Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are in the news a lot these days. And we hear a lot of different stories about whether we should feel good about eating them or not.
There’s a lot of controversy about the safety of GMO foods. Some scientists claim that eating them is perfectly fine. But the truth? The companies that create GMOs (and stand to profit from their sale) are the ones backing the studies concluding GMOs are safe.
A lot of independent scientists don’t believe GMOs are safe. Even though the US and Canadian governments have approved GMOs, a lot of other countries ban them. At the end of 2015, GMO crops were banned in 38 countries around the world, including 28 countries in Europe.
And unless you’re taking conscious steps to avoid GMOs in your dog’s food, chances are he’s eating them, even if you’re feeding a homemade raw diet.
Keep reading to find out why this probably isn’t a good thing.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (or genetically engineered – it’s the same thing) are created when genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of another plant or animal.
Experts in favor of GMOs claim this is the same as cross breeding that’s been used for centuries, but it’s not.
Cross Breeding Vs Genetic Modification
Before we even get to cross breeding, let’s mention cross-pollination. That’s a completely natural process that happens when pollen is carried by the wind, insects or even water, and fertilizes another plant. The plants may be the same or sometimes different species.
Cross-breeding takes the natural process another step, with human intervention. Plant breeders choose specific “parent” plants for certain traits, and transfer the pollen to another plant to create offspring with attributes of both parents. These are often plants that couldn’t have crossed naturally – maybe from different regions or with different disease resistance traits. It’s still a much more natural process than genetic modification.
In genetic modification, scientists take a single gene (or a small set of genes) and transfer it into a new genetic background to give the plant a completely new trait.
It sounds like it might be a good thing, but in practice, genetic modification is an artificial process that can affect foods’ nutritional values as well as their toxic and allergic effects. GM plants are often changed to be insect resistant, virus resistant, or herbicide tolerant, so there’s also an environmental impact.
Where Are GMOs?
Genetically modified crops include corn, soy, beets, canola, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, peas and alfalfa. You’ll recognize these as ingredients that are often in commercial pet foods. Experts say 70% of processed foods for humans contain GMO ingredients.
So, unless you’re feeding certified organic foods you can assume there are GMOs in your dog food. Even if the listed ingredients aren’t GMO, the animals used for the food’s meat ingredients probably ate GMO feed. And if you buy food at a grocery store to make your own raw dog food, the meat animal probably ate GMO ingredients too.
GMO Health Risks
There are significant health risks in eating GMO foods and quite a few studies have reported damage to organs.
- A 2009 safety study by Dona et al found that GM foods can cause hepatic, pancreatic, renal, and reproductive effects and may alter hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters.
- A study by de Vendemois et al compared the effects of feeding three different types of GMO corn to rats for just 90 days. They found toxicity primarily in the liver and kidneys. They also noted side effects in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and blood cells.
- A 2-year feeding trial in 2012 reported that rats fed on a diet containing NK603 Roundup tolerant GM corn or given water containing Roundup developed cancers faster and died earlier than rats fed on a standard diet.
- Several studies have shown that genetic modification can alter gut bacteria and how they behave in the digestive tract.
- The insecticide Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) in GM corn has been shown to damage kidney cells and can cause leaky gut syndrome in infants.
- Also, because the blood-brain barrier is not developed in newborns, toxins can enter the brain and cause serious cognitive problems. Some practitioners believe this is the mechanism for autism.
A Long List of Issues
There are many more studies, but in summary, GMO foods have been shown to cause:
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Damage to other internal organs such as the pancreas and reproductive organs
- Changes in gut bacteria leading to leaky gut and immune system issues.
- Endocrine disruption
- Immune system damage
- Digestive disorders
- Skin and food allergies
- Cognitive issues
- Autism (translating to behavior issues in dogs)
Common GMO Foods
An estimated 70% of processed foods contain GMOs. It’s not surprising when you look at some of the top GMO crops.
The crops highlighted below are in many commercial pet foods. Even if you don’t see them on the label, GMOs are almost certainly in the meat that’s in most pet foods. That’s because a big percentage of these crops are in animal feeds eaten by cows, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits and even fish. So if you’re not buying organic, GMOs are almost certainly not just in your dog’s food but also in your own meat, fish and dairy products.
- Corn is the #1 US crop. 88% of US corn crops are genetically modified.
- Soy is another huge US crop and 94% is GM. You can find soy on ingredient lists under many different names: lecithin, hydrolyzed protein, monosodium glutamate (MSG), vitamin E, tocopherols. Many products with vegetable, plant or bean in the name (plus tofu, tempeh and textured vegetable protein) are all soy based.
- Canola: about 90% of US canola is genetically modified. Canola is everywhere: it’s used in cooking as well as biofuels.
- Cottonseed may sound like something that couldn’t be in pet food, but cottonseeds are the source of many vegetable oils and they’re in animal feeds. 94% of cotton grown in the US is genetically modified.
- Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop grown in the US and cows eat it. So it’s in our meat, milk, cream, yogurt and butter. There aren’t any figures for the percentage of GMO alfalfa crops because GMO alfalfa has (literally) gone wild.
A USDA study found that it’s growing on roadsides and other places it shouldn’t be. It’s a perennial crop so when seeds blow off trucks or are pollinated by bees, it spreads fast and comes up year after year. It’s a huge problem because it’s likely that organic alfalfa crops are also contaminated with GMO seeds. So you really can’t trust alfalfa.
- Beets: you’ll often see beet pulp on pet food labels and 95% of US beet crops are genetically modified. 57% of sugar sold in the US comes from beets.
- And watch out for zucchini, yellow summer squash and papaya: these are also major GMO crops!
Even though Congress recently passed a bill requiring GMO labeling, it has some major flaws:
- Creating a federal law has overridden certain states (such as Vermont) that had stricter GMO labeling laws.
- Producers don’t have to list GMO ingredients in plain English on the packaging, but can provide this information via a QR tag that you have to scan with a smartphone. That’s not very convenient for the average shopper. Over 100 million Americans don’t own smartphones.
- According to the FDA, the definition of GMOs in the bill is written very narrowly and gives GM ingredients many loopholes. This means that many GMO foods might escape labeling requirements.
So, what’s a dog owner to do?
How To Avoid GMOs For Your Dog
The safest way to avoid GMO foods is to buy whole, certified organic foods. Certified organic foods aren’t allowed to use GM ingredients. They are grown without artificial pesticides or fertilizers. Food animals are raised without antibiotics, growth promoters or other drugs.
One useful tool is the Non-GMO Project website. Their Product Verification Program is North America’s only third-party verification for non-GMO food and products. Because they test for GMO contamination, it’s even stricter than organic certification.
Here’s their page listing non-GMO pet products.
You can also look for the Non-GMO Project seal on qualifying products.The controversy will no doubt continue. The new labeling law won’t take effect for two years.
Meanwhile, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure my dogs don’t eat GMO foods. Avoiding GMOs adds expense and complication, but the risks just aren’t worth it.