Is Your Food GMO?

Is Your Food GMO?

Is Your Food GMO?

Genetically Modified Foods seem to be in the best position to address the world's food shortages but the long-term benefits and adverse effects continue to be speculative. Don't you want to know what's in your food?

   

Genetically Modified Food: The Benefits and Risks

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Genetically modified foods (GM foods) or GMO for short, also go under many different names, including transgenic food, genetically engineered food or biotech food. Although different people and groups have different definitions, GM foods can broadly define as foods that are produced from crops whose genetic makeup has been altered through a process called recombinant DNA, or gene splicing, to give the plant a desirable trait. The modification is usually done in the lab using molecular techniques or genetic engineering although there are others who would argue that crops produced through conventional breeding can also be considered as GM food.

The first GM food crop, a tomato developed by Montsanto was submitted for approval to the U.S. FDA in August 1994 and came into market in the same year. As of September 9, 2008, a total of 111 bioengineered food products have completed the U.S. FDA “consultation procedures” on bioengineered foods. In addition to the tomato, the range of products includes soybean, corn, cotton, potato, flax, canola, squash, papaya, radicchio, sugar beet, rice, cantaloupe, and wheat.1

According to estimates by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, “between 75 percent and 80 percent of all processed foods available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. Breads, cereal, frozen pizzas, hot dogs and soda are just a few of them”.2

GM foods remain controversial because the risk versus benefits are not an easy issue to solve. Yet, what's astounding is both Canada and the United States still don't require GMO labeling on food products despite well over 50 countries that do. However there is now a big push to require GMO labeling in the United States with California leading the way.3-5

Let us take a look at what the proponents and the opponents of GM foods have to say.

The Benefits of GM Foods

         

The Issues Against GM Foods

Support for GM foods come from different sectors: from scientists, economists, and understandably from the agricultural and food industries.

GM foods can fight world hunger

The world population has reached an all-time high of over 6 and a half billion. Over 20% of these are suffering from poverty and hunger. That GM foods can stop hunger is one of the noblest motivations behind the development of GM foods. GM foods supposedly are easier to grow and bring higher yields. In poverty-stricken parts of the world, higher yields can save millions of lives and bring much-needed economic benefits. In a review, Terri Raney of the United Nations says “…the economic results so far suggest that farmers in developing countries can benefit