We are bombarded these days with media telling us “Eat this!”, “Never eat that!”, “Buy this because it’s better for you!”, “Never purchase anything like that—it might cause cancer!”. With so much conflicting information, it can be difficult to know the truth. There is a growing population of health and environmentally conscious consumers in this nation. This might mean that we use organically derived soaps and deodorants, or that we buy recycled and biodegradable products. It can mean a variety of things, and when it comes to consuming food, we know that we want to eat in a way that will be healthy for ourselves and yet not encumber our precious earth. Very well, you say, eat “free-range” chicken eggs, and get your produce from local organic farmers. Certainly, this may serve some of the purpose, but it gets trickier when we are faced in the supermarket with genetically modified foods. Studies have shown that the public is in dire need of education as to all the various aspects of this phenomenon1, therefore I aim to break it down into a digestible few points, so that you can make your own decisions.
To begin, what are genetically modified (GM) foods? Simply put, they can be any kind of agriculturally produced organism, plant or animal, whose genes have been tinkered with in order to produce a supposedly superior product. In the good old days, farmers spent a great deal of energy selecting, breeding, and cross breeding plants and animals to yield hybrids that grew well under certain circumstances, had high production rates, and so on. These days, it is possible to eliminate the extended time frame that breeding entails, and to directly modify, by adding or removing genes, the end product. It is very like science fiction in that it is possible mix and match genes not only from within a species but even across kingdom lines to obtain a desirable quality. For instance, to create a frost-resistant tomato plant, genes from an arctic fish were inserted into the tomato plant’s DNA.
It seems unlikely that the fertility barrier that is inherent within a species should be crossed to allow this to happen. Therefore, I would like to outline the method by which this sort of thing is done, so that you have a better idea of what exactly GM entails2. First, a system is derived for delivering the new DNA into the host cell—this is called the vector. Oftentimes the vector is a bacteria that is known to readily infect the host, but the vector can also be something like microscopic particles of metal that are fired into the host tissue. Secondly, a suitable tissue must be chosen for the vector to attack such that the vector easily inserts the new DNA into the existing DNA, and also such that this tissue will either grow into an entire organism (such as an embryo), or readily be regenerated in the entire animal or plant to which it will be grafted. When this has been successfully done, the resulting tissue is considered transformed. Finally, there must be appropriate marker genes in the new DNA. These marker genes basically allow scientists to check their work, to identify and select the successfully transformed tissues for production. As you can see, these requirements for transgenic modification completely circumvent breeding.
This point is one of the main attractions to GM food production—it is much swifter a way to change the end product to something more productive, adapted better to particular climes, resistant to pests, and so on. The counter argument is that such tampering with genetics is effectively “playing God” and therefore distasteful to ethical reasoning3. In addition, the actual end product does not always live up to expectations. USDA data shows that between 1996-1998, some harvests using GM seeds show elevated yield, while other harvests show a decline in yield4.
The second major reason given for using GM technologies in food production is to aid third world nations by producing more nutritious foods or by creating more prolific organisms to combat starvation5. However, opponents counter that GM foods do not adequately address either problem. They say that education is a better, and cheaper, method to improve nutrition. Furthermore, the problem is not that the world is short of food—in fact we have surplus food—but that the difficulty is in distributing that food to our starving multitudes, especially in areas of the world that have poor ground transport systems in place6.
Many third world nations including Zambia, Tanzania, Brazil, and India are not willing to use GM foods or GM crops, because they feel that to do so is not in their best interest, both health-wise, and financially. These nations are wary that the countries producing such technological advances are offering these sorts of crops as a means by which to capture more consumer prey. That is, the thought is that once these countries start using these products, they will be indentured to them, and will always have to buy them in the future. For instance, there are GM crops that are “roundup ready” meaning that they are resistant to herbicides that will kill any other weed. Using these seeds means that the farmer must also buy the company’s Roundup herbicide7.
There are potential hazards involved in transgenic modification, too. First, human health ought to be considered. Allergies may arise from foods that the consumer normally does not have allergic reactions to (for instance, soybeans with nut genes). This could be combated with proper warning labels, but no labels of this or any other sort are mandatory in the United States today8. It is also possible that GM could increase natural toxins or decrease nutrients in some foods. Some people worry that antibiotic-resistant GM foods might proffer their genes to us somehow, and that this could cause horrible outbreaks of disease9. Secondly, the livelihoods of organic farmers ought to be reflected upon. These farmers have raised complaints that nearby GM crops are commingling and cross pollinating with their crops to produce hybrids that cannot supply their niche customers with what they demand—pure organic products. Similarly, crop contamination has been demonstrated by StarLink, a GM corn that contained pesticide not approved for human consumption by the FDA, showing up in corn products for human consumption, and resulting in enormous lawsuits10. Finally, the environment should be taken into consideration. It has been shown by John Obrycki and Laura Hansen that GM corn with the genes of bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) has been increasing the mortality rate of monarch butterflies in addition to the moths that the genes are intended to kill7. This sort of thing could have lasting, horrible effects for the biodiversity of our planet. We also don’t know what would happen if things like salmon five times the size of normal salmon were to escape into the wild. While companies like Monsanto strive to create GM products that are environmentally friendly, we simply do not have adequate research to show that their efforts are indeed working, or that this is even conceivable given the exponential jump in food production technology that GM represents.
Generally, it is accepted that these are all valid risks, but that more research is needed in order to determine whether these issues are fairly benign, safety wise. Unfortunately, the corporations that create GM foods are not very interested in curbing their productivity until such risks have been explored more satisfactorily10. While there have been repeated explorations that conclude that more research is needed, labeling products would be beneficial, and that better communication with the general public is needed11, these sort of things do not seem to be happening. However, there is quite a bit of journalistic fury trying to drum up consumers’ alarm reflexes to get us involved and active in making these things happen. The ban on genetic agriculture in the United States occurred just a year ago in California, which was quite a shock to the biotech industry but a triumph for local organic farmers12. Still, the general consensus is that those who speak out against GM foods are Luddites and that the biotechnological revolution will win out due to consumer apathy13.
Now that you know the issues, you can help determine the future of GM foods by deciding what role you want to play in their development. Will you buy them? Chances are, you already have since most aren’t labeled. No matter where you stand on the subject, it is important that you contact your local legislator to discuss your opinions and concerns to ensure that the large corporations that create GM foods do it with our input, and not autonomously, as they have been doing.
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2.Shewry PR, Lazzeri Paul. Genetic manipulation of crops. British Food Journal 1996; 98: 5-11.
3.Banner M. Ethics, society and policy: a way forward. In: Holland A, Johnson A, eds. Animal Biotechnology and Ethics. London: Chapman & Hall, 1998; 325-339.
4.Anonymous. Seeds of change. Consumer reports 1999; 64: 41-47.
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6.Sperling V, Sharma M. GM foods: Gift or Curse? Hinduism Today 2000; Aug 31; 66-70.
7.Padmanabhan A. Beware of biological war, warn environmentalists. India Abroad 2000; 30; 28-29.
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10.Carroll J. Gene-altered canola can spread to nearby fields, risking lawsuits. Wall Street Journal 2002; Jun 28: B6-7.
11.Frewer LJ, Howard C, Shepherd R. Effective communication about genetic engineering and food. British food journal 1996; 98: 48-54.
12.AP. County Votes to Ban Genetic Agriculture. The Wall Street Journal 2004; Mar 4: 1.
13.Anonymous. Britain: Frankenfoods v Luddites; GM crops. The Economist 2003; 367: 29-30.