GMO stands for "genetically modified organism" and denotes any organism, most often food crops, which has been genetically modified to make them resistant to disease, spoilage, pests, and pesticides. Scientists accomplish this by inserting genes from other organisms.
Many people are reluctant to consume GMO foods because they believe that these foods aren't safe to eat. If you're one of them, you won't be too happy to hear that you've probably been eating many GMO foods without even realizing it.
85 percent of soy on the market is a GMO food. Agricultural scientists have introduced genes to make soybeans resistant to herbicides. Even if you don't eat tofu or use soy flour, you're probably still eating genetically modified soy because most cereals, baked products, chocolate, and ice cream contain soy in one form or another.
Another GMO food is corn. 85 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide, RoundUp. Most varieties also include a gene from the bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis as well. This bacterium is commonly found in soil and acts as a natural insecticide. They call corn modified with this gene bt-corn. Just like soy, corn is so ubiquitous that there is no practical way to avoid eating it.
While not a common food in the United States, many Americans enjoy papayas, either whole or as a juice. Three quarters of the total Hawaiian crop of papayas are genetically modified. These fruits include a gene that makes them resistant to viruses. Hawaiian farmers grew the first virus resistant papayas commercially in 1999.
Zucchini and Crookneck Squash
Zucchinis and crookneck squash are modified to make them resistant to viruses and fungi. Scientists have introduced two or three proteins that confer this resistance. Unfortunately, this genetic modification also renders them more susceptible to a bacterial wilt disease, which is carried by the beetles that feed on them.
95 percent of the sugar beets produced in the United States are genetically modified varieties, which, as in corn, include genes that make them resistant to the herbicide RoundUp. You may not be able to avoid eating this GMO food even if you swear off sugar beets: they make up half of the sugar production in the United States.
Genetically modified foods are a recent development. As such, there are no long-term studies about the possible side effects in humans over time. There have been some indications, however, of health problems related to allergic reactions in sensitive people. Someone with a severe nut allergy may develop anaphylactic shock after eating a banana modified with genes from a Brazil nut, for example. In which case, a local urgent care could be quite useful.
Additionally, a recent study by the International Journal of Biological Sciences about the effects of GMO foods on mammalian species also raises questions about the safety of genetically modified foods. The study suggests a strong relationship between GMO corn and liver and kidney problems in rats.
Finally, some geneticists, such as Dr. Mae Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, worry about the mutations that may occur by combining genes. "Genetic engineering is inherently dangerous, because it greatly expands the scope for horizontal gene transfer and recombination, precisely the processes that create new viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics, and trigger cancer in cells," she says.
Avoiding GMO foods altogether is probably not possible. Although the current information we have suggests that genetically altered food may cause some health and environmental problems, it is important to remember that we do not yet have the facts to come to a definitive conclusion about its safety. Until then, it's best to concentrate on making healthier food choices overall; doing so will cut down on the amount of GMO foods you eat without even having to think about it.