Non-GMO. Do you know what it means? And is it better than GMO? It must be, right? Otherwise, it wouldn’t be displayed on food-labels as something to brag about. But is it the same as organic? Is organic better than non-GMO? So many questions! Confused?
by Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
What does GMO mean?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” GMO foods have been genetically engineered to withstand certain conditions or chemicals, in particular, herbicides that can tackle weeds — one of the most significant problems that farmers face. The development of plants that could survive when sprayed with a weed-killer was a dream come true for farmers desperate to find a solution to this overwhelming problem.
The most dramatic and frightening of all GMOs are those that are “Roundup Ready.” These GMO crops can be sprayed with the herbicide, Roundup (Monsanto), dramatically increasing productivity by killing the damaging weeds without harming the plant. Sounds wonderful on the surface, that is, until you dig deeper.
Glyphosate is the concern
The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate. The research on this herbicide is extensive, and troubling. Glyphosate was thought to be nearly non-toxic, however researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that glyphosate is a major contributor to health issues including the obesity epidemic in the US. The brain can also be affected, increasing the incidence of autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and depression.
Glyphosate takes the place of glycine in body proteins. Glyphosate is a synthetic amino acid similar to glycine. Acting as a glycine analogue, it may be substituted for glycine in proteins throughout the body, linking it to an extensive list of diseases including gluten intolerance and celiac disease, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, reproductive issues, diabetes, respiratory disorders, adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, osteoporosis, chronic inflammation, and cancer.
Glyphosate alters the uptake of minerals. When a plant is sprayed with glyphosate, it binds metals within the plant’s tissues, impairing the micronutrient content of the plant. The leaf concentration of minerals including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, magnesium, and cobalt have been shown to decrease in plants sprayed with glyphosate. There is discussion that glyphosate can chelate minerals inside the body, reducing their bioavailability for biochemical functions, creating disease states in humans and animals.
The extensive use of glyphosate on our crops is leading to herbicidal resistance. To counteract this, more is being used, and different chemicals are added to the mix. And look for new GMOS to be developed by agrochemical companies. A disturbing trend indeed.
This is a vastly complex subject. I am only beginning to scratch the surface. It is also controversial which makes it difficult to differentiate between truth and propaganda. Consequently, I mostly rely on peer-reviewed research studies to offer the best information available.
What about your horses?
I know you’re thinking that this information applies to you and your family. But let’s focus on the foods that your horses consume. Since there are GMO versions of soybeans, corn, alfalfa, canola, cottonseed (used for oil) and sugar beets, as well as GMO wheat in development, there is no doubt that your horse is affected. Yet, there is little research that specifically looks at glyphosate’s impact on horse’s health. There was a recent study using dairy cows in Denmark, where it was shown that glyphosate intake significantly decreased their serum levels of cobalt and manganese. Additionally, they showed elevated creatine kinase (CK) and alkaline phosphatase (ALP) enzyme levels. CK is indicative of tying up (rhabdomyolysis) and possible kidney failure. Increased ALP indicates potential liver damage and bile duct blockages.
In 2006, over 1000 racehorses, between two and three years of age, were examined for health problems. More than half of them were found to suffer from inflammatory airway disease, joint problems, and fractures. It has been argued that high performance demands or the overuse of the drug Lasix may contribute to these conditions, but there is mounting evidence that glyphosate exposure may be a significant cause of their deteriorating health.
Most soybeans in the US are genetically modified to be Roundup ready. It has been determined that GMO soybeans have substantial amounts of herbicide residues. Soy is a common ingredient in most commercial horse feeds, used as soybean meal, along with its oil (often denoted as vegetable oil) and hulls.
Beet pulp is a byproduct of the sugar beet industry. I have often recommended it as an excellent carrier feed when adding supplements to the horse’s diet. However, most beet pulp comes from GMO sugar beets and may very well be a concern.
Does that mean that non-GMO products are safe?
Not necessarily! The non-GMO label is not a measure of safety in and of itself. True, GMO crops are more likely to be sprayed with Roundup – that is the very purpose of the genetic modification. It is a good start, but not a guarantee since non-GMO crops, unfortunately, can also be sprayed with Roundup.
Glyphosate is sprayed as a pre-harvest desiccant. This process, known as desiccation, involves spraying Roundup on the crops a few days before harvesting. It kills the foliage and accelerated the drying of the grain. Using glyphosate on wheat, barley, or oats, for example, two weeks before harvest, allows for increased product uniformity and yield, and improved harvesting efficiency, especially in humid environments.
Sugar cane, used for your table sugar as well as molasses, is often sprayed with Roundup. But the most alarming crop is your horse’s forage. Your horse’s hay may be the cause of unexplained health issues. According to federal regulations, animal feeds, grass hays, and alfalfa hay are permitted the highest levels of glyphosate that any other food group.
Organic ensures no glyphosate
According to the USDA, organic crops must start with organic seeds and be grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetic engineering. That means that to be certified as organic, it must also be non-GMO! And since non-GMOs do not necessarily protect you against glyphosate contamination, you are much better off seeking organic products.
Nearly 80 USDA certifying agencies can authorize farms and businesses as meeting USDA organic regulations. One such agency, the California Certified Organic Farmers, allows products to be labeled, “Organic is non-GMO and more,” when they meet certification guidelines.
It is far more expensive to be organic than non-GMO, since “non-GMO” is a subset of organic. Companies who are proud to offer organic products are educating their consumers by using this type of labeling.
There is good news
Many small farms simply cannot afford to use Roundup. Or they may choose to grow their crops organically without undergoing the expensive organic certification process. Such companies are happy to share with you that their crops are “glyphosate-free.” When in doubt, I recommend contacting the individual company, farmer, or hay grower/broker to see if they have tested their products for glyphosate. Testing it on your own is expensive, but as a last resort, this may be worth the cost.
There is a large body of research on the negative impact glyphosate has on overall well-being. If your horse has health problems that cannot seem to be resolved, his glyphosate intake may be the culprit. Don’t be misled into thinking that if a company brags about being non-GMO, it is glyphosate-free. However, if a product is certified as organic, it means that it is non-GMO, along with being glyphosate-free. Many researchers have made a fervent plea to governments throughout the world to introduce new legislation that would restrict its usage.