What do you think of when the term “GMO” is brought up in conversation? If you’re a conscious consumer or concerned parent, you may be fearful of GMOs and their impact on the health and wellbeing of your family. If you’re an advocate for organic, you may be angry that the integrity of whole foods is being tampered with. If you’re a scientist, you may be excited for the progress and potential that GMO foods hold for our future. If you’re a farmer, you may be proud of the advancements that GMO crops have allowed on your own farm. Whatever your viewpoint is, it is always beneficial to take a step back, review the facts and consider a topic in a new light. This is exactly what the Kankakee County Farm Bureau was striving to do when they hosted a showing of Food Evolution this month. The free screening of the informational documentary was held at the Kankakee Public Library, with a stellar panel discussion that followed.
So… what is a GMO, anyway? GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism”, a term resulting from the controversial debate sparked by genetically altered foods. The acronym has since spread like wildfire, but do we know what the term really means? Very little of our food as we know it today has resulted naturally, devoid of any form of human manipulation. For example, humans have been selecting for beneficial traits in crops to produce higher yields for thousands of years. We’ve created our own form of manmade (un)natural selection, even going as far as creating designer dog breeds. These are examples of GMOs. The hot debate that we are engaged in is truly over GEOs, or “Genetically Engineered Organisms”. Advancements in science have allowed us to directly manipulate an organism’s genetics, inserting or removing genes using biotechnology. The result is an organism that is genetically engineered.
Moderated by Paul and Donna Jeschke (shown standing at the podium) who farm in rural Mazon, Illinois, the panelists answered questions from the audience about genetically engineered foods. Jeff O’Connor, County Soil & Water Conservation District chairman and local farmer, is shown speaking about his farming operation and his experiences raising both GMO and non-GMO crops. Seated next to O’Connor is fellow panelist Jessica Kollmann who is a Registered Dietician at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee. Other panelists not pictured included Dr. Daniel Sharda, a physiologist from Olivet Nazarene University and Dr. Stephen Moose, a crop geneticist from the University of Illinois.
We’ve been told that genetically engineered foods are bad for us and for the environment. Unfortunately, the media has struck fear into society by grabbing hold of false information labeled as true “scientific literature”. How do we know what to believe? I encourage you to let go of opinions fueled by emotion and seek the truth through facts. A little digging reveals that the scientific literature tying GMOs to health issues (like cancer) have been discredited and revoked. According to Scientific American, people have consumed as many as trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients over the past few decades. Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to genetic alterations. Genetically engineered foods are beneficial to impoverished countries, and bananas resistant to wilt are helping to solve Uganda’s hunger crisis. Before allowing either side to tell you what to believe, do some research on your own!
After the showing of Food Evolution, panelists discussed these controversial topics and questions submitted by the audience. The post-film panel consisted of Jeff O’Connor, Kankakee County Soil & Water Conservation District chairman and local farmer of both GMO and non-GMO crops, Jessica Kollmann, Registered Dietician at St. Mary’s Hospital, Dr. Daniel Sharda, professor and physiologist at Olivet Nazarene University, and Dr. Stephen Patrick Moose, professor in the Crops Sciences department at the University of Illinois. Each panelist shared their opinion backed by personal research and/or experience.
The consensus of the panel was that BOTH genetically engineered crops and organic crops are needed to provide a healthy, efficient and sustainable food source to feed the world! Dr. Dan Sharda is a strong advocate for organic foods, and supports shopping for locally grown produce. He also stated that mass producing organic food alone would not be a sustainable avenue to feed the world, because it is less efficient and requires more land. Jeff O’Connor stated that the genetically engineered crops he raises in rural Kankakee require less insecticide and herbicide than non-GMO crops, benefitting the environment. Genetically engineered crops also require less tillage, helping to reduce carbon emissions. Jessica Kollmann and Dr. Stephen Patrick Moose agreed that both genetically engineered foods and organic foods provide the same nutritional quality. It turns out that when it comes to eating healthy, you should be more concerned with following a plant-based diet, whether those fruits and vegetables are GMO or organic!
I encourage you to sit down and watch Food Evolution. Whether you are a supporter of genetically engineered food or you are anti-GMO, think to yourself – when was the last time I allowed myself to consider the alternative?