In November 2015, salmon was all over the global headlines. But it wasn’t for the fish’s high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, high-quality protein. It was because, for the first time in history, a genetically engineered animal — salmon, in this case — was given the OK for sale in America.
After battling for almost two decades to get Frankenfish into supermarket freezers, AquaBounty Technologies, the biotech firm behind the genetically altered salmon, was granted approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, considered safe for human consumption and the environment. The first batch of “Frankenfish” will hit stores in about a year, the first genetically modified animal to make its appearance.
A lot of people are wondering why it matters. After all, if the fish has been deemed safe to eat and won’t hurt the environment, what’s the problem in having more fish available for consumption, perhaps even driving down prices in the process and making it a more accessible food for everyone?
As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately, genetically engineered salmon is only the latest in a growing reliance of GMO (genetically modified organisms) as food. And while GMO plant-based foods, like corn and soy are bad enough, the introduction of engineered animals means we’ve reached a critical juncture in how we relate to our food and the food supply.
What are GMOs?
But first, let’s backtrack. What are GMOs, anyway?
GMOs are plants or animals that have had their genes modified by scientists. DNA from an unrelated species is introduced so the plant or animal can have a specific characteristic or desired trait, like resistance against insects or pesticide tolerance.
And while farmers have been modifying genes for centuries — crossbreeding plants, for instance — the traditional method works with plants of the same or similar species. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, adds genes from viruses, bacteria, or even animals that would not occur in nature.
Most of our ancestors — even our grandparents — probably wouldn’t understand the fuss about GMOs. That’s because, until the 1970s, GMOs didn’t exist.
Modern genetic modifications began in the 1970s, when two scientists created the first successful genetically engineered organism. (1) At the Asilomar Conference in 1975, a group of scientists, lawyers, and government experts from around the world came together and established guidelines for the safe use of GMOs, allowing scientists to move forward with GMO research globally.
In 1980, the first GMO patent was issued. In a 5-to-4 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that scientists from General Electric could patent bacteria, a first for a living organism. Then in 1982 genetically engineered insulin was released. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the first GMO foods hit markets.
The Flavr Savr tomato was the first GMO food crop designed and approved for commercial production. (2) And while the tomato was designed to last longer than normal on store shelves, Flavr Savr’s shelf life ended up being relatively short; it was pulled from production just a few years later. But Flavr Savr paved the way for other GMO crops and varieties.
Today, in Canada, four GMO crops are grown: canola, corn, soy, and sugar beet. Though it’s a small amount of crops, the prevalence of GMOs is high. It’s estimated that in Canada, 95 percent of canola and sugar beets, 80 percent of corn, and 66 percent of the soy grown in country come from GMO crops. (3)
Where are GMOs?
Today, most GMO plants are used as ingredients that are found in other food products. (4) GMOs are in almost all processed foods. From cornstarch in soups to canola oil in mayonnaise or soy in milk, it’s hard to escape GMOs’ grip when buying packaged products.
Fresh fruits and veggies, interestingly enough, are usually GMO-free, with the exception of Hawaiian papaya, some types of squash, and sweet corn.
No GMO meat or poultry is approved for human consumption yet, though AquaBounty’s approval might encourage innovation in those areas.
It’s important to remember that most of the feed for livestock and fish is derived from GMO crops. Even though they’re not genetically engineered, the animals’ food is and as the saying goes, we are what we eat eats. If you’re eating non-organic meat, you’re likely ingesting GMOs.
What’s the problem with GMOs?
Unfortunately, there are several issues with GMOs even if they are regulated by the government. For starters, introducing foreign DNA to plants and animals can change them in ways that make them harmful for our bodies to eat. Some people believe that GMO foods can cause or exacerbate allergic reactions in people.
Scientists who do independent studies on GMO crops are required to receive permission from the corporations before publishing. And because we’ve only been eating GMO foods for about 20 years, it’s still fairly early to know what the long-term effects of these ingredients are or how they’ll affect future generations.
Additionally, while GMO advocates maintain that GMO crops are the same or better than traditionally grown ones, studies are proving otherwise. One review, for instance, found that genetically modified salmon, like the approved AquaBounty fish, increases speed and growth, allowing the salmon to reach full size sooner.
