What Is GMO?

New labels seem to be popping up at our local grocers constantly, anything from pesticide-free to state-labeled products, and convey themselves as laminated stickers stuck to the plastic which most of the items we buy are wrapped in. We see them day in and day out when we're buying our food without paying them much attention, until recently. With Monsanto instigating protests worldwide, foods' labels are becoming more important, as Americans need to be more aware than ever of whether or not their produce is genetically modified   

We were curious to find out just what the GMO standards were for agriculture in the United States, so we reached out to Bob Quinn, owner of Kamut International. Though his family's Montana-based farm has been run by four generations of family members since 1920, his organic farming only started in 1986. When he realized that he was able to not only diversify his crops, but also cut out all chemical fertilizer bases by performing an organic farming experiment, he began branding their wheat as Kamut International. 

Khorasan wheat comes from ancient grains, which don't give Quinn the mass yield that agronomic wheat does, and it produces a wheat that is higher in anti-oxidants and other various nutrients. ­­

The Daily Meal: Can you explain what genetically modified wheat is to the everyday shopper?

Bob Quinn: GMO stands for genetically modified organism. New strains of plants or animals are created in 3 major ways. The first is conventional breeding programs. Originally, this was driven by natural selection. That is, picking the best of the naturally occurring progeny and keeping the seed or the breeding stock from that selection. A later modification of that process occurred when farmers and breeders would cross two plants or animals which had its own set of desired traits with the hopes of producing progeny with both sets of desired traits. 

A second way to create new strains was through changing the DNA to form a mutation, something that had not occurred before. This can happen spontaneously on rare occasions in nature.  A mutation occurred naturally when a branch of a normal peach tree suddenly started to produce fuzz-less peaches. Thus the nectarine was born, and millions of trees have now descended from that single odd branch.  This process can be accelerated in the laboratory by subjecting cells to strong chemicals, which change to the DNA in them. These cells are grown into full-size plants and tested for the presence or absence of the desired change. This is the way that vegetable oil plant, canola, was made by causing a mutation in grape seed, but reducing the objectionable erucic acid which it contained.  GMO plants and animals are created in a completely different way... the genes injected into a plant may be coming from an organism from a completely different kingdom, like a fish or bacteria.

TDM: Why should this concern the shoppers themselves?

BQ: One of the serious flaws of this system is that scientists have no way to know what other changes may have taken place in the cell due to other genes being turned off or on in a different way from normal. Another serious flaw of the technology is that there is nothing preventing the new GMO plants or animals from crossing with neighboring non-GMO organisms either being grown domestically or in the wild thus contaminating them. 

TDM: What are your biggest concerns regarding genetic modification or agriculture and livestock?

BQ: My biggest concerns regarding GMO crops and livestock are twofold. The first is that we do not know the consequences of eating such foods made from these products. Independent studies, which raise questions and concerns about the health effects of eating such foods, are immediately discredited by the patent holders of the GMOs, while the scientists involved are maligned.  Yet, there has not been a single independent study published that I know of in a recognized peer reviewed scientific journal demonstrating that GMOs are safe to eat. My second concern is the concentration of control and ownership of so many of the seeds used to grow our food into the hands of a very few giant companies, such as Monsanto. If this trend continues to its most extreme end, we can project that if they control the seeds of the major crops of the world. Besides this problem, they also promote an artificial system of monoculture, which is just the opposite of diversity in agriculture. Monoculture is an unnatural and unsustainable system, as it requires ever increasing amounts of inputs such as expensive fertilizer and pesticides to survive.  They create a high potential for crop loss due to disease and insects, which can easily spread from one monoculture farm to the next.  For the most part, they are economically unattainable in the poorer third world countries and are artificially maintained in America only by high agricultural subsidies. 

TDM: What is so important about proper labeling of GM foods versus non-GMO foods?

BQ: Because there are so many questions about the effects of eating GM food, I believe it is our right to know where GMOs are found so that we can exercise our right to choose what we eat. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans would not eat GM foods if given the choice, while 87 percent believe GM foods should be labeled as such regardless. When a certain industry is able to prevail against the opinions of 87 percent of the population, it gives you an idea of the extent of their power, influence, and control they already have over our government and policy making vehicles