The Dirt on GMOs

I love it when readers send questions my way, and the other day I got a comment asking me to talk about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

The main crops you probably think about being genetically modified are grain crops, specifically widely grown ones like corn and soybeans. And because soy and corn derived products are in so many things we eat  (corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, soy protein, etc) people are naturally wondering more about them.

First, I’ll start off with the definition of a GMO. It is simply an organism whose genetic characteristics have been altered using the technique of genetic engineering. This means genetic engineering has been used to introduce, remove, or modify parts of the organism’s genome.

I still feel like that sounds complex, so I hunted around for an explanation of how they actually do this – in layman’s terms. I found just what I was looking for on a blog called Katie PhD. Check out her post on What exactly is a genetically modified plant if you want some great and understandable specifics.

Of course the operative question about GMOs you probably want me to talk about is whether they are good or not.

I know it sounds wishy washy, but I say it depends. I actually wrote a post on GMOs back in 2011, and I’ve posted an excerpt from it below. (I included all the GMO stuff but cut out the chatter on running and weather from the post :). )

Before I get to the excerpt though, I should talk some about what we do on our farm and the foods I choose.

Yes, we do grow GMO crops. They have traits that allow the crops to better withstand drought (which honestly helped save some of the Midwest harvest last year) and to use less chemical for controlling weeds and disease.

Much of the corn we grow is chopped into silage, a feed for our cows that involves chopping up the whole corn plant. We use a specific variety of corn that’s good for silage because it’s more digestible for the cows. The trait that allows it to be more digestible is a natural mutation that’s been selected for, not a GMO trait.
20130226-093314.jpg

My husband checking out the corn last summer.

In my personal eating I do not actively avoid GMOs. Rather I work to include fresh fruits and vegetables everyday. I try to choose bread and cereal products with some whole grain. I make sure I’m getting enough protein and calcium. I often make my own soups and hotdish and sweets rather than buying pre-made.

I feel these choices and including nutrient-rich foods is most important for me. I also highly value food choice and respect everyone’s right to choose what is right for them and their family.

But back to the GMO debate. From August 2011…

I know I haven’t blogged about many agricultural issues lately, so when I saw the article below on the Star Tribune (Minneapolis paper) website I knew what my next post would be about.

“Genetically Modified” food isn’t evil

Read the article now if you like, or read my thoughts first and then check out the link.

So I’m not a science expert, but I always remember being vaguely aware of “GMOs” or genetically modified organisms. Probably because I am a farm kid, I knew that certain plants were modified to be more drought tolerant or resistant to various diseases, pests, chemicals, etc.

This means that farmers can get a crop during a dry year or use less insect and weed control and achieve strong yields. Farmers have more crops to sell, it’s better for the environment, and more is available to help feed a constantly growing world population.

Everybody wins, right?

Umm, yeah.

About the time I went to college I realized GMOs were actually really controversial. People worry about them for any number of reasons. The long term effects are not know, and many just feel they may be unsafe.

Much of Europe is against them. Many of the major crop GMOs are developed by giant companies that keep getting bigger.

Few people realize, as the Star Tribune article points out, the regulatory and approval process for GMOs is so costly and bureaucratic that only the largest businesses can afford the money and time to navigate it.

I suppose I’m not scared of GMOs for just this reason, that the approval process for them is overwhelmingly massive.

I also think the article makes an important point that GMOs can provide a reliable way to grow crops for many poor people that deal with drought, poor soil, and lack of many other crop resources.

But…

GMOs are not the answer to everything. I’m not naive enough to believe they are always the best solution, and I know that world hunger is more a problem of food distribution than food supply.

However, I also know our world population is expected to grow by billions in coming years, and raising more with less resources will be absolutely essential.

If you care about world hunger, if you care about affordable food, if you care about the environment and sustainable farming – then I think you have to believe that GMOs are important to explore as a piece of the solution on these issues.

Bottom line? Don’t be afraid of or condemn something until you’ve gotten the true facts. Don’t just take my word for it; do your own (quality) research.

I know I’ve included a lot of links already, but if you want more discussion look at this Forbes article describing the GMO Food Debate in the National Spotlight. If you’re curious, I looked it up and California’s proposition 37 on labeling GMO foods did not pass.

And that’s my take. I’d love to hear your perspective and comments.

About Lisa

Hi, I'm Lisa. Dairy farmer's wife and Minnesotan to the core, I write about rural farm life, running down country roads, and the food, faith, and family that bind everything together. Follow along on my journey.
This entry was posted in Agriculture ( in general), Cooking and Foods, Crops and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Dirt on GMOs

  1. Terzah says:

    The anti-GMO sentiment is strong in Boulder. In fact, the organic grocery store across the street from my library has a big banner on the front advocating a county ban on growing them. But for all the reasons you mention (especially the fact that fighting hunger outweighs the concerns about GMOs to me) it’s not a cause I can get behind. I *do* believe in supporting local farmers, but I’ll leave the business of how they grow their crops and raise their animals up to them.

  2. Bree says:

    I think I first became aware when I started seeing food labeled as “Non GMO”. The baby cereal I buy for my two has this designation, not that I chose it because of that. Just got me thinking. I guess I don’t have a firm stance on either side yet. I see how GMO crops are necessary for farmers, animals and us, but I worry about the long term effects, like you said.

    I think having kids is getting me thinking about these things are a larger scale. I am choosing food for other people now, not just myself and I want to be sure I am doing the right thing for them. In general, I try to eat fruits, veggies, whole grains, avoid processed stuff, the usual. Right now that’s about the best I can do time and cost wise.

    Thanks for writing! I appreciate it and all the links.

    • Lisa says:

      And thank you for the question. I definitely can understand you think more carefully about the foods you choose now that you are buying for the twins too. Nutrition is key in my mind, and from your comment it sounds like you are doing great.

  3. Brit says:

    InterestIng post. When I visited Africa, one of our guides up Kilimanjaro was also a farmer who grew GMO maize. Growing a GMO crop was a huge benefit to him because it gave him a better chance of a good yield, which would in turn allow him to feed his family. There are other places, such as India, with difficult climates and scarce food, that might benefit from GMO.

    I could probably argue either side of this topic, but I don’t think it is wise to write off GMOs. We really need to see more long-term data.

  4. Pingback: Choosing Foods as a Mom! | Cow Spots and Tales

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