Tuesday, August 6, 2013

5 Surprising Genetically Modified Foods

August 5, 2013



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By now, you've likely heard about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the controversy over whether they're the answer to world hunger or the devil incarnate. But for right now, let's leave aside that debate and turn to a more basic question: When you go to the supermarket, do you know which foods are most likely to be—or contain ingredients that are—genetically engineered? A handy FAQ:

So what exactly are genetically modified organisms?

GMOs are plants or animals that have undergone a process wherein scientists alter their genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides.

But haven't farmers been selectively breeding crops to get larger harvests for centuries? How is this any different?

Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson has a great answer to this question—but in a nutshell: Yes, farmers throughout history have been raising their plants to achieve certain desired traits such as improved taste, yield or disease resistance. But this kind of breeding still relies on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms, where as genetic engineering involves the addition of foreign genes that would not occur in nature.

Am I eating GMOs?

Probably. Since several common ingredients like corn starch and soy protein are predominantly derived from genetically modified crops, it's pretty hard to avoid GE foods altogether. In fact, GMOs are present in 60 to 70 percent of foods on US supermarket shelves, according to Bill Freese at the Center for Food Safety; the vast majority of processed foods contain GMOs. One major exception is fresh fruits and veggies. The only GM produce you're likely to find is the Hawaiian papaya, a small amount of zucchini and squash, and some sweet corn. No meat, fish and poultry products approved for direct human consumption are bioengineered at this point, however most of the feed for livestock and fish is derived from GE corn, alfalfa, and other biotech grains. Only organic varieties of these animal products are guaranteed GMO-free feed.

So what are some examples of food that are genetically modified?

1. Papayas: In the 1990s, Hawaiian papaya trees were plagued by the ringspot virus which decimated nearly half the crop in the state. In 1998, scientists developed a transgenic fruit called Rainbow papaya which is resistant to the virus. Now 77 percent of the crop grown in Hawaii is genetically engineered (GE).

2. Milk: rGBH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, is a GE variation on a naturally occurring hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. It is banned for milk destined for human consumption in the European Union, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Many milk brands that are rGBH-free label their milk as such, but as much as 40 percent of our dairy products including ice cream and cheese contains the hormone.

3. Corn on the Cob: While 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, most of that crop is used for animal feed or ethanol and much of the rest ends up in processed foods. Sweet corn—the stuff that you steam or grill on the barbecue and eat on the cob—was GMO-free until last year when Monsanto rolled out its first GE harvest of sweet corn. While consumers successfully petitioned Whole Foods and Trader Joes to not carry the variety, Walmart has begun stocking the shelves with it without any label.

4. Squash and zucchini: While the market share of squashes are not GE, approximately 25,000 acres of crookneck, straightneck and zucchinis have been bioengineered to be virus resistant.


5. "All Natural" foods: Be wary of this label if you're trying to avoid GE foods. Right now there is no strict definition of what constitutes a natural food. This could be changing soon as federal court judges recently requested the Food and Drug Administration to determine whether the term can be used to describe foods containing GMOs to help resolve pending class action suits against General Mills, Campbell Soup Co., and the tortilla manufacturer Gruma Corp.

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