GMO. These days, most people will have a visceral, negative reaction to that acronym. Genetically modified organisms or GMOs, have become a dirty word and something to avoid, even though the FDA, EPA and World Health Organization (WHO) have declared them safe for human consumption. So, is there really something in our food to worry about?
An all-volunteer group of farming women want to help answer questions like these, for consumers like us. Together, they have formed the non-profit organization, CommonGround, with representatives in 14 states and growing.
I first met these women at the kick-off dinner for CommonGround Colorado in May. I was so impressed with them and their zeal to help moms like me become better educated about where our food comes from, that we decided it would be worth getting together more local bloggers to get in on the conversation. Thus, the first Colorado CommonGround luncheon forum was born.
Guests were encouraged to ask questions of Common Ground Colorado’s volunteers, rancher Cindy Frasier, farmer Danell Kalcevic and dairy farmer Jennifer Koolstra. GMOs were just one of the topics.
We don’t all have the time to read and decipher the massive amounts of information and opinions on the topic of GMOs out there, so many people decide “better safe than sorry,” and simply buy organic. But, what if you can’t afford the extra cost of buying organic? Are you putting your family’s health at risk by buying conventionally grown food?
The process of creating GM foods is much like what farmers have been doing for centuries: cross-hybridization. But, advances in biotechnology have made it possible to speed up this process and create plants more resilient to disease, pests and harsh drought conditions.
The benefits of food biotechnology are huge:
- Growing food with GMOs can result in better-tasting fruits and vegetables that stay fresh longer and are naturally resistant to insects. Plant breeding also results in crops better able to withstand the environmental challenges of drought, disease and insect infestations.
- By developing special traits in plants, biotechnology allows for more food to be grown in more places using fewer chemicals and fewer natural resources.
- This increased availability of crops provides significant economic gains to farmers in developing countries.
- An Iowa State University study shows that without biotechnology, global prices would be nearly 10 percent higher for soybeans and 6 percent higher for corn.
- Biotechnology also benefits the environment. A Center for Applied Special Technology report says biotech soy, corn and cotton have decreased soil erosion by 90 percent, preserving 37 million tons of topsoil. Biotech crops also provide a 70 percent reduction in herbicide runoff and an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
- According to USDA, biotech crops may provide enhanced quality traits such as increased levels of beta-carotene in rice to aid in reducing vitamin A deficiencies and improved oil compositions in canola, soybeans and corn. Crops with the ability to grow in salty soils or to better withstand drought conditions are also in the works.
- USDA also says research on potatoes, squash, tomatoes and other crops continues in a similar manner to provide resistance to diseases that otherwise are very difficult to control.
But, the risks may be:
- Introducing allergens and toxins to food.
- Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods.
- Antibiotic resistance.
- Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop.
- Creation of “super” weeds and other environmental risks.
Despite differing opinions on the safety of GMOs, most experts do agree on this: the regulation system overseen by the FDA is flawed. Large biotech companies, like Monsanto who dominate 90% of the market, are allowed to self-police and don’t always voluntarily comply with federal requirements. But, Monsanto maintains that their testing is the most stringent of any food on the market and even the American Medical Association supports their technology.
In California, there will be a vote on November 6th, as to whether GMO foods should be labeled or not (Prop 37). While 60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves contain genetically modified ingredients, most people aren’t even aware that the cereal they eat or the soda they drink contains GMOs.
Considering the amount of misinformation about GMOs out there, it’s no surprise farmers are nervous about how Prop 37 passing might effect their livelihood before consumers are fully educated on the pros and cons of the process. One common misconception is that biotech foods are only grown by large, corporate-owned farms, when in fact 96% of the farms in America – large and small – are multi-generational family-owned and operated. In 2010, less than 1% of farms in America were organic.
In the end, people have a right to know what they’re eating. But, it is also incumbent upon the consumer to become better educated on their choices, whether organic or conventionally grown. So, where do you start? How about by talking with the people who actually grow the food that you and they themselves eat and feed their families?
CommonGround’s goal is to help consumers understand that their food is not grown by a factory, it’s grown by people. Second, they want us to understand and trust the process. Visit them online at FindYourCommonGround.com and CommonGround on Facebook.
For a full recap of all the topics covered at the CommonGround lunch forum, visit DenverParent.net: Finding Common Ground in the Foods We Eat.