Let’s face it, most of us probably get a bit confused when talking about or reading about GMOs, GEs, and what their use means for our diets, and the diets of our pets. What you probably do know is that GMO food crops are widely used, and this practice isn’t likely to go away. So what does this mean for our pets’ health?
What Are GMOs?
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and GE seeds (genetically engineered seeds) are organisms and crops that are developed by biotech companies to be more viable or useful in some way. Need a type of corn that doesn’t get mowed down by insects before you can harvest it? Want your salmon to mature in a year and a half instead of three years? Farmers and food manufacturers turn to biotech companies to secure cheaper, more sustainable ingredients and hardier seeds.
Crops harvested from farms using GE seeds turn up in plenty of foods for both humans and pets, as do food products that come from GMOs.
How Are GMOs Created?
Remember Gregor Mendel and his pea plants from high school science class? While big companies like Monsanto are getting a lot of press lately, genetically modified foods aren’t brand new. Starting with Mendel’s work in the late 1800s, we’ve been learning about genetic inheritance traits and have been applying that learning to our food supply. For example, we’ve selected the preferred mutations of fruits and vegetables to sustain their color, grow bigger produce, and grow plants that are more resistant to infections.
Isn’t This Just a Shortcut for Big Companies?
No one can deny the monetary benefits of bioengineering to the companies that do it. But they aren’t the only ones who benefit. Really. Those salmon who mature faster could help wild salmon avoid depletion or extinction. This also means you won’t see the price skyrocket at your grocery store when there’s a shortage.
The applications of GMOs are in large part in an effort to promote sustainability and to feed the population without shortages. GMOs are often created in the first place to prevent shortages from any one drought, parasite infestation, or the like.
Now that we know the genetic code of many foods, we have the ability to take small pieces of DNA that do something useful and incorporate them to add a nutrient of interest (like add vitamin A) or make a protein that will prevent parasites from destroying crops.
Possible Downsides to GMOs in Pet Foods
Some opponents of GMOs in pet food in particular argue that the prevalence of food allergies in pets has risen in correlation to the widespread use of GMO products in pet foods. Veterinarians stand on both sides of the fence on this, but in the end, the research at this moment is poor. True food allergy in pets accounts for less that 5% of pet allergies overall, so there isn’t an overwhelming amount of evidence to go on.
Another reason some people dislike GMOs is the fear that these are "Franken-foods," or foods we just don’t know enough about. Some people fear that the introduction of new DNA into the diet could have negative affects on health.
So What’s the Truth?
There’s not much evidence at this point that GMOs are causing health issues. Any new DNA that occurs in food meets the same end as the food’s “old” DNA—it gets broken down into small fragments when digested. However, should issues be discovered, it’s important that consumers be notified and protected. This is why the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” is so hotly debated.
For example, a genetically modified corn recently in use creates a chemical that will prevent herbicides from killing the corn while getting rid of weeds in the field. This chemical allows more herbicide to be used, leading to better crop yields. In testing, when this chemical and the herbicide together were fed to rats in excessive quantities, they led to a slightly higher incidence of liver and kidney problems. However, more tests are needed to fully understand the effects and to ensure complete safety for the consumer.
What Can I Do?
GMOs are likely to never go away, so if you’re concerned about GMOs in your pet’s food, what can you do?
There is currently no regulation in the pet food industry that requires labeling GMOs. So here’s what you can do if you want to be sure your pet’s diet doesn’t include any GMOs:
- Buy foods labeled organic
- Avoid soybeans, canola, corn, and sugar from sugar beets as these crops can have a high prevalence of GMO
- Buy products that are labeled as GMO free
- Contact the manufacturer if you’re unsure
- Prepare your pet’s food yourself at home
If you decide to give your pet homemade food, consult a veterinarian or board-certified veterinary nutritionist when designing their diet. Dietary insufficiencies from home-prepared pet foods can result in health problems.
More on Choosing Pet Food
What Should I Look for in Dog Food Ingredients?
Nutrition for Adult Cats
Food to Help Your Senior Dog Lose Weight
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.