HCA Midwest Physicians
January 05, 2015

By Julie Burton, SimplyKC Magazine

We make choices regarding our health every day. Should I eat that last bite of cake? I should go to the gym. I wonder if that piece of celery I ate really made me lose calories? Your health is your own decision even after the experts have spoken.

And they are discussing a hot topic in the food industry right now — GMOs in food. 

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. In a lab, scientists remove genes from the DNA of an organism and place those genes in an unrelated planet or animal. It’s genetic engineering or manipulation that serves a purpose.

Although most people think of GMOs in relation to food, scientists create GMOs for a variety of reasons. In medicines, they have helped cure diseases and save lives. Insulin and many vaccines, for example, contain GMOs. 

But it’s the agriculture industry that gets the most exposure when it comes to GMOs. Genetic engineering enables scientists to grow a better crop. For example, let’s say a certain type of weed thrives in hot weather. Scientists will take the weed’s gene for “growing in extreme temperatures” from the DNA strand, then shoot the gene into a kernel of corn and plant it. The corn with new genes will grow to be able to stand the rising temperatures of our climate. 

There’s a good reason GMOs are in our food supply — our planet is a tough place to grow food. Global warming hurts our crop production. Insects and other toxins destroy acres of land. There are 316 million mouths to feed in the U.S. alone, and the population is growing. 

“Without GMOs, we would have a greater challenge feeding our population,” says GuoHua Feng, manager of industrial enzymology for Corbion in Lenexa. “We would have to use more chemicals, more fertilizer, and more water. Traditionally, if you want a higher yield of crops, it will take a longer amount of time.”

Genetically modified food is nothing new. Nature has always been mating organisms with the best traits to pass on to offspring. We started experimenting with genetic modification in the 1970s. 

And as of yet, scientists don’t actually know what genetically modified foods do to our body, according to Mary Willis, a registered dietician and nutritionist from College Park Family Care Center with a degree in dietetics. “We are playing Russian roulette with food supply,” she says. “There has been mounting evidence on the negative effects of GMOs in animal testing. We don’t know if GMOs are having a long-term negative effect on humans. It’s a big human experiment.” 

But opponents point to the increase of allergies in children and the rise of thyroid and gastrointestinal issues, blaming the food we are eating. “I tell my clients to eat clean whenever possible,” Willis says. “I’ve become a different dietician because of this. It’s a bigger problem than we think.”

Currently, 60 countries mandate labeling of genetically modified food. The U.S. is not one of them. Although the FDA tests food for allergens and toxicity before releasing it to the public, it has not banned GMOs or required labels, citing the lack of evidence that GMOs are a threat to the population. Still, the industry is starting to take notice. Major chains, such as World Market, have begun labeling its food with the non-GMO symbol, making it easier for consumers to know what they’re buying. 

“To me, we shouldn’t be afraid of labels if — and that’s a big if — the public is educated,” Feng says. “If someone wants to pay 10 cents for corn made with GMO, OK. If they want to pay 20 cents for non-GMO corn that doesn’t taste as good, that’s OK too. It’s their decision.” 

Both Feng and Willis advise that you educate yourself. Ultimately, your health is always your decision — so the more you know, the better you’ll feel.