There is a great debate happening around the world about the safety of genetically modified organisms and food, whether or not they are safe or sustainable, and whether or not we should be tampering with the relatively perfect system that nature has devised over millennia. While it is impossible to weigh in on the science and politics that stands behind every voice in the GMO debate, there are some things that are important for you to know about genetic modification so that you can make some informed decisions about them.
- There are only 28 countries in the world that produce genetically modified food crops. Yes, you read that correctly. Out of 196 countries in the world, only 28 of them (20 developing and 8 industrialized) cultivate and export GMO crops on nearly 450 million acres of land.
- On the flip side, there are dozens of nations which have banned the cultivation of GMO crops. Most recently, Russia and the European Union have opted to ban the cultivation of GMO crops.
- However, just because an entity bans the cultivation of a GMO crop does not mean that it bans the importation of it. While the EU has stopped farmers from planting GMOs, the EU remains one of the world’s largest consumers of GMO crops, especially in the form of animal feed. That’s right – you might ban the cultivation of it in Europe, but you are allowing those plants to be fed to your animals whose products (meat, eggs, dairy, etc) are still consumed by your populous.
- Russia is the largest country to have banned both the cultivation and importation of GMO crops. In the words of Dmitry Medvedev, “if the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then. We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food.” While the USA is only one producer of GMO crops of the 28 countries which do so, it is fair to single out Americans as a national producer of GMO products simply because the largest transnational producer of such products is American: Monsanto.
- Monsanto holds a virtual monopoly on GMO seeds around the world. Their biotech crops are engineered mainly to be tolerant to herbicides and resistant to pests in order to increase output. The main GMO crops that are planted and exported around the world are (in order of prevalence): soybean (51%), Maize (30%), Cotton (13%), Canola (5%), and others (1%).
- The problems with GMOs are not limited to safety concerns, although this is the heaviest focus for those protesting their use. GMO crop production also increases a country’s reliance on cash crops and takes away from local food economies. GMO crops are almost exclusively available from either Monsanto or other transnational corporations that whose bottom line is profit, rather than the ethical and fair treatment of farmers who purchase from them, or workers on farms that they employ. Additionally, because GMOs grow more easily than traditional crops, farmers who are squeezed economically will likely choose to purchase GMO seeds in order to turn any kind of profit in an industry where the little guys are consistently being put out of business. As such, their focus turns away from local food economies and turns towards selling crops to make cash. When this is the case, individuals in the community must all turn to cash-making ventures to purchase crops from an increasingly select group of large producers. This makes the market and the food supply lack diversity which turns into increasing economic pressures and nutritional deficiencies down the line.
- You can avoid purchasing GMOs and, as such, help to make the world a healthier, more ethical place. Look for certified organic products. Not only can organic products not be made from GMO crops or animal products, but they also prohibit the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones and requires organic feed for livestock. You can avoid at-risk or highly processed foods as these typically contain GMO products, including: Salmon, Pork, Corn, Soy, Canola, Cotton, Sugar Beets, Hawaiian Papaya, Dairy, Zucchini and Yellow Squash. It is estimated that 80-90% of processed food in North America contains GMOs. And finally, you can also look for non-GMO labelling which is a method of independent verification that results in a visible seal on non-GMO foods. Until GMO foods are required to be labeled by law in Canada, this is unfortunately the best we can do.