Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are potentially one of the most misunderstood topics within our food system!
In fact, a lot of people who say they are against them, might actually not be too sure why it is that they feel this way! On the other hand, there are also a lot of people who believe since they are approved for use, they are 100% safe and do not need to be questioned.
In this blog post I’m going to break down for you exactly what GMOs are, what crops are most commonly genetically modified, why they are controversial and how GMOs might actually be contributing to your anxiety!
What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organisms are animals, plants, or microbes, that have been inserted with a ‘desirable gene’ of a completely different organism, through genetic engineering or transgenic technology. (1)
Using specific genetic modification, combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature are created.
It’s important to note that genetic modification is different than ‘cross breeding‘ which can occur naturally in nature, and results in the mating of two pure breeds.
On the other hand, genetic modification of a given organism is the alteration of its genetic material and does NOT happen in nature. (2)
What Crops are Commonly Genetically Modified?
Below is the list of some of the most commonly genetically modified crops and the main reasons as to why they are genetically modified:
- Alfalfa: Roundup/ glyphosate resistant
- Canola: Roundup/ glyphosate resistant
- Corn (not popcorn): resist pests or Roundup/ glyphosate resistant
- Cotton: Roundup/ glyphosate resistant
- Papaya: Resistant to virus
- Soy: Roundup/ glyphosate resistant. Some say it’s also to improve the quality of soybean oil so it doesn’t go rancid (3)
- Sugar Beet: Roundup/ glyphosate resistant
- Zucchini and yellow summer squash: Resistant to virus
As you can see, the top genetically modified crops are most often modified to be able to withstand spraying of glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup – the worlds most commonly used herbicide.
There are however, certain crops that are genetically modified for other reasons. For example papaya and certain types of squash are modified to be resistant to certain types of viruses, which can risk taking out entire crops.
Below are a few other common GMOs and the reasons as to why they are modified:
- Salmon: to mature faster for consumption – 18 months instead of 3 years
- Apples (Arctic Apples): to not brown so quickly after cutting
- Rice (‘Golden Rice’): to increase the Vitamin A content of rice. This crop has been intended for use in developing countries who struggle with severe Vitamin A deficiencies (read point #8 below)
Why are GMOs Controversial?
There are many different reasons as to why GMOs continue to be a controversial topic, surrounding their widespread entry onto the market in the 1990’s.
Why Are GMO’s Controversial?
- They are not found naturally in nature!
The minute humans start creating new species, beyond the natural world, we are attempting to alter things that were potentially never meant to be altered. This is unsettling for a lot of people who believe humans are over stepping their boundaries by interrupting nature in this way.
- In Canada and the U.S.A. GMO labelling is not required.
This takes away a lot of the transparency within our food system, as many people feel as though they should have the right to know if their food has been genetically modified or not. However, the government has refused to do so, despite polls ranging from 88-91% of Canadians saying they want GMOs to be labelled! (4)
- The longterm health impacts are unknown:
Although governing bodies have approved GMOs on the understanding that there are no negative short term health effects, the long term health effects (including inter-generational impacts) are unknown (1). Not only this, the majority of studies that claim GMOs to be safe are funded by the biotech companies who profit from them. (5) In the recent years various cancers, allergies, reproductive and auto immune conditions have become more prevalent, and some believe this could be a potential link to the prevalence of GMOs (6).
- GMO seeds are patented by large corporations. Farmers are not allowed to ‘seed save’ GMO seeds meaning they must purchase them from these large corporations at a high cost, year after year. Farmers are often forced into reliance on heavy chemical inputs and a certain way of industrialized farming by these corporations through the use of genetically modified seeds (7). In many ways, GMO seeds take away the food sovereignty of very important peasant farmers (1) and act as a lucrative profit driven business for large agri-tech corporations.
- 80% of GMOs allow for heavy spraying of glyphosate and other herbicides!* As you saw above, one of the most common reasons for a crop to be genetically modified is for it to be ‘Roundup Ready.’ In fact, more than 80% of all genetically modified crops are engineered for herbicide tolerance (1). This means that a given GMO crop can withstand high levels of direct spraying of glyphosate without major damage, unlike its non GMO counterpart. In fact, the use of herbicides has increased 16 fold since GMOs were first introduced to the market in the mid 1990’s (8).
