What's the big deal about genetically modified organisms? It's a great question, and one to which nobody yet has a complete answer. But Jeffrey Smith, Executive Director at the Institute for Responsible Technology and a leading consumer advocate for non-GMO foods, has done a yeoman's job of compiling initial research suggesting plenty of reasons for concern—including possible side effects such as allergies, antibiotic resistance, and nutritional problems, especially in children, whose smaller, developing bodies are more vulnerable.

We talked to Smith recently about why American consumers should be concerned about GM foods' stealth takeover of many of our staple food crops (mostly soy, corn, canola, cotton, and sugar beets— and what to do about it.

There's no better time to take action, he said. October is the first ever Non-GMO Month, and 10.10.10 is nationwide Non-GMO Day. Non-GMO tipping point: If just 5 percent of U.S. consumers raise their voices against GMOs, Smith says, food manufacturers will start pulling GM ingredients from products. So don't wait; speak out now!

What are GMOs?

An acronym for genetically modified organism; also known as genetically engineered (GE) foods. To create a GMO, scientists inject a host organism (a plant) with a foreign gene that will help it resist pesticides, pests, or freezing. Scientists also inject a virus or bacteria to encourage the foreign gene's invasion and an antibiotic marker gene to determine if the process worked. Debate over the safety of GMOs continues.

How can I avoid GMOs?

Nearly 90 million consumers are concerned about GMOs, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, yet most people don't know how to avoid them because the United States doesn't require GMOs to be labeled. Check out these 4 simple tips to avoiding GMOs, from the Non-GMO Shopping Guide:

  • Buy Organic. The USDA Organic certification prohibits GMOs.
  • Look for "Non-GMO" Labels. But remember: You won't just be looking for one. There are dozens of labels out there, says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. According to a Nielsen report, GMO-free was the fastest growing health and wellness claim in 2009.
  • Avoid At-Risk Ingredients. These include corn (corn flour, meal, oil, starch, gluten, and syrups; sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose, and glucose; and modified food starch), soybeans (soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate, and isoflavone, vegetable oil, and vegetable protein), canola oil (also called rapeseed oil), cottonseed, and sugar (avoid anything not listed as 100 percent cane sugar, as well as aspartame).
  • Buy Products Listed in the Non-GMO Shopping Guide Check out the guide here.

 

The kernel of the issue to many concerned U.S. consumers is: If we don't yet know if GM foods are safe to eat—or if GM food crops (or the latest: GM salmon!) are safe to unleash into Nature's complex open system—why would they be allowed suddenly to take over vast areas of U.S. farmland, grocery shelves, and restaurant menus?

Although clearly labeled (and sometimes banned) in Europe and elsewhere, the U.S. government has allowed GM foods to go unlabelled— and GM ingredients (mostly soy, corn, canola, cottonseed, and beet sugar) are now in most U.S. packaged foods. (USDA Organic regulations don't allow GM ingredients, but as more GM crops are grown, chances increase for contamination in the fields, transport, or processing.)

Health effects of eating GM foods are not monitored, but initial studies have raised concerns about unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, antibiotic resistance, and nutritional problems.

What are the possible health risks of GMOs?

  • A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences showed that three genetically modified varieties of Monsanto corn could potentially be toxic to the kidneys and liver.
  • According to a study from the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, the herbicide Roundup, commonly used on genetically modified soy, could be toxic to fetuses. A similar French study shows Roundup causes human placental cell death.
  • A long-term Austrian study from 2008 showed that genetically modified (GM) corn affects reproductive health in mice. A 2008 Italian study showed GM corn affects the immune systems of mice.
  • Some research suggests GM cotton could contribute to allergies.
     

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