Reading the Label: Genetically Modified Foods


From the first day of its appearance, discussions about the dangers and benefits of genetically modified foods have not ceased. Let’s try to bring some clarity to this issue.

All living things — humans, animals, plants — are built from a genetic material called DNA. To improve the useful and weaken the unnecessary qualities of animals and plants, they can be bred by selection. In nature, this process has been going on naturally for many thousands of years. The subject of heated discussions at the present time is the possibility of plant breeding by changing their genetic material by transferring DNA from one organism to another in an artificial way. This is done in order, for example, to develop crops that are more resistant to insect pests or fungi that are destructive to them.

Thus, herbicides are used to control the growth of weeds in fields planted with useful crops, but the problem is that these herbicides can also suppress the growth of useful crops that they are supposed to protect. Proponents of genetic modification argue that by introducing into an agricultural crop a gene responsible for plant immunity to certain herbicides, the latter can be used without harm to useful plants.

Another argument in support of genetic modification is that by changing the genetic material of a plant, it can be made immune to attack by its natural enemies: weeds, insects, and also immune to viral diseases. With regard to animal genetic experiments, proponents of genetic modification argue that by changing the genes of animals, it is possible to achieve faster growth and larger adult sizes.

Potential problems associated with changing genes

For many people, changing our food at the genetic level just «makes a bad impression.» Our instincts tell us that this is not the way to play with nature. The problems that can arise from eating foods containing genetically modified organisms are quite complex to understand, but I will try to help you get some idea of ​​what can go wrong if genetically modified foods enter our food chain.

  • The expression of a gene in nature is regulated by many factors. If you take a gene from its normal environment and put it in a place that is foreign to it, and in the absence of natural deterrents, then the gene can manifest itself in unexpected ways.
  • Physical gene transfer uses so-called «promoter genes» and gene markers to help scientists know if genes have been successfully transferred. Markers are most often bacteriological or viral in nature, and we do not know how they affect our health.
  • To date, very little research has been done on the health effects of genetically modified foods. At the same time, research into the current state of affairs makes it clear that genetically modified foods can pose a threat to the health of some people: for example, if you have an allergic reaction to soy or nut proteins, and soy or nut genes are transferred into the food product without indicating this fact on the product label.

How are genetically modified foods labelled?

genetically modified foods

For those who would like to avoid eating foods containing genetically modified materials, European Union legislation has made the task easier: new food labeling legislation, effective from April 2004, provides for the following information to be displayed on products:

  • a list of all ingredients containing or consisting of genetically modified organisms;
  • list of ingredients produced from genetically modified organisms.

The following situations are an exception:

  • food products are not required to provide information on the content of genetically modified material in the event that it contains 0.9% or less;
  • the content of 0.5% genetically modified material in a food product is acceptable, the use of which has not been approved in Europe, but the European Union considers it safe;
  • GM materials that are used in certain technological processes, for example, the formation of a crust on cheeses, or products obtained from animals fed feed containing genetically modified organisms, i.e. meat and milk.

Reading the Label: Frequently Asked Questions about GMOs

Source: Adapted from How to Read Labels by Amanda Ursell

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