Since their inception nearly 20 years ago, genetically engineered foods have caused concern and debate on both public and legal fronts. Many diners do not want to eat foods that have been genetically altered. In response to this demand, many commercial kitchens and grocery stores are offering organic food options. But biotechnology firms and the government contend that genetically engineered foods are just as safe as any other food in the U.S. food chain.
Genetically Engineered (GE) foods go by many names including, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Genetically Modified (GM) crops and Frankenfoods. Whatever the name, the technology is the same. Individual genes from plants and animals are combined to produce favorable characteristics. GMOs are a type of hybrid, but the genes being combined are from animals and plants that would not be able to cross-breed in nature. It is estimated that 50% of all American farmers grow some form of genetically modified crop.1
Examples of Genetically Engineered Crops
- Corn. Bt Corn contains a gene that allows the plant to produce a toxin to kill the European corn borer, a caterpillar-like organism that feeds on corn and other crops.
- Soybeans. Roundup Ready Soybeans are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. These crops can be sprayed throughout their entire development cycle and face no ill-effects of the herbicide, but weeds will be effectively killed.
- Canola. As with soybeans, plants from which canola oil is extracted are genetically modified to increase their herbicide resistance.
- Rice. A form of rice was genetically modified to naturally produce Vitamin A, a vitamin necessary for healthy eyesight. The resulting “Golden Rice” is used primarily in poor countries to help combat blindness.
Identifying Foods Made From GE Crops
Currently, there are no labeling requirements in the U.S. to indicate whether a food product contains genetically modified ingredients. It is a requirement in some European countries (where GMOs are not banned altogether), and the movement towards labeling is underway in the United States. Presently the only way to be certain a particular food contains no GMOs is to purchase those labeled as Organic.
Source of the Controversy
Since research in genetic modification began 20 years ago, there have been convincing and often heated arguments both for and against this technology. The main source of controversy is that the new crops are not produced naturally. Since dissimilar species are having their genes mixed-and-matched, opponents believe this will have adverse effects on the natural barriers that exist between species. Those in favor of GM crops argue that it is just another form of selective breeding. There are also ethical and religious concerns about changing the genetic structure of a living organism.
GMO Myth: In the early 1990s, scientists were attempting to create frost resistant plants by inserting Arctic flounder DNA into strawberries and tomatoes. Though the experiment failed, opponents of GMO technology mention the research as though it were a success.
Arguments for Genetically Engineered Foods
- GMOs are needed to feed the world. Estimates show that by 2050, there will be 10 billion people living on this planet, most of them in poor countries.2 GMOs can be engineered to grow and thrive in harsher climates, allowing more food to be grown for our increasing population.
- GMOs reduce global impact from pesticides. Since genetically engineered crops are naturally more resistant to pests, less pesticides have to be applied, which reduces air, soil and water pollution. A recent study showed that farmers who use GM crops have decreased pesticide application by 172,000 metric tons.
- GMOs can boost the nutritional value of a food. As mentioned before, variations of rice can be made to naturally produce Vitamin A. Other crops can also be modified to produce beneficial nutrients. Rather than fortifying orange juice with calcium, genetic engineering may be able to create oranges that produce more calcium on their own.
- GM crops help prevent soil erosion. Most GM crops are engineered to resist insects and disease. Since they are heartier crops, farmers can employ low till or no-till methods of planting. No-till means the ground is not plowed before planting, so the soil is less likely to be carried away by wind and rain.
Arguments Against Genetically Engineered Foods
- They adversely affect human and animal health. Several different studies have shown that rats fed GM crops (including potatoes, tomatoes and corn) developed stomach lesions, intestinal damage and shrunken livers, among other maladies.4 Additionally, several studies have documented that workers who pick GE cotton have developed severe allergies.5
- Large corporations will control farmers. Bio-technology firms hold patents on all of the GE crops they produce. Some companies even require farmers to give back unused seed or engineer the seeds to only respond to a certain fertilizer, one sold by the seed company. Opponents feel these mafia-like tactics threaten small family farms that keep their unplanted seeds until next season or cannot afford the special fertilizers needed for the GE seeds.
- Genetically modified foods are less nutritious. Research has shown that Roundup Ready beans have significantly lower protein and amino acids than their non-modified counterparts.6
- Genetic engineering is playing God. Perhaps the leading cause for consumer uncertainty over all forms of genetic modification is the belief that it interferes with God’s plan. Though the experiment failed, research is ongoing to create frost resistant crops through genetic manipulation. Some people believe that God did not intend for fish and strawberries to interbreed, no matter the possible benefits to human health.
What the Government Has to Say
Genetically engineered foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As long as the gene or genes being added to the food are proven to cause no adverse human health affects, the FDA considers that gene and therefore the modified food to be safe. With new GMOs entering the market, the FDA requires a 120 day advance notification from the manufacturer, so the FDA has time to review the product’s safety.