By Lorraine Metz
Genetically modified foods, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, are “food from crops whose genes have been scientifically changed.” According to CBC.ca, genetically modified foods were first introduced in 1994 with a tomato nicknamed the Flavr Savr. Since then, more GM foods have been produced, most popular include GM soybeans, GM corn and GM canola. According to Truefoodnow.org, it has been estimated that over 70 percent of processed foods at the supermarket contain GM ingredients. Additionally, up to 85 percent of corn and 91 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. The popularity of GM crops and food has become more evident in recent years, but how will it affect you?
The controversy surrounding this subject is reason enough to find out more about these genetic alterations. Advocates for GM foods contend that this new product can help the starving and conquer malnutrition.
The World Health Organization states that, “the initial objective for developing plants based on GM organisms was to improve crop protection. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.
Peter Pringle, author of “Food, Inc.” noted, “A decade ago, two European biotech plan researches found a way to insert a daffodil gender into a rice plant…The new rice grains contained beta-carotene. In humans, it becomes the essential nutrient known as vitamin A. And lack of vitamin A causes death and blindness in millions of undernourished people in Asia and Africa where rice is a staple food. In theory,the golden rice with beta-carotene could save millions of lives.
Despite our advances in technology and science, a growing population of critics disagrees with this theory. The documentary “Genetically Modified Food: Panacea or Poison?” references a GM product that had disastrous effects in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. A Japanese company created a tryptophan food supplement using genetically engineered bacteria which was toxic and not only permanently disabled, but also killed 37 people. Although it has been years since this incident, it has left many consumers wary.
The documentary also described how traditionally, plants were crossbred by means of splicing and cross pollination. These plants were only able to develop as long as they were of the same species. Now, scientists are using advanced technology to obtain DNA from cells of animals and humans to produce and distribute super foods. Although these new breeds of crops are now stronger and suitable for growth in numerous situations, the genes used in the process of creating the seeds have some people confused.
The short film “Contaminated: The New Science of Food” reveals some of the unusual combinations of plants and animal genes. Strawberries are now infused with genes from the Arctic Char, a fish that is capable of being in freezing waters without getting frost bite. It is for this reason that the strawberries are given this gene. Other combinations include moth genes being fused with potatoes, flounder with tomatoes and firefly with corn. Aside from the seemingly odd pairings of plants and animals, the main point of concern is potential health reactions that may occur.
Some consumers may discover new allergic reactions to foods. For example, a person allergic to fish may have adverse reactions from GM strawberries. “GMF: Panacea or Poison?” voiced their worry that allergenic affects may show up in our food supply indefinitely. This comment was linked to an incident that happened with a GM crop called Starlink corn. This crop was fused with a pesticide known as Bacillus Thuringiensis, BT, and was capable of killing pests. Starlink corn reportedly was able to kill monarch butterflies.
In 2000, there were 340,908 acres of this GM crop that were grown for animal food. It had not yet been approved for human consumption due to allergenic issues. Despite the lack of approval for human consumption, Starlink corn found its way into products made by Kraft, Taco Bell and over 300 other brands that are available in U.S. supermarkets. Although there was a recall, including Kraft who took back 2.5 million boxes of tacos, scientists and activists alike are worried that the Starlink corn contaminated not just those specific food items, but also the trucks and machines that helped to plow and transport, as well as the factories that produced the food.
The controversy over GM foods doesn’t end there. Besides the health risks posed by the consumption of GM food, many critics accuse large corporations of monopolizing seeds and using their patents recklessly. This side of the argument doesn’t believe these GM manufacturers are producing GM products for the right reason. The film, “Contaminated: The New Science of Food” listed five main companies- Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Sungenta and Aventis- as controlling 85% GM seed patents.
Monsanto, an agricultural company, had the best selling herbicide, Roundup, in the world during the 1990s. The company decided to create herbicide-tolerant crops to accompany their own herbicide. Monsanto presents information on their website to explain reasons for why they patented their seeds, the main point being that it is man-made. The website also discusses the terms for which their product is used, including a contract that farmers sign each year to agree to purchase seeds and pay a technology fee. Each year the contract has to be reestablished and no seeds can be kept or developed by the farmers themselves.
Due to such strict contracts, farmers and citizens alike are aggravated at the control that Monsanto and other large agricultural companies have. Vandana Shiva, a physicist, eco-feminist and author, spoke out in an interview with The Progressive, to convey her strong opinions against Monsanto.
Shiva said, “Monsanto’s use of GMOs is an attempt to establish a dictatorship over our food system and our seed system—and not just in India. In the United States, most farmers don’t have a choice. They have to buy GMOs. We need to think very deeply about reclaiming our seed sovereignty and reestablishing food democracy. It’s probably the most important political challenge facing any society anywhere in the world today.”
A substantial portion of the population seems to disagree with the production of GM foods. Saynotogmos.org, a group dedicated to spreading awareness of the problems of Genetically Modified Organisms, prides itself on its strong arguments against GMOs. A few of their arguments include that “GM crops do not increase yield potential” and that GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat. They claim that “genetic modification is a crude and imprecise way of incorporating foreign genetic material into crops, with unpredictable consequences.” They also go on to argue that “Only one study has been published on the direct effects on humans of eating a GM food. It found unexpected effects on gut bacteria, but was never followed up.” With the insertions of bacteria, viruses and genes into completely different organisms, it does seem probable that it is not completely safe.
When asked via e-mail of the pros and cons to GM foods, Say No To GMOs replied, “The biggest pro is to the bottom line of the corporations that are creating these mutant plants and the chemicals used with them. There is also a big pro to politicians who rely on campaign contributions from these corporations. Industrial mono-crop farmers who would rather dominate nature than work with it love this stuff. There is also a pro for corporations that patented seed stock is now concentrated in very few hands giving them great power over the world's food supply. There is absolutely no benefit to consumers or the environment from this stuff.”
With activists strongly objecting to GM foods, we turn to everyday Americans to find out their reactions. According to the documentary “GMF: Panacea or Poison?”, 80 percent of Americans said they want their food to be labeled. Currently the U.S. unlike other countries including the European Union, does not mandate that GM food needs to be labeled. With the increase of awareness about genetic alterations, more consumers are making organic foods popular. Healthy food stores, including the chain Whole Foods, doing a good business. Farmer’s markets are also on the rise, popping up in even the smallest of towns.
Last Fall in Haworth, NJ, Alstede Farms’ began offering organic food. “It’s important that we begin to sell organic food,” says Alstede Farms’ employee Linda Kristianova, “People are very interested in organics and have been asking us if we are organic; that’s what they want to buy.”
“Whole Foods takes a lot of pride in providing organic products because of personal belief. We think it’s a great way to be healthy and to help live sustainably. A lot of people are learning to eat healthy, like incorporating more greens into their diet. Most customers come to Whole Foods knowing what they’re looking for,” says Whole Foods Market of Paramus employee Lennin Medina.
Consumers seem to be paying attention to what they eat more and more. It is too soon to prove whether GM seeds, crops and foods will hurt or help us, but staying informed and questioning claims for will help to insure our safety. Big corporations own the rights to a very crucial part of the food chain. Urging others to ask questions, voice opinions and challenge tests is incredibly important. Food and its nutrients are what help us survive. As consumers and as humans we have the right to take control over the products we use daily.
About the Author
Lorraine Metz attends Ramapo College of New Jersey where she studies Communication Arts with a concentration in journalism. She enjoys creative writing, especially poetry, and hopes to have a career that allows her to write.