- “Super weeds” and “superbugs” have become a problem thanks to herbicide tolerant GMO seeds. Super weeds and bugs have been created through cross breeding between naturally occuring weeds and GMO seeds. These super weeds/bugs become resistant to glyphosate and other pesticides – risking farmers to look for even more severe chemicals to get rid of them. (12)
- The majority of GMOs feed animals (not humans): yes – it’s true! The most common genetically modified crops such as soy, corn, and alfalfa are not used to feed humans, they’re used to feed factory farmed animals, that humans go on to eat. In fact, 72% of GMO corn and 60% of GMO soy are used for livestock feed (13). While many people believe that GMOs are necessary to feed the world – this is simply not the case!
- Genetically Modified ‘Golden Rice’ was a complete fail: there were numerous reasons as to why genetically modified ‘Golden Rice’ (created to eradicate vitamin A deficiencies in various developing countries) was a fail.
For starters, the vitamin A content of golden rice was found to be too low to actually help correct deficiencies. (14)
Secondly, the true incentives behind Golden Rice have been highly criticized. Green Peace states, “Golden Rice obscures fundamental issues of societal values—in this case, poverty and control over resources—and is a techno-fix imposed by corporations and scientists without consulting recipients about whether they want it or not….the true purpose of Golden Rice is to convince people to accept genetically modified foods….” (16)
It has also been noted that the individual-crop approach of GE ‘Golden Rice’ to help eradicate Vitamin A deficiency could actually have the potential to worsen malnutrition. It encourages people to include more rice in their diet rather than finding solutions that increase people’s access to a diverse diet of fruits and vegetables that naturally contain Vitamin A. (17)
Not only this, but rice is believed to be a very important traditional crop in many Asian cultures, with over 100, 000 different heritage varieties growing in places such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. A man modified version of this beloved crop threatens to interfere with the social and cultural significance of it! (18)
*Important Note on Point 5: allowing for excessive spraying of glyphosate is problematic for numerous reasons. Firstly, glyphosate is highly toxic for our planet leading to soil degradation, decreases in bio diversity, causes harm to important pollinators, contaminates water systems, and so much more (9). Not only this, but in March 2015 the world health organization stated that glyphosate is a ‘probable carcinogen’ and there have been numerous links to cancers and other health conditions because of this toxic chemical (10) leading to huge law suits for the company, Bayer who now owns glyphosate.
How Could GMOs be Linked to Anxiety?
‘Roundup Ready’ GMOs such as soy, corn, and sugar beet could contribute to anxiety, as these foods are sprayed with extremely high concentrations of glyphosate. Glyphosate kills the important bacteria which make up our gut and entire microbiomes. The healthy bacteria in our guts, go on to help produce mood regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and also act on GABA receptors in the brain. However, when foods containing high levels of glyphosate are consumed (such as GMOs), the important bacteria in the gut can be damaged, leading to low production of these important mood regulating neurotransmitters.
In fact, a 2018 study done on mice, reported that both sub chronic & chronic (long term) exposure to glyphosate significantly increased anxiety & depression like behaviours. (11)
I’ve outlined the relationship between glyphosate and anxiety along with other health conditions in great depth in this post here, in case you’re curious to learn more!
Not only do GMOs allow for much higher amounts of glyphosate spraying, which in turn can interfere with our neurotransmitter production – one of the other main concerns with them, is that we simply do not know the long term effects on our bodies! (1)
In my humble opinion, because GMOs do not occur naturally in nature, therefore they risk acting like a foreign invader in our body. As someone prone to anxiety, I do my best to get as connected to the earth as possible through the foods I eat. For this reason (among many others), I choose to avoid GMOs at all costs!
I hope you learned lots from this article and feel informed about making your own decision surrounding genetically modified foods. If you have any questions – please don’t hesitate to reach out to me 🙂