But it also changed other traits. Genetically engineered fish ate more food and spent more time closer to the water’s surface than their non-GM counterparts. They also don’t associate in groups with other fish and have a weakened immune system. (5) Would these different traits allow the Frankenfish to wipe out wild salmon while also leaving them more defenseless against other prey? It’s unclear — but to say that altering animals in this way doesn’t change them is false.
Introducing GMO species can also have unanticipated repercussions. For example, when Monsanto, one of the biggest biotech firms, originally released its super weed killer Roundup, it needed a way to let farmers indiscriminately spray their fields to get rid of pests without harming crops. The company released Roundup Ready crops, GMO-enhanced seeds that could resist the weed killer.
At first, the product seemed like a miracle. Farmers could douse their fields, eliminating plant-eating pests, while crops thrived. Until Roundup-resistant weeds began sprouting. These “superweeds” have adapted to the pesticide, allowing them to grow unimpeded.
The solution to combat the weeds is to use more pesticides and chemicals to kill them off. Unfortunately, these toxins often wind up in our food supply. High levels of glyphosate residue have been found in GMO crops (6). That’s nothing to sniff at, either.
In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Reminder: a carcinogen is an environmental factor that can lead to cancer by changing a cell’s DNA or causing other changes within the body that alter genes.
Check out my interview with Jeffrey Smith (executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology) and Rachel Parent (the founder of Kids Right to Know). While Jeffrey and Rachel were visiting my hometown of London, Canada to present to 400 citizens on GMOs, we conducted this interview. Although it is no surprise that I align with the non-GMO movement, I was not easy on Jeffrey or Rachel during this! interview. I hit them up with many of the questions (which, I am sure you face today by doubters of natural health practices), including:
- Don’t we need GMOs to feed the planet?
- Can’t GMOs help us use fewer pesticides in the long run?
- Isn’t GMO food actually more nutritious because of the nutrients we can force these foods to produce?
- Isn’t the practice of genetic engineering quite an exact science?
You may be surprised to hear their answers!
How are GMOs regulated?
Unfortunately, avoiding GMO foods isn’t so easy. That’s because in the U.S. and Canada, foods made with GMO ingredients are not required to be labeled. In the U.S., labeling isn’t required even though 95 percent of the population believes the federal government should require labeling.
That’s a big difference from our more skeptical EU neighbors.
In the European Union, where GMO labeling is required even if genetically modified content can’t be found in the final product, lawmakers adhere to the freedom of choice, where consumers should have the right to reject GMO products.
And even bigger changes there are coming: thanks to new rules allowing countries to reject GMOs outright, half of the EU’s member nations have opted out of growing GMO crops.
How can you avoid GMOs?
Although government-mandated GMO labeling doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon, there are ways to reduce your risk of eating engineered food.
The first is by choosing organic foods. As a rule, any food that is certified organic is prohibited from having GMO ingredients, including the animal’s feed or the seeds. While there’s still a very slight chance that an item might contain a GMO ingredient, it’s as close to a guarantee as you can get. Additionally, organic foods cannot be grown with certain types of pesticides, so you’ll reduce your overall risk as well. Bonus: Roundup, the glyphosate-based pesticide, is prohibited from being used on organic crops.
You can also look for the Non-GMO label by the Non-GMO Project, which has its own independent verification process for ensuring products are GMO-free. And some stores, like Whole Foods, are forcing brands’ hands. By 2018, all GMO products sold in U.S. and Canadian stores must indicate if they contain GMO ingredients. Beware, however, of foods claiming to be “natural.” There is currently no government-regulated definition of what constitutes a “natural” food and whether or not it contains GMOs.
Buying local is also a terrific option. Getting your produce and meats from farmers’ markets gives you the opportunity to interact with your farmer in a way that’s impossible when shopping at a large supermarket. You can ask questions about how the food was grown, what type of feed the animals were given, and more.
Remember, too, that being certified organic is a costly process that can be prohibitive for smaller farms, even if they follow the same general principles; that’s why it’s so great to be able to speak directly with your farmer!
Finally, remember that as the consumer, you have the power to vote with your dollars. Chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill and brands like Cheerios and The Campbell Soup Company are already saying “no” to GMOs because of consumer demand. Let your favorite stores know that you prefer they carry a wider variety of non-GMO products and restrain from stocking items like AquaBounty salmon. While it might not be easy, we can work together to ensure GMOs don’t remain as pervasive in our foods as they are now.