Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on November 20, 2015.

Watching what we eat during the holiday season usually refers to how much we’re consuming. But if you’re a person who’s concerned with food issues, you might have a trickier time spotting genetically engineered foods. The U.S. is not among the 60 countries that require the labeling of GMOs. So to give you a little help on what part of your Thanksgiving plate might be genetically engineered, the Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant decided to look into the issue. Here’s a breakdown of some traditional holiday foods to pay special attention to.

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On the holiday plate

If you’re making squash, some zucchinis, crookneck and straightneck yellow squash are bioengineered to make them resistant to common squash viruses.

For potatoes, none in the supermarket are GMO yet. Earlier this year, the FDA approved potatoes that are genetically engineered to bruise less in transit. They are supposed to hit the market in 2017. Same thing with GMO apples. So if you’re making apple pie for the dessert, in a couple of years, some apples in the supermarket could be genetically altered to brown less after being cut. Sold under the name “Arctic Apples,” they’re being produced in Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties.


Considering corn

Corn is a big player in the GMO world. There are some varieties of sweet corn, the kind we buy in the store, that are genetically altered. But when you hear the statistic that 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S is genetically modified, most of that is field corn. It’s fed to animals, though it does wind up in our processed foods, primarily as corn syrup.

Most GMO corn is “Roundup Ready,” which means it has been engineered so it can survive when it’s sprayed with the chemical glyphosate—the key ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. Farmers spray Roundup, or other herbicides with glyphosate, all over their fields. It kills the weeds, but the crop continues to grow.

The growth in the amount of glyphosate being used concerns groups like the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Executive director Brian Snyder says many weeds, like Palmer pigweed and marestail, have become resistant to glyphosate. And that means farmers are “moving backwards” and using older, harsher chemicals to kill these weeds. This is one reason some European countries are moving toward banning GMO crops.


The argument for (and against) GMOs

Mark Lynas was a well known anti-GMO advocate in England—until a few years when he publicly changed his stance. He now supports genetic engineering and is political director at the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University. He says countries like Germany, France and Italy oppose the technology but need to give it a harder look.

“Some of the big countries in Central Europe really don’t allow an informed scientific debate on the GMO issue at all,” Lynas says.

Lynas says that’s bad for places that could really use GMOs—places like sub-Saharan Africa. He says the European bans scare them away from genetically engineered crops, but GMO foods could help feed people.

“Remember, there’s a big difference between the situation in somewhere like Uganda and somewhere like France. In France, people have sufficient food and they can make a choice to buy organic and they can make the choice to buy non-GMO. And it doesn’t make any difference to their food security. That’s not really the case in East Africa, where there’s several emerging new diseases which really only have solutions using GM technology.”

Lynas gives the example of bananas in Uganda, a major food crop that has been devastated by a bacterial wilt. He says scientists are working on a transgenic banana as a solution, but have faced anti-GMO opposition from wealthier countries.

Lynas also says it is important to make a distinction between the biotechnology itself, and the overuse of glyphosate as a result of the biotechnology.

Back in Pennsylvania, PASA’s Director of Education, Franklin Egan, says for the past 20 years, GMOs haven’t really been used to feed people.

“Almost all the attention has been on commodity crops, on corn and soybeans and other row crops—not on improving food crops, you know, vegetables and fruits that actually provide sustenance to people,” Egan says.

Most of those commodity crops in the U.S. use the Roundup Ready system. PASA’s Brian Snyder says PASA isn’t wholesale against GMOs—just the way they’re used on most American farms.

“So when we look at foods on the Thanksgiving plate, for instance, we may be inclined to think: Should I eat that turkey or should I be eating this corn product? But really when we look at this, we’re very much aware that there’s a system behind the food. And it’s the system that matters, not necessarily the food itself.”