The holiday season is right around the corner. If you’re in the United States, then you are probably already thinking about your Thanksgiving meal. Past that, there’s a wealth of holidays going right up through New Year’s Day. And with those holidays comes food. At least in my neck of the world.
And one food-related topic that has been bothering me lately is the whole conversation around genetically modified organisms – better known as GMOs. I’ve seen more and more labels at the grocery store that list “GMO-Free” on the label lately. Coincidentally, these also happen to be the organic or “all-natural” (AKA more expensive) food.
And I’m torn about this whole situation. Part of me, the consumer that feels misled by years of advertising espousing the dangers of eggs and the healthiness of highly processed, high sugar foods, is happy that there is a little more transparency in where our food comes from. However, the other larger part of me is frustrated. Why?
First, I’m frustrated that the healthier (or pseudo-healthier) foods also tend to be the more expensive ones. How can people eat healthy if they can’t afford the food?
Second, I feel like these words – organic, natural, and, yes, GMO – are just advertising. There’s not a lot of regulation on what these words mean. Yes, new regulations are going into effect in the United States in terms of GMO-labeling by the end of 2021, but it’s riddled with loopholes. Moreover, the science suggests that food with these labels isn’t necessarily healthier than their non-labeled counterparts.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of ultra-processed food, and I would argue that it is better to choose an apple over an apple pie most of the time (everything in moderation!). However, making blanket statements that one type of food is healthier than the other because it does or doesn’t contain a certain thing is a vast oversimplification. Just because one type of butter is all-natural doesn’t mean that you should eat it by the tablespoon. And just because vegan butter is labeled non-GMO doesn’t mean that the palm oil in it is ethically harvested and isn’t harming orangutans.
Let’s also consider GMO in detail. GMO food has been altered at the DNA level for a certain purpose – maybe to grow larger or to be more resistant to pesticides. And this can be a good thing. For example, it can reduce the use of dangerous pesticides. Just because something is genetically altered doesn’t make it inherently bad. We’ve been genetically altering our food for thousands of years using selective breeding (looking at you, bananas, lettuce, etc.). Now we’re just doing it in a lab.
Now, before you all start thinking that I am writing this at the behest of the corporations making GMO foods, I should state that there are problems with GMO foods – particularly for the environment. There are some real risks that need to be considered, such as the risk of GMO foods escaping and outcompeting wild populations. My point is that there is nuance in this debate.
I put together a video discussing this issue with additional resources in the comments. It talks about the good and the bad of GMO food. My goal isn’t to convince you one way or the other. It’s simply to interpret where the science currently stands so you can decide for yourself whether you want a GMO-free holiday or not.