Genetically engineered (GE) food is perhaps the most profound and controversial change to the human diet since our early ancestors began farming.
Also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), this form of biotechnology splices genes from one species into another. Unlike traditional breeding and hybridization techniques that can enhance the qualities of a particular species, genetic engineering also places bacteria, pesticides, and viruses (among other novel genes) into plant cells. This includes mixing flounder genes into tomatoes so they’ll survive at lower temperature and engineering human growth genes into fish and livestock so they’ll grow larger more quickly.
Is this kind of biotech tinkering safe? Many scientists warn that GMOs can harm humans as well as other natural species. Australian researchers discovered that peas (genetically engineered with a bean gene) trigger allergic reactions in laboratory animals, even though the original gene produced no allergies. Lab rats fed GE potatoes modified with pesticide experience lower metabolic rates and less robust immune systems than controls fed potatoes without genetic tampering.
While adding pesticides to plants is intended to reduce agricultural application of these toxins, GMOs have actually increased pesticide use, according to a joint report from the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Friends of the Earth. Since introduction of the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium) gene into cotton, this crop’s primary pest, the bollworm, has developed resistance to Bt in some cotton fields, and pigs fed Bt corn have experienced breeding problems. Worldwide, farmers have reported herbicide-resistant “superweeds” since 2001.
Despite concerns over “tampering with nature” and newly recognized risks, the majority of processed foods on our supermarket shelves contain GMOs. In 2007, 91 percent of soy and 73 percent of corn grown in the United States have been genetically engineered. Starting in 2008, almost all U.S. sugar beets and approximately 75 percent of canola in this country contain GMOs.
Even though over 90 percent of American consumers want GMO labeling, our government has yet to make it mandatory. By contrast, any European food containing more than 0.9 percent GE materials must be labeled. In July, the CFS presented over 20,000 individual comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in an effort to “reign in the biotech industry.”
“Proposed USDA rules would virtually ensure that contamination of organic and conventional crops will become even more frequent,” says Andrew Kimbrell, CFS executive director. “These looser regulations are a boon for a handful of biotech companies and a disaster for family farmers, consumers, and the environment.”
Currently, only organic foods are produced without genetic engineering, so look for the “certified organic” label. Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, upheld an earlier decision that planting genetically modified alfalfa can result in potentially irreversible harm to organic crops. Not surprisingly, the Organic Trade Association has long called for a moratorium on GMOs in agriculture. It also supports mandatory labeling.
A new “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal is beginning to appear, as well, in natural products stores. This seal means that production followed “rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance,” including ingredients testing.
Benefits of Genetic Engineering?
Originally intended to increase the world’s food supply, genetic engineering (GE) has not yet made any specific contribution in the fight against hunger. Nor have GE crops increased yields. In fact, most genetically modified (GM) crops either feed animals or are exported to developed countries as fiber, rather than food. Because these seeds are expensive and biotech companies don’t let farmers save resulting seeds for the next planting, GMOs have done little to relieve poverty.
Common GMO Crops
In 2007, 91 percent of soy and 73 percent of corn grown in the United States have been genetically engineered. Starting in 2008, almost all U.S. sugar beets and approximately 75 percent of canola in this country contain GMOs.