GMO refers to genetically modified organisms, that is, its DNA (the biological structure that is the genetic blueprint for the diversity of life unique to each species) is modified by scientists. In the case of food, the genomes of various crops that are for human and animal consumption have DNA that is altered. This process often includes integrating DNA from other species, such as other plants, bacteria, and viruses. Although GMO foods have garnered a great deal of attention in the past few years, GMO food has been in production since 1994.
Why are foods genetically modified?
Crops are genetically modified for many reasons, including making them less appealing to insects or more resistant to drought conditions leading to greater crop yield, growing faster to increase production in a shorter amount of time, enhance taste and color, and increase shelf life to reduce waste from spoilage. Some GMO foods are engineered to intrinsically produce more vitamins and anti-oxidants, aspects of food that are considered nutritious and beneficial.
The most controversial use of GMO in the news right now is the company Monsanto modifying corn to be more tolerant of their herbicide product, Round Up. This enables farmers to now spray round up across the whole crop versus previously, when they had to spray in more specific areas where weeds are grew, taking more care to avoid the actual crops. The justification for this is that it saves both cost and time savings to the farmer, which reduces the cost of food to the consumer (more on this below).
Why is GMO bad?
The chief concern at the moment is the effect that Monsanto herbicide resistant crops pose to the environment and our food. Without the necessity to be more discerning and sparing in their use of herbicide, farmers may now indiscriminately spray herbicide diffusely across the whole crop, increasing the amount of chemical present on the food meant for human and animal consumption, as well as amount of chemical run off that impacts the environment (ground water contamination, wildlife toxicity, etc.)
Cross pollination is another concern. Insects and birds are an integral part of the pollination of all manner of flowers and plants, including crops. Thus, DNA material modified by a GMO crop can find its way into other crops and even environmental plant life. Herbicide resistant DNA is especially concerning with regard to pollination, as it can lead to the creation of “super weeds,” that are resistant to all manner of herbicides. There are already several documented cases of this unwanted phenomenon.
Other opponents of GMO suggest that in addition to the implications of products like Monsanto, there is evidence that GMO food may cause direct damage to liver, kidneys, and heart. One such opponent is scientist Sheldon Krimsky, who cites 22 studies suggest adverse health effects to animals fed GMO foods. However, Dr. Krimsky also admits that 22 is a very small number in comparison to the hundreds of GMO studies that show no adverse effects. Dr. Krimsky further acknowledges that claims of links to increased food allergies and cancers have to date not been proven in any studies to date.
How do you avoid GMO foods?
Since this is a pet blog, I will stick to strictly with pets on this one. The only way to avoid feeding your pets GMO is to either home prepare their food with ingredients that are purchased with a specific “organic” label, or purchase pet foods that are labelled “organic.” Do not be fooled by terms like “holistic,” “homeopathic,” or “all natural.” These terms are all smoke and mirrors and have no real meaning or definition in the pet food industry. The only way you can truly avoid feeding pet food that is GMO free is if it is specifically labelled “organic.”
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care.
Dan Goldstein, MD, senior science fellow, Monsanto, St. Louis.
Sheldon Krimsky, PhD, adjunct professor of public health and community medicine, Tufts Medical School, Boston.
Kent Bradford, PhD, distinguished professor of plant sciences; director, Seed Biotechnology Center, University of California, Davis.
CSA Discovery Guides: “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?”
FDA: “FDA’s Role in Regulating Safety of GE Foods.”
Klumper, W. PLOS ONE, November 2014.
de Vendomois, J. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 2009.
Iowa State University: “The Debate on Labeling Genetically Modified Food.”
Brown University: “What is Genetically Modified Food?”
A Review of International Labeling Policies of Genetically Modified Food to Evaluate India’s Proposed Rule. 2007.
University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Statewide Biotechnology Workgroup.
California Prop 37: “Right to Know.”
University of Nebraska, Ag Biosafety: “Will This Stuff Harm the Environment?”
World Health Organization: “Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods.”