Reading a label these days does not always ensure that you know exactly what you are eating. There has been a big change in the way our food is being produced – specifically genetic modification of produce. Genetically modified foods or GMOs can be found in all sorts of packaged, processed and non-organic foods and furthermore, are not required to be labeled in Canada. This is generating uproar amongst environmental and health groups for good reason.
Genetic modification is a DNA-based technology that enables scientists to change plants or animals at a molecular level by inserting DNA segments from one organism into another. This process allows the transfer of genes between different and unrelated species that would never normally be matched. Genetically engineered or GE is another term used interchangeably with GMO to describe produce that has been altered at a DNA level.
Genetically modified organisms were introduced into the food chain in 1996 by Monsanto, a multinational biotech and seed company. They were first produced to enable farmers to yield a larger crop with less impact from insects, insecticides and weather. Genetic modification technology allows the seed companies to incorporate positive genetic traits into their produce through isolated genes. For example, cold water fish genes have been inserted into a tomato gene. This modification has allowed the new organism to acquire the ability to be resistant to the cold.
Although farmers have moved genes around in the past, it was always done through breeding methods which are controlled by the plants’ or animals’ systems and more importantly, kept within the same kingdom.
There are four main GM crops grown in Canada to date – corn, canola, soy and smaller amounts of white sugar beets. In fact, over half of Canada’s corn and soy crops are genetically modified. Most of these crops are used in processed foods but can also make it into the food chain by being fed to dairy cows, poultry or livestock. A variety of genetically modified sweet corn is being sold as produce by farmers in Ontario and some squash and zucchini from the US is available as well. Yet there is no Canadian government regulatory body which enforces GMO disclosure.
The issue with GM produce is that we do not know enough about it at this point to fully understand the future impacts that it may have on our health. What we do know is that through genetic manipulation, there could be new allergens created as our bodies have not come into contact with the foreign proteins in these new – novel – foods.
Some animal studies have pointed to liver and kidney problems. It has also been suggested that this foreign DNA may be able to survive in our intestinal system indefinitely and could contribute to health disorders. Many of these studies seem to point to negative results involving the long term safety and nutrition of GM produce. But the bottom line is that we just do not know for sure and our government has not taken an active stance.
There are some steps that you can take if you feel that you want to reduce your exposure to genetically modified foods. Avoid processed and packaged foods made from canola, corn and soy. Purchase organic eggs, dairy and meat whenever possible. And use sugar cane rather than sugar beets, which are often genetically modified. Only certified organic foods are guaranteed to be GMO-free, and they are the best choice whenever possible.
To obtain further information about genetically modified organisms including study data, excellent resources include the book Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey Smith or the very informative gmwatch.org website. For those who prefer to view a documentary, The World According to Monsanto is a real eye opener and worth seeing.
It is essential that our government join the 40 other countries in the world that have mandated the labeling of GMO products. Whether you are concerned about genetically modified foods or not, you have the right to know what you are eating and how it was produced. This is an issue of choice.
Sheila Ream, CNP, is a Certified Nutritionist in the Beach. She can be reached at email@example.com