Are “Frankenfoods” Really All that Scary?
Those who make and eat GM (genetically modified) foods say they’re the answer to mass starvation and disease. Those who shun GM technology say it’ll be the cause of mass starvation and disease. They call these foods “Frankenfoods,” with a nod to Frankenstein, the monster humanoid created by runaway, out-of-control science.
GM food is a hot-button issue right now. The subject arouses intense emotions, often based on a minimum of information. Most important of all is the question of how GM foods might affect our long-term health. Let’s first look at the facts.
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When food meets technology
GM foods come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They consist of food organisms that were modified via molecular biology techniques that promote selective breeding.
GMOs undergo much more specific changes than what you get from standard, Luther-Burbank-style mutation breeding, which is time-consuming and not always accurate. The goal behind genetic food modification is to increase desired traits in food sources. For instance a plant such as corn might be modified to produce higher resistance to weed killers and better nutritional content.
The science involved is incredible, but scary. For example, a plant geneticist can take a highly drought-tolerant plant, identify the gene that’s responsible for drought tolerance, and insert it into a plant that doesn’t have it. The new plant then becomes drought-tolerant.
Not only can scientists transfer genes from plant to plant, they can also transfer genes between plants and non-plant organisms. The best example of this happened when plant geneticists created a strain of corn that produced its own pesticides against insects. They did it by taking Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), which is a natural bacterium that makes proteins lethal to insect larvae, and inserting the B.t. gene into corn.
The bulk of GM foods are staple foods like soybean, corn, rice, and canola. Some animal products have been developed, though none are on the market as of this writing.
GM foods first entered the market a mere 15 years ago in 1996. By 2010, 10% of the world’s crop land was planted with GM crops, and most of those were in North America.
And yet it could save the world…
The world population is now at 7 billion, on track to double in 50 years. This means having enough food to go around is a big concern. GM advocates say genetically modified food is the answer.
For one, GM plantings increase the production of food per acre, which is important since the world is running out of farmland. Plus, GM plants have better pest and disease resistance and can tolerate herbicides.
For that matter, GM plants can be created to tolerate cold, drought, and salinity. This means we can grow food in places previously unfit for crops, like the desert, or areas with high salt content.
Benefits go beyond even that. Proponents say GM foods can improve nutrition in third world countries by injecting staple foods — like rice — with more vitamins and minerals. And right now, researchers are working to develop GM foods with edible vaccines. Since medicines and vaccines cost a lot to produce, store, and ship to the people who need them most (for instance, people in poor countries), it makes a lot of sense to embed those vaccines in something like a potato.
There’s also a pro-environmental side. To date, plants like poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.
In this case, what we don’t know might really hurt us
Of course, there’s a downside. The biggest one is that we just don’t know what the long-term effects of GM foods will be.
Already, there’s evidence of unintentional harm. A study in Nature showed that pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Even though monarch caterpillars eat milkweed plants, not corn, the fear is that pollen from B.t. corn could contaminate milkweed plants on neighboring fields and destroy the caterpillars. (I should point out this topic is being debated heavily by both sides since the study wasn’t conducted under natural field conditions.)
Regardless of the study’s accuracy, it’s not yet possible to make a B.t. toxin that only kills crop-damaging pests while sparing the good insects.
On top of that, there’s a concern that insects will just become resistant to B.t. crops, or any other kind of crop genetically-modified to create its own pesticide.
There’s also a concern about gene transfer to non-target species. People are worried the crops that are weed-resistant will crossbreed with weeds to create a “superweed” that withstands all weed killers.
But the biggest and scariest disadvantage to GM crops are the unknown human health risks.
Life-threatening allergies among children in the U.S. and Europe to things like peanuts and strawberries are a constant concern for millions of parents. The introduction of new genes into our food could create a new allergen.
Another potential hazard is the risk that bacteria in our guts could pick up antibiotic-resistant genes found in GM foods. (These are genes added to GM plants as “markers” to tell food geneticists which plants have exotic genes.) It’s feasible that this type of transfer could prompt the spread of disease-causing bacteria that are immune to antibiotics.
GMOs are already leading food production
Regulation is also a problem. In the United States, three different government agencies preside over GM food issues: the EPA looks at environmental safety, the USDA decides whether GM foods are safe to grow, and the FDA decides whether GM foods are safe to eat. Not only does that add layers of bureaucracy to the issue, it also puts the safety of our health in the hands of politicians or, perhaps worse, unelected bureaucrats.
In March of 2011, an alliance of consumers, family farmers, and those against corporate agriculture protested what they call the consolidation of our nation’s food system. They claim Monsanto, the main producer of GM seeds, effectively controls the U.S. commercial seed market. The alliance charges that the company has bought up independent seed companies, and that it continues to spike prices. They accuse Monsanto of market dominance and worry that seed diversity in this country will decline.
Note: Monsanto is the company behind some of the biggest herbicide-resistant GM plants, those grown from “Roundup Ready” seeds. Right now, this trait — resistance to weed-killers — is embedded in the majority of all soybeans and corn grown in the U.S.
The idea is that a crop can be sprayed with Round-Up, killing the weeds but sparing the corn or soybeans. Unfortunately, the weeds are evolving and have developed resistance to Round-Up, much the way bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics.
The top three GMO users, the U.S., Argentina, and Brazil, produce 81% of the world’s total corn supplies and 89% of the soybean supplies. China and India are adopting the technology, though Indian citizens are campaigning against this change. Most of Europe is largely opposed to GMOs.
Is this the end of true, organic food?
I’ve seen reports that wildlife, such as migrating birds, will not touch GMO corn when grown right next to non-GMO corn. As a matter of fact, no animals appear to consume GM food by choice. What do these animals sense that we’re missing?
So what I wonder is, when we eat foods genetically altered to produce chemicals designed to kill other forms of life, what type of effect will that have on us?
You’re probably already eating GMOs, even if you don’t realize it. The FDA doesn’t require labels on GM foods. Unless you eat and drink organic foods exclusively, you’re eating GMOs. If you eat anything pre-packaged and processed, or any foods with corn, soybeans, canola oil, or high fructose corn syrup, you’re probably eating GMOs.
There’s no sign this is going to change. Even Whole Foods agreed to sell GMO, herbicide-resistant alfalfa in January of 2011. Heads of other organic proponents like Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm have also said they’re not opposed to the mass commercialization of GM crops.
Will there be any true organic food left at all in another decade? I don’t know, but I do know that the quality of the food we eat more or less governs our health. There are no long term studies to assure us, for certain, that GM foods are harmless. We don’t know enough at this point. It strikes me as a gamble.
A friend of mine who’s a biochemist tells me the gene for herbicide resistance “expresses” only in the leaves and stalk of the corn plant, not in the ear which produces the corn kernels we actually eat. It’s analogous to a human brain cell being different from a human bone cell — different genes express in different parts of an organism while remaining dormant in the rest of the body.
This is the main support for the position that GM foods are safe. The herbicidal gene is present in the part of the corn plant we eat — all of an organism’s genes are present in every cell of that organism — but the gene isn’t actually doing anything. This is some comfort, but it’s well short of ironclad proof of safety.