The GMO Debate Continues

by Patrick Kirchhofer, Peoria County Farm Bureau

On July 1st, Vermont will become the first state with a GMO (“Genetically Modified Organism”) labeling law on food products in effect. Though Congress was attempting to create a national GMO labeling law, as of mid-June, it had not pieced together the legislation. A national law would have created a uniform policy, but as it stands, we may have a cornucopia of GMO legislation enacted by states throughout the country.

Most processed grocery products contain GMOs. What exactly is a GMO? It is biotechnology used in plant agriculture—the process of intentionally copying a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant. A majority of the crops planted in the United States have GMO traits. The most common GMO trait—used by farmers since 1995—is “Roundup Ready” crops, including corn and soybeans.

Developed by Monsanto in 1974, Roundup is an herbicide used by farmers as well as the general public, who use it to spray weeds around the house, in sidewalk cracks, and around trees and shrubs. It has saved a lot of labor in pulling or hoeing weeds.

When Roundup was developed, it was different from other existing herbicides. Its active ingredient is glyphosate, which translocates throughout the entire plant, including the roots. The glyphosate formulations typically include water and a surfactant system, which enables the product to adhere to the leaves so the active ingredient can penetrate. It then moves throughout the plant, so the entire plant dies. Because the roots or rhizomes are deteriorating, the plant cannot regenerate itself.

Glyphosate binds tightly to most types of soil, so it is not available for uptake by roots of nearby plants. It works by disrupting an enzyme involved in the production of amino acids that are essential to plant growth. Glyphosate is registered in more than 130 countries and approved for weed control in more than 100 crops. No other herbicides’ active ingredient compares in terms of the number of approved uses.

Because Roundup was successful in controlling weeds and was more environmentally friendly than other herbicides, scientists researched and were able to insert a gene into plants so they could tolerate an application of glyphosate. Hence, Roundup Ready soybeans and corn (GMOs) became available to farmers in the mid-1990s.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recently released a study indicating GMO crops are safe for humans and animals to eat. How did this group of experts come to this conclusion? It compared disease reports from the U.S. and Canada with Western Europe. (In the U.S. and Canada, we have been eating GMO foods for more than 20 years, while in Europe and the United Kingdom, GMOs have not been on the table.)

The committee’s review found no long-term pattern of increases in health problems in the U.S. and Canada. There was no increase in cancer, obesity, kidney disease, autism or allergies, according to the National Academies of Sciences. If people are still skeptical of GMOs, there are other options. Many farmers grow organic foods, which are available in many grocery stores, at farmers’ markets and through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Many consumers also have the option of growing their own produce in a small garden. If you have a specific question about GMOs or would like to review GMO-related questions and answers, you can visit iBi

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