There are many things about our children’s future we have yet to know, but do we really want any of them to involve what we put on their plates?
We speak here of three simple letters that are capturing increasing amounts of attention, yet are still misunderstood: GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. You’ve likely seen the letters, but what do they mean, and why should we care?
We care because of the unknowns. Any crop that has been altered for a potential benefit – such as to resist pests or disease, to extend its shelf life or to increase its yield – has undergone a genetic modification. This does not sound like a bad thing. Who wants to eat diseased plants and bugs, anyway? And making more from less seems like good practice – GMOs are in fact essential to improving crops in third-world countries.
However, some GMOs may have unintended side effects that are ripening awareness as well as crops. GMOs, after all, change DNA, which affects the food chain. And a kid’s well-being is linked to that chain.
Genetics: From Cave to Crop
Genetically modifying crops may seem like a new practice, but farmers actually have been altering their fields for quite some time. Some cave paintings may even document it.
Dating way back to prehistoric times, humans were manipulating vegetation and selectively breeding plants to create more robust hybrids. Cave dwellers, for instance, encouraged stronger wheat plants to pollinate each other.
Then in the 1900s, a monk named Gregor Mendel discovered dominant and recessive traits in pea plants and in the process created “classic selection.” With this practice, the seeds of different plants could be crossed to create a more resilient or desirable one.
Why So Much Attention?
In 1992, the FDA declared that genetically modified foods were not “inherently dangerous” and therefore do not require special regulations or labeling. As a result, up to 80 percent of processed foods today contain GMO-sourced ingredients, including corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and the livestock that consume them.
In short, if you live in the United States, you most definitely have eaten GMOs.
Ok, so if everyone has been eating GMOs for many years with seemingly no negative side effects, why is the practice harvesting as much controversy as it is super-strong crops?
Once again, the answer is not in what we know, but what we do not know.
Not Enough Studies – Yet
Scientists have created very complex processes of gene-splicing and crossbreeding crops. These practices are well regulated, but the long-term affects are still up for debate. Of the numerous studies conducted, most are either too small for reliability or are in stages too early to reveal future implications.
The organizations that control these studies ensure us that genetically engineered crops pose no health risks. Maybe they are right, but to many parents, beakers and breakfast simply do not mix.
There also are livelihood concerns – GMOs provide large corporations more control over crop production, potentially putting smaller farmers, including organic growers, at a disadvantage.
To Bug or Debug – Should You Worry?
Whether we trust GMOs and how they affect our kids depends not on the question, but on whom we ask.
As we said, genetically modified crops have been essential in third-world countries – adding beta-carotene to rice to improve eye health, for example. Still, determining the implications of altering a plant’s DNA requires further study.
While many scientists argue the safety of GMOs, others point to nearly two-dozen studies that show harmful side effects from their consumption. A review of 19 animal studies, for instance, pointed to potential harmful effects to the heart, kidneys, liver and other organs. Some opponents claim GMOs can cause new allergies (think of that next time you’re packing lunch).
What’s the Bottom Line?
Genetically modifying crops is an ever-evolving science, and we may not know the long-term implications of for some time. But this we do know: While genetic modification is helpful for some farmers and in poor populations, it may pose health risks to families.
Consuming a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and other foods that are labeled “GMO free,” like Vegy Vida, is most likely your safest bet for a long healthy life.
After all, our kids already put a lot of foreign objects in their mouths. Do we really need to help them to it?