As you probably already know, a GMO is a genetically modified organism. Basically, you take an ordinary garden-variety product - say a tomato – and add new genetic material to it in order to make it taste better, increase crop yields, be resistant to pests without the use of pesticides or perhaps even make it ripen more quickly. It all sounds fairly innocent, but then words like cross pollination, “mutant” plants and even more frightening ones like “terminator technology” start to creep in and we all get very nervous indeed. There are serious concerns that genetically modified crops could threaten biodiversity and even our health.
In the United Kingdom where I live most people are pretty wary of foods that have been genetically modified and have been from the very beginning. GM foods are considered not only bad for you, but unethical as well. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have all agreed to make themselves GM free zones, with Dublin declaring the Republic of Ireland wish to do the same thing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London are hedging their bets, saying they prefer “to assess each application for GM crops on its merits without blanket approval or rejection” and European Union regulations require that any genetically modified product marketed for sale must be judged “not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers and not to be of less nutritional value than the foods they are intended to replace”. One good thing though, if a product here contains anything genetically modified, it has to be labeled as such.
Up until recently, world opinion was pretty divided on GM crops. The media have played a huge role in this, so much so that where you lived could really influence your opinion.
I spent a lot of time in the North America between 2004 and 2007 looking after my parents in the last years of their lives. I travelled back and forth to Canada at least five or six times a year and in addition there were regular trips to the US. I shopped and cooked in both countries and the question of looking to avoid GM foods never really arose. It would have been impossible as there was no labeling and to be honest, at that point I not only had other things on my mind, but frankly I couldn’t see why properly managed, genetic modification might not be a very good thing indeed. Interestingly enough, at that time you rarely saw the words “genetically modified” in the North American press – instead you saw the words “genetically enhanced”. My goodness that sounded better. Enhanced is a good thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all want things to be enhanced and improved? Would I not prefer my family eat foods that have less pesticides on them? Do I not want food that both tastes and keeps better? No wonder the majority of public opinion was totally different there, and as someone who likes to look on the bright side, no wonder I was influenced it by it.
Thankfully things have changed a lot in the years since then. Opinions in North America are more divided and so is mine. Monsanto’s huge mistake of researching and developing seed that does not actually bear more seed for planting (often referred to as “suicide seed”) raised everyone’s hackles worldwide. Then it was discovered that monarch butterfly caterpillars that ate pollen from genetically modified crops were dying in large numbers. Not long after that, millions of honeybees began to disappear without explanation. It made a lot of people, including me, wonder if messing with the food chain was really such a good thing. While there is not any proof genetically modified crops caused the disappearance of the bees, there is no way yet of proving it doesn’t contribute to it either. And if GM crops are killing insects, maybe we ought to look at what they might be doing to us, not to mention what would happen to our food chain if we lose our honeybees, the main source of crop pollination worldwide.
Chances are that many of us have eaten and are eating more genetically modified products than we imagine. Two of the main genetically modified crops grown are corn and soybeans. Animal feed used to nourish the animals we eat can contain both of these products - which we also eat both as an end products in themselves, in vegetable oils and as part of more foodstuffs that you would imagine. If you look at the ingredients list on virtually any package of prepared food, chances are you are going to find some soy or corn derivative. Plus there is a risk that if genetically modified crops are grown close enough to regular or organic crops, that pollen may be transferred from the GM crops to the other crops unintentionally. The only limit is how far the wind can blow – and that is a pretty scary thought.
It is definitely time for labeling of GM products and products containing them like we have in the UK worldwide – and for that matter, labeling here could still be made clearer. But what else can one do on an individual scale? I’m hardly an eco-warrior, but I do care deeply about food, the environment and what and how my family – and my readers – eat. So I do everything I can to make it unnecessary for me to buy things that are genetically modified. I try to choose organic vegetables, fruit and meat wherever possible, always buy free range eggs, refuse to buy intensively farmed meat or fish, grow some of my own vegetables in the summer and never use pesticides of any kind in my garden (flowers or vegetables). I also make a concerted effort to buy only what I need and campaign for and advocate better, clearer labeling on packaged products. Most of all though, I try to stay informed and open-minded.
Until we know the true environmental, economic and human cost of genetically engineering our crops, we need to proceed with caution both individually and collectively. If genetic modification can help us to feed the world, reduce pesticide use, improve nutrition and grow foods in inhospitable environments without damaging the world’s eco-structure, human health or fledgling economies, then it could be a wonderful thing indeed. The question is, is that really possible? Sadly, I’m afraid the answer to that thorny question is probably no.