What’s the deal with GMOs anyway? What makes a food natural?

A lifelong friend of mine has dreamt about being a food scientist since she was little. Today, she is graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in food science and working in research and development. Her dream career path! Kia Kivi describes her job as “getting to make food all day,” which, I can’t argue, sounds pretty tasty. 

A topic of conversation we’ve had various times is regarding GMOs. I ask Kia all about what GMOs really are, why people don’t like GMOs, why they were created, and how GMOs are different from pesticides. I mean seriously, we have talked about this over and over again.

I can’t be the only one who needs a run down on all things GMOs and what they’re really doing to our food, so I interviewed Kia about it. 

Q: Why were GMOs created?

A: GMO’s were first developed by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen to see if it was possible to cut out a gene from one organism and insert it into another. They were able to see the organism that had new DNA inserted was able to protect itself from certain antibiotics that tried to kill it. Their method used restriction enzymes to cut the piece of DNA at specific sites and then insert this segment into a new bacteria. After a while, genetic modification was used in the food industry to produce new products like longer lasting produce and prevent crops from being destroyed by pests. Later in their lifetime, GMOs were utilized to create crops that could survive in areas that were not normally habitable and this greatly decreased hunger and food scarcity in many countries around the globe! 

Q: Why are people afraid of GMOs?

A: Two of the biggest reasons why people are afraid of GMOs and genetic modification in general are 1) it is an organism or food that has had its genetic information altered and 2) the media’s portrayal of GM Foods has had a huge impact on how people view them. People don’t like the idea of food being changed on the genetic level. It makes people wary of their foods, especially produce, because many think that these genetic changes will have a negative effect on their body. 

I think a lot of the information around genetic modification has been skewed, but I can understand why it would sound concerning when all that is being said is that the DNA of your food has been changed by people. That being said, risks come along with inserting new genes into foods specifically, so there is some understanding of this concern many consumers have. 

Q: Are GMOs safe?

A: Yes. According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) FDA (Food and Drug Administration and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), GM Foods are considered safe.

Q: So, what do GMOs really do to food?

A: A lot of early use of genetic modification was to enhance crop yield and reduce the affect insects had on crops. Crops like corn, wheat and soy are foods that use genetically modified seeds. This can be very beneficial for people who want to make more money on crops they make, and this was one of the reasons for terms like “conventional farming” or “cash crops.” It allows for lower cost of goods, which means you as the consumer will pay less for these foods. This is one of the reasons why organic foods cost a lot more. Genetically modified foods have made it easier to prevent starvation and food scarcity in many countries around the world. Besides crops, genetic modification has been used to create antibiotics, create insulin and even create food innovations like Impossible meat!

Q: Can a food have GMOs AND be organic?

A: Crops, produce or any kind of raw ingredient cannot be simultaneously GM and organic. If something is genetically altered, this changes the DNA of the product. Organic means there is no genetic modification. 

Q: What is natural food?

A: The word natural is deceiving because most companies claim that their products are all natural and this word has no legal definition from any governing bodies. If the word natural is used with flavorings or colorings, it does have a meaning. If natural is used as a claim, it’s likely the company is just using this word so the product appeals more to customers. 

Q: How are GMOs different from pesticides?

A: This is a really interesting question! Genetic modification can be used to make safer pesticides, but also to reduce or remove the use of pesticides. An example of utilizing GM to remove or reduce pesticides is the Bt toxin in corn. A type of bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis produces a toxin that naturally kills pests and insects. This gene was inserted into corn and other crop plants to act as a pesticide without using a more harmful pesticide spray. Bt toxin is nontoxic to humans and animals. It will only kill bugs coming to ruin your plants. As I mentioned earlier, some GM can produce pesticides. The Bt toxin can be made into a spray form and used in organic farming. This is pretty much turning the toxin into a pesticide, to create a pesticide that is not toxic to humans, plus, protects organic crops from bugs without having to change the DNA. I think this is really cool!

After our various conversations about all things GMO, I was surprised by some of these answers. GMOs aren’t as scary as I thought. In fact, they’ve helped around the world with food scarcity, saving over a billion people from starvation. As Kia said – I think that’s pretty cool!

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