Get to know GMOs: Glyphosate and our food systems

Monday, January 12, 2015

A pile of fruit on a plate that may contain GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and our food systems are hot topics nowadays and there is a lot of information floating around out there. This past November, St Paul’s University played host for Ottawa’s GMO symposium. As part of this event, our friends at the Interdisciplinary Food Lab (LEILA) hosted a special guest lecture about GMOs and related regulations in Canada.

What is a GMO?
To understand GMOs we need to look at DNA. Think of DNA as the blueprint for everything in our body. DNA holds the code for arranging amino acids, which create proteins, which we use for different reactions or to form different tissues and membranes. Although this is still a relatively new science, it has come a long way in part because of the Human Genome Project (in which the whole human genome was mapped and the genes responsible for coding specific proteins were identified).

When an organism is genetically modified we cut and paste DNA from another organism into the original organism’s DNA. Since the basic units which make up DNA are the same in all organisms, we can transport novel genes from one organism to another while maintaining their functions.

Why would we want to do this?
As strange as this may seem, there are multiple practical applications: developing crops resistant to freezing, organisms resistant to certain pathogens, cells that react in the presence of a toxin… the possibilities are endless! So if GMOs are so great, what is the controversy all about?

Well, part of the controversy lies in the belief that we don’t know enough about the long term impacts of GMOs on human health. During the conference, what really struck me was not necessarily that GMOs exist and that we use them, but how we are using GMOs in our food system without knowing the consequences.

The lecture taught me all about Glyphosate. Glyphosate is currently used as an agricultural herbicide but this stuff is actually really horrible to any form of life. I will try not to bore you with the biochemistry; but essentially, it binds to metal ions and renders the proteins unusable by the organism. If you’ve ever taken a biology course, you’ll probably remember that many of the physiological functions sustained by living organisms require these metal ions (for example our blood which requires iron in order to keep oxygen circling through our system).

To summarize, this glyphosate is REALLY good at killing things indiscriminately, so why do we spray it on our food? This is where the GMOs come in. We currently modify our crops to be resistant to glyphosate so that we can spray it all over the land. This means farmers spend less time weeding their crops and in the end get a better yield.

Glyphosate has been shown to be detrimental to the environment and human health, which has led many countries to regulate and label its use. This is something Canada has yet to do; nevertheless, certification processes do exists.

I often think that a campus would be a great place for the proper labeling of our food, thus giving students the information they need in order to make proper nutritional choices. What do you think, would you like to see better labeling and more sustainably sourced foods on our campus?

To learn more about GMOs, check out Dr. Vrain’s Ted Talk 

~ alice - outreach and volunteer coordinator

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