Should we be concerned about GMOs?

farmers market// by Serenity Hansberry

It’s no secret that we’re not eating the same foods that we did 50 years ago. In the mid-1990s, American diets were introduced to genetically modified foods, or GMOs. Genetically modifying organisms by either introducing new genes or removing old genes provided farmers with crops that were resistant to pests and herbicides. The first genetically engineered crop was a tomato in 1982, according to a 2014 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1985 four kinds of genetically engineered plants were approved for testing by the USDA. By 1996, genetically engineered crops were being harvested across the country.

Today, there are four major genetically modified crops in commercial use in the U.S.: corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and zucchini and yellow squash, all of which account for more than 85 percent of U.S. crops, with corn and soybeans making up more than 90% of that percentage, according to the Center for Food Safety. That means you have likely consumed GMO foods, especially if your diet consists of packaged foods. But does that mean you should be worried?

Health risks associated with the consumption of GMO foods are not easy to decipher with the lack of studies. Because GMOs are a fairly new concept, there aren’t many long term studies available regarding human consumption. The majority of studies have been done on livestock.

Though we aren’t yet sure if GMOs are unsafe, many would like to avoid eating them. But there are no labeling requirements for GMO foods in Florida. Some people argue that the lack of labeling on genetically modified foods impact the consumer’s right to make informed decisions about what they’re eating. For anyone who might be concerned about GMOs, like local teacher Selena Dempsey, that can be troubling.

“Cancer runs in my family,” says Dempsey, “If I can avoid it, I will. It’s not a proven fact that GMOs cause cancer but I don’t know how it’s going to affect my body five, 10 or 15 years down the road.”

“The jury is still out,” says nutritionist Mindy Black. “Initially, GMOs were created in a good light—they were able to produce more vitamins.” In addition, they produce a higher yield, are pest resistant and contain a high density of nutrients. However, Black feels that there might be more important concerns out there.

“If you’re eating a bunch of fast food, GMOs are the least of your worries,” say Black. She recommends exploring new foods that are high in nutritional value and says one way to do that is to visit your local farmer’s market. “Those are going to be GMO free. Also take it one step at a time because it’s a lifestyle change. Start looking at labels, but it’s important to remember that what’s on the back is what’s most important.”

Without labels to guide them, those looking to avoid GMOs might consider going organic. Organic foods are available at major grocers, but typically the in-store stock will be mostly non-organic foods. An alternative would be to buy foods grown locally. Farmer’s markets are available across Northeast Florida, including the Jacksonville Farmers Market, open daily, and some open weekly or monthly, such as Riverside Arts Market or the Beaches Green Market. While there are other places for consumers to purchase their produce and meats, for instance at Whole Foods or other health food stores, which sell guaranteed organic products, costs are generally higher than at a farmer’s marktet.

Ellen Hiser, director of Berry Goods Farms in Jacksonville, says that if you’re looking to eat organically, the cheaper alternative would be to shop at a local farmers market or buy directly from the farm. “I always look at it this way, if you’re really concerned about what you’re eating, and you want to eat healthy, yes you are going to spend more money,” says Hiser.

While Hiser recognizes that there are some known benefits to genetically modified foods, she feels that when it comes to things like taste, organic and farm fresh is still the best option.

“Hands downs, there’s no comparison,” says Hiser. “Fresh picked is better. When you’re picking something that’s organic, you go out and you pick a tomato, you have to eat it within a couple of days. Whereas, that tomato from Sam’s Club that looks beautiful and lasts for two weeks, it’s just not going to have the taste of something fresh picked.”

Hiser admits that she does some of her shopping for produce as well as other foods at major grocers, but encourages people to educate themselves on what they are consuming.

“There’s a lot of good stuff out there to read. Go to your farmers market. Go to your local farm and talk to people who are growing food, then you’ll know where it’s coming from. You’re eating healthy, you’re eating deliciously and you’re supporting your local farm,” says Hiser.

The question remains, are GMO foods a cause for concern? At the moment, that can only be answered by the individual consumer. Everyone has a preference. If it does concern you, try purchasing less of what’s considered to be “not so good for you” like heavily processed foods. You can also educate yourself on growing your own food, finding out what’s in season and what grows best in the Northeast Florida climate.

Even with the negative publicity around GMOs, not everyone is worried. Clinton Murphy, a local behavioral analyst, says that after reading up on the topic, he believes that GMOs aren’t harmful. “From looking at the scientific literature, to this point, every study has come back and said that they are safe,” he says. “That’s the best thing we have to go by.” Of course, how it tastes is most important.