Genetically Engineered Foods Defined

Genetic engineering is quite a genius concept .  Selecting desirable genes from one organism and inserting them into another, to produce those desirable traits in a new organism and usually its offspring.  It sounds like science fiction.  It sounds like a thing of the future.  Quite the opposite.  It’s in full swing.  And has been for some time now.  It’s in your grocery store, at your favorite restaurant, and almost certainly in your pantry.

Genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs are rapidly becoming a household name.  But that doesn’t mean everyone understands what they’re all about.  Today I’ll do my best to provide a quick lesson so you can start using the lingo like an expert.  Genetic engineering as a science has been in practice since 1973, shortly after DNA was discovered and its mechanisms understood.  It began being used commercially as early as 1976.  The concept is not new though – humans have been practicing genetic engineering through selective breeding since 8000-12,000 BC.  What started with the artificial selection of domesticated dogs and livestock has come a long, long way.

Today, the practice has gained national attention thanks to its widespread use in food crops.  Here too, there’s been an evolution of the technology and its seemingly endless uses.  The technology was first intended to produce drought resistant crops, advertising the benefit of feeding people in third world countries who would otherwise have limited access to such crops.  Later Monsanto worked on developing a soybean plant that was genetically modified to be resistant to Round-Up weed-killer.  The idea here is that farmers can now spray crops of soybeans with Round-Up and every living plant will perish within hours, except of course the “Round-Up Ready” soybean.

Round-Up Ready crops are now numerous.  Many of our food crops can be sprayed with herbicide and the food plants will survive where others cannot.  The only problem is that nature evolves and adapts faster than our science, and there are unintended consequences.  As other plants learn to survive despite the application of Round-Up, the common solution is to apply more.  And more.  And more.  And that should work.  For now.

So now we face some of the highest applications of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.  I guess it’s a good time to be in the Round-Up business, thanks to genetic engineering, right?  Oh that’s right,  Monsanto IS the Round-Up business AND the leading genetic engineering pioneer.  What luck!

Money grabbing self-serving accusations aside, what about the safety of this stuff?  And what is it used for?  Well fortunately, for now, most GMOs are used in processed foods.  I say fortunately because you can still avoid a lot of it by avoiding processed foods.  Eating most fruits and vegetables directly, without processing them with chemicals, additives, and preservatives will have a great protective effect from GMOs as well as all of the aforementioned junk.  A huge segment of GMO crops also goes to feed farmed animals.  No one really knows the full implications of eating animals that have eaten GMOs, but we do know there are a great number of reasons to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains directly instead of filtering the nutrients through the animals.

So let’s say you want to start keeping an eye out for GMO foods, and maybe you want to start avoiding them.  While the jury may still be out on whether that’s necessary or not, as it stands today, you don’t really have a choice.  That is, genetically modified foods do not have to be labeled.  At all.  If you feel like you should have a choice whether to consume GMOs or not, start tuning in to this debate.  It’s relevant to your health, your freedom to eat as you choose, and your right to be an informed consumer.

For more on Genetically Modified Organisms, check out Food Inc.  It’s a great documentary that discusses this issue of the food supply in great detail.  Also stay tuned for the follow-up blog post.

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