass fed? If grain fed for how long?
- How are your chickens grown? Are they free run? Are they given antibiotics?
In conclusion, my opinion is that GMOs are inconclusive at the moment. There is not enough research or evidence which states its full benefits OR its LONG TERM toxicity, nutritional, allergenic effects, and overall impact on health and disease. Science still needs to balance substantial safety evidence with a risk assessment. Despite this, by using some of the recommendations stated above, one can still make good food choices and follow Hippocrates philosophy of “food as thy medicine.” So in the meantime, I encourage you to stay informed, make great food choices and voice your opinion because your opinion matters.
Broeders, SRM., DeKeersmaecker, SC., Roosens, NHC. How to deal with the upcoming challenges in GMO detection in food and feed. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotenchnology. 2012
Canadian Organic Growers. Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations. Retrieved 2013 from: http://www.cog.ca/about_organics/organic-standards-and-regulations/
CBC News. Genetically modified foods: a primer. Retrieved 2013 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/04/11/tech-genetically-modified-foods-primer.html
European Commission. Genetically Modified Foods. Retrieved 2013 from: http://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/gmo/index_en.htm
Gong, CY., Wang, T. Proteomic evaluation of genetically modified crops: current status and challenges. Fronteirs in Plant Science 4(41); March 2013
Haslberger, A., Codex guidelines for GM foods include the analysis of unintended effects. Nature Biotechnology 21(7); July 2003.
Health Canada. The Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods. Retrieved 2013 from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/sr-sr/pubs/biotech/reg_gen_mod-eng.php
Konig, A., Cockburn, A., Crevel, RWR., et al. Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified crops. Food and Chemical Toxicology 42: 1047-1088, 2004
Liu, Z., Li, Y., Zhao, J., Chen, X., et al. Differentially expressed genes distributed over chromosomes and implicated in certain biological processes for site insertion genetically modified rice kemingdao. International Journal of Biological Sciences. 8(7); 953-963 (2012).
Martinelli, L., Karbarz, M., Siili, H. Science, safety, and trust: the case of transgenic food. Croat Med J. 54: 91-96 (2013).
Pusztai, A., Bardocz, SWB., Ewen. Genetically Modified Foods: Potential Human Health Effects. CAB International. Food Safety: Contaminants and Toxins. 347-372, 2003
Smith, J.M. Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods. 2007