By Stacey Bailey

SYV Cottage Hospital

It’s cropping up in more grocery store food labels but most people may not be in the know when it comes to “GMO.”

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms — plants, animals and other organisms — that have had their genes, or DNA, altered in a way that does not occur naturally. This is also known as genetic engineering.

GMOs have been developed over the years to help farmers improve crop production. Through genetic engineering, seeds and plants have been bred so they can live through drought, resist disease and pest damage, and provide added nutrients.

For example, Monsanto has created soybeans with omega-3 fatty acids, which they do not contain naturally. These unique soybeans from Monsanto are called “Roundup Ready,” meaning they are designed to survive heavier doses of Roundup pesticide spraying.

Those who support GMOs say that the enhanced crops will help grow the food supply needed for the extra 2 billion people that will populate the earth by 2050.

However, critics of genetically modified foods are concerned that GMOs may cause more damage than good for people and the planet. Farmers may use more pesticides and herbicides as plants are bred to withstand greater amounts of applied chemicals.

Also, the GMO process often mixes or adds proteins that don’t exist in the original plant, and critics point out that this could create new and more potent allergic reactions and harm the digestive tract.

When the body’s defense system encounters an unfamiliar molecule, its first response is inflammation. Over time inflammation can weaken the intestinal wall and these molecules can pass through the border, leading to “leaky gut.” This in turn can increase the risk of gut diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, GERD, and other gastrointestinal infections.

Despite some concerns, GMOs are prevalent in the food supply. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that 93 percent of soybeans grown in the nation are genetically modified. The majority of corn (86 percent) produced in 2010 was GMO, and 75 percent of rapeseed, known as canola, was also genetically enhanced.

It’s important to note that while most people don’t put large amounts of soybeans, corn and rapeseed on their plates, these ingredients are found in a wide variety of processed foods.

Many people are not aware that their food contains GMOs. There are no labeling laws or requirements in the United States for GMOs to be identified. In contrast, 64 countries around the world do require food and products to be labeled if they contain GMOs. Furthermore, the FDA requires no safety studies for GMO foods and leaves it up to manufacturers and producers to confirm that their products are safe.

Consumers who wish to avoid GMOs have one best protection: Choose foods that are certified organic or non-GMO. Organic foods are not allowed to be produced from GMO crops or other GMO ingredients. Next time you’re at the market, you may find yourself taking a closer look at the labels.

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Stacey Bailey is clinical dietitian for the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospitals.