By Amanda Wyatt
When it comes to genetically modified food, “Americans are still dining in the dark.”
At least, that’s according to Kathleen Furey of GMO Free New York, who gave a presentation of the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor on Saturday.
“We really just need to know what’s in our food, don’t we?” she said. “We need to have informed choices, we need to be protected. It’s time that we stopped being guinea pigs. This is very serious. This isn’t getting better.”
Since their introduction to the food supply in the 1990s, GMOs have been controversial across the nation and the globe. As Furey explained, genetic modification or engineering involves the transfer of genes from one species to an unrelated species.
Scientists will take genetic coding for a particular trait and insert it into another organism, which will then display that new trait.
For example, corn is sometimes genetically modified in order to produce a bacterial toxin to poison pests that attack the crop.
While the biotech industries and the FDA have touted GMOs as safe, opponents have pointed to what they believe to be health risks associated with genetic modification. A host of medical problems — from allergies to reproductive problems — have been linked to GMOs.
Furey cited one study in which Bt, a bacterial insecticide produced in some genetically modified corn, was discovered in the bloodstream of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses.
“There’s a theory that our guts may now be insecticide production factories, because this is not leaving our digestive tract through our waste, as they say it’s supposed to,” said Furey.
There are also a number of environmental risks associated with GMOs, said Furey, including cross-contamination of organic and conventional crops, and the creation of pest-resistant “superbugs” and herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”
Currently, companies are not required to print whether their food has been genetically modified, which makes it impossible to tell the true extent of GMOs. But according to Furey, approximately 94 percent of soy and 88 percent of corn products may be genetically modified, and perhaps 80 percent of processed foods could contain GMO ingredients.
Furthermore, she said, many of the American safety studies on GMOs are funded by the biotech industry, and these same companies have ties to politicians and federal regulators.
“There is a definite conflict of interest that is one of the elephants in the room,” she said.
While many countries require GMO products to be labeled — the European Union has labeled GMOs since 1998 — and some have even banned them, there has not been similar legislation in the United States. And as far as Furey is concerned, the time for change is now.
Currently, she said, 37 states and Washington D.C. are pushing their legislatures to label genetically modified products. The New York State legislature has already introduced bills on this matter, and Furey is hopeful that the state will be a catalyst for change across the country.
She urged audience members to get involved by educating their friends and family members, as well as contacting their local representatives.
In the meantime, those concerned about GMOs must become savvy consumers. Furey recommended buying unprocessed, organic foods, and choosing products that voluntarily display non-GMO labels. In addition, she suggested avoiding products made from corn, soybeans, canola and cottonseed, which are particularly at risk for genetic modification.
Many audience members took Furey’s message to heart, including Mike and Dawn Kelly.
“The government is turning a blind eye [to GMOs],” he said. “…I think the biggest thing we have to do is spread awareness, more than anything.”
“And it starts with the children,” she added.
“If they’ve found [herbicides] in the bloodstream of pregnant women and fetuses, then what else are we finding in our bodies?” asked Robin Blackley, a beekeeper.
“If we’re at the top of the food chain, we’re getting everything from the bottom of the food chain up that’s staying in us,” she said. “It was really illuminating. I was very, very surprised.”