Chances are you or someone you know has eaten potatoes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the last twenty-four hours. Many people enjoy eating potatoes more than once a week. The point? It’s a popular staple for the average person living in the U.S.A. There are a couple of reasons why this matters today. First, Maine’s potato fields have been drastically impacted by late blight, a destructive fungal disease which turns crops into a dry brown rot. Second, to combat this, Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control unanimously approved three new types of genetically modified potatoes on May 12, 2017.
There is little fanfare among much of Maine’s population no thanks to the mostly negative term GMO. Many organic farmers also have a lot to say on the topic and wholly disagree with Maine’s move to approve these genetically engineered products. Below, we delve further into what these new GMO potatoes mean for the people of Maine.
GMO Potatoes: Are They Necessary?
When it comes down to news like this, context is so important. Out of all of America’s states, Maine is the last one to get on board with Idaho-based agribusiness J.R. Simplot Co., the producer of the three ‘Innate Generation 2’ potatoes:
- Russet Burbank
- Ranger Russet
- Atlantic Potatoes
J.R. Simplot Co. created these potatoes by adding genes from a wild potato plant. Since the vote, farmers will be able to plant these potatoes in Maine fields at any time. But what’s more promising is that Simplot has designed their potatoes to be resistant to late blight. On the surface, these two pros seem promising. The pressing issue, however, rises when people begin voicing safety concerns for their families.
Questionable giants in the agriculture industry such as Monsanto are largely responsible for ‘genetic modification’ getting such a bad rap. When a product is ‘genetically modified’ it has been artificially altered. However, this does not necessarily imply that toxic chemicals were involved in the process. Sharie Fitzpatrick, a senior biotech regulatory manager at Simplot, acknowledges this, too:
“Once people understand that it’s [potato-to-potato], they soften. It doesn’t hit the same sort of emotional triggers.”
Some of you may remember Monsanto’s discontinued NewLeaf transgenic potato, which they spliced with the bug-repelling Bt gene that originated from soil bacteria. In comparison to that, Fitzpatrick affirmed that Simplot potatoes are cisgenic which means that they only contain genes from other potatoes. And, on top of that, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled the new potatoes safe and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved them last fall.
The GMO Potatoes Public Pushback
Despite the seemingly positive takeaways of Simplot potatoes, one long-time opponent of genetically engineered crops disagrees with the board’s approval. Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Family Farm has been supplying customers in all fifty states and believes that:
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“These GMO potatoes run the very strong risk of depressing demand for potatoes of all types, both organic and conventional. There’s a growing body of evidence that consumers do not want genetically engineered food. What I worry about is that there will be a vague recollection that new potatoes will be genetically engineered. That’s going to damage every potato farmer. Not just organic ones but regular ones, too.”
In a 2015 survey, Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of American adults believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to consume. This is directly in line with Gerritsen’s observation that “consumers have made it clear that they don’t want these GMO potatoes in the mix.”
For better or worse, although Maine farmers can start planting Simplot potatoes at any time, it remains unclear how many of them will endorse (and use) the product. The reality in Maine that farmers and families who rely on this meal staple is that late blight is taking a toll on potato fields. So, time will tell whether farmers begin desiring Simplot potatoes, even if they are GMO.
Should You Be Avoiding GMOs?
We as consumers get a lot of information, both credible and incredible, that make it hard to come to a consensus on GMOs. It seems safe to argue that more often than not, the portrayal of GMOs in the media are largely negative, sensational, and not always entirely accurate. This isn’t to say GMOs are safe by any means. Products pushed by Monsanto are classic examples and great illustration of where the GMO debate sits with a lot of people; it’s an emotional and sensitive topic, no doubt. Let’s look, however, at the most recent and most exhaustive study about the effects of GMOs on human that have come out in recent years.
In May 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released an exhaustive study that looked at the dangers of GMOs on human health. In their report titled Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, the committee reviewed evidence from the last two decades, which included: 900 studies and other publications, 80 speakers, 15 webinars, and over 700 comments and documents that the public submitted. If that isn’t in-depth enough for you, it’ll be hard to find a study more convincing.
After all was said and done, the committee concluded that – for now, at least – there is “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops.”
In reality, GMOs have not yet been around long enough to accurately assess the long-term health implications. But, for anyone wanting to choose a side and say ‘GMOs are safe’ or ‘GMOs are unsafe’ with complete certainty, the science on either side simple doesn’t allow them to. And if companies are producing GMO foods that truly don’t pose a risk to human health, it’s important now more than ever for companies to label properly, simply, and clearly. That way, everyone can make health-conscious decisions for themselves. If you’d like to err on the side of caution, always opt to buy local and organic as much as possible.
How to Avoid GMO Foods While Grocery Shopping
If you can buy locally from farmers in your community, that’s fantastic. Building those relationships goes a long way to benefit your family’s health and strengthen your community. Avoiding GMO food products in the grocery store, however, can be quite the challenge.
So, here are some valuable tips that we hope will help you along the way!
- Assume that all non-organic corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola ingredients are GMO. These are most often found in the center aisles of your grocery store.
- Stay away from artificial sweeteners. They often contain aspartame which uses genetically modified bacterial strains of E. coli.
- Be aware of unseen genetically modified ingredients which, in other words, means read your labels. Most of these GMO-filled labels will include xanthan gum, glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, cellulose, maltodextrin, and mono and diglycerides. Try your best to avoid them at all costs.
- Choose certified organic dairy products. Mainstream brand dairy products often come from cattle that were raised on genetically modified growth hormones.
- Don’t trust produce stickers and PLU codes on fruits and vegetables. Many people believe that the 5-digit code beginning with an 8 means that the food is genetically modified. However, this is entirely optional. What you can trust is the 5-digit code beginning with a 9 that identifies organic fruits and vegetables that are non-GMO.
We know – it’s a lot to keep an eye out at first. But as you start trying to be more aware of these things, it will begin to happen naturally.
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