R. Jane is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a degree in Agricultural Sciences and a certificate in International Agriculture. She was her county's first female to represent the Virginia FFA as Vice President and currently works in her hometown, helping local farmers and boards to maximize productivity and profitability. She is well-equipped to speak on this topic and we hope you find her thoughts helpful. Keep an eye out for the upcoming Valor issue as well, and the interview we did with R. Jane about her unique career path.
by R. Jane
Walk through the produce or meat sections of the grocery store, and you'll notice the dizzying array of labels and food packaging. It's enough to frazzle anyone.
"ORGANIC. ALL-NATURAL. NON-GMO. GRASS FED. CAGE FREE. HORMONE FREE."
These and other labels are everywhere.
If they confuse you, you're not alone. Many of these phrases can be tricky to understand. Some don't mean what you might think. There is a chance you are paying more for a product with buzzwords that have a loose meaning, or a label that is not even defined or regulated. Some key words are misleading and some are actually what they say they are, and it can be hard to tell the difference.
Marketing is an amazing tool. Some food companies can take advantage of your ignorance, though, and at the expense of your wallet, gain more business.
Explaining all of the labels mentioned above would take up too much of your time, but this post can highlight food for thought to all of us:
I’m not writing this to scare you, or to make you feel guilty, or to say you are wrong in your food purchases. You have the right to your food choices. I’m simply here to share some facts instead of spreading fear. And explain one of the most misunderstood parts of the food sector: GMOs. I’ll admit the agriculture industry hasn’t done the best job educating the public and reaching the consumer. But here is one tiny person’s attempt to help do just that for you.
What is GMO?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. A change has been made to the DNA of an organism. Sounds horrible? It isn’t.
In plant agriculture, Biotechnology intentionally makes a copy of a desired trait in a gene from one plant or organism and uses it in another plant to improve or enhance a specific characteristic or trait, such as resistance to disease. The result is a GMO (genetically modified organism).
It is not harmful, nor is it less healthy.
Yet reading labels on products could cause one to think we should not purchase GMO products. Some food companies have taken it further by even labeling products that were never GMOs as “Non GMO.” Think about that for a second.
Recently my mom and I were the grocery store when she asked about the Orange Juice that was labeled Non GMO. I laughed. All orange juice is non GMO. Oranges are not genetically modified, yet the price of the “Non GMO Juice” was $1.50 more because of that label! The sad reality is that some people buy it.
Why do GMOs exist?
GMOs allow farmers to produce more crops with less. It is working smarter instead of harder; being good stewards of the land and helping to conserve soil, water, and even energy. Harvesting more using fewer resources means taking better care of God’s creation.
Farmers have a choice to select or not buy GMO seeds. There is a reality of crop damage from drought, diseases, and insects that will impact yield. More food production with less loss = greater food supply and lower prices for you.
Improving Health and Nutrition
GM traits in crops can make the biggest difference in the lives of farmers, not only in our country, but especially in developing countries. This in turn impacts everyone in the community because agriculture feeds, clothes and fuels us. Biotech crops can increase their income (in addition to taking care of already poor quality soils and resources) – and thus reduce poverty and malnutrition.
Other GMO traits in the research stage include:
Pineapple with lycopene, which may help prevent lung and prostate cancer
EPA/DHA Omega-3 oils from canola oil, which are scientifically proven to prevent heart disease and enhance cardiovascular outcomes
Development of a strain of rice called Golden Rice that may reduce Vitamin A deficiency (which causes blindness and even death in children of developing countries)
Vitamin A enhanced cassava and enriched sweet potatoes and even edible vaccines are awaiting approval.
While nearly all foods today have been genetically modified in some way (over thousands of years through selective breeding) there are only eight commercially available GM crops in the U.S. Yes, read that again – eight. And guess what? Oranges are not in this list.
Corn (*field and *sweet)
The majority of these crops (alfalfa, field corn and soy) are used for livestock feed. Other uses for these crops include common food ingredients - such as sugar, canola oil, and cornstarch.
Allergies in GMOs?
Safety and Regulation
Seed companies make large investments in time and resources to meet high safety and health standards for new GM products.
The cost and time involved in the development of one new biotechnology trait is $13 million over thirteen years. The regulatory process alone is five to seven years.
GMOs are the most regulated and tested product in agricultural history! Many independent scientists and organizations around the world (U.S. National Academy of Sciences, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, WHO, American Medical Association and the American Association for Advancement of Science) have looked at thousands of scientific studies and concluded that GM food crops do not pose more risks to people, animals or the environment than any other foods.
In the spring of 2016, The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS), in the most comprehensive study to date, concluded that GMOs are safe. More than 20 scientists, researchers, agricultural and industry experts reviewed over 20 years of data, including nearly 900 studies and publications, animal studies, allergenicity testing and North American and European health data.
In addition, GM crops are repeatedly and extensively tested for consumer and environmental safety, and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and similar organizations review those tests in the U.S. internationally. As of 2015, GMOs are grown, imported and/or used in more than 70 countries.
Research and Development
From a compositional and nutritional standpoint, GMO crops currently available on the market are the same as their non-GM counterparts, including the same ingredients such as amino acids, proteins, fiber, minerals and vitamins.
For example, in Corn – the difference is in size, consistency, yield, and number of ears per stalk.
A century ago, farmers planted about 8,000 corn plants per acre.
Today that number has quadrupled, thanks to GMOs!
Did you Know?
In 1960, Americans spent almost eighteen percent of disposable income on Food. By 2013, they were spending less than six percent. In other countries, people spend double or triple that.
With less income spent on food, this leaves more money in your wallet. Do we realize how blessed we are? What are we doing with this added blessing?
The agriculture industry is becoming more productive. Even helping lower the cost and price of food. Yet how many of us know, understand, or appreciate this fact?
Take for instance, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for ten people in 2016 is lower now than it was thirty-one years ago. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, 2016 was an even better year, with a step back from 2015s all-time high of $50.11.
Food For Thought
Be Intuitive: Reading labels thoroughly will help you learn about the product. Short of growing it yourself, you may never feel totally confident about the quality of your food. Buying locally or from a farmers’ market gives you the opportunity to ask questions directly of the farmer. Buying local also lets you have the freshest ingredients close to home.
It may not be the cheapest, but that is a balance you will need to find.
Be Informed. Realize that farmers only provide the raw product. Once it leaves the farm, they are not responsible for how the food is processed. There are steps between the field and the grocery store aisle or restaurant. If you care about how your food is produced, you should care as much about how it is processed, including added products and preservatives.
Be conscientious. 40% of food in America is wasted, whether from grocery stores, restaurants, or homes. If you’re genuinely concerned about what food you buy, be conscious also of not being wasteful.
Be thankful. We are so rich and spoiled (compared to other nations) to be able to choose what we don’t eat and to have such abundance.
Let’s find a happy balance. People in this world are starving. Eat healthy, exercise, drink plenty of (non-GMO) water and OJ, and be grateful for all that you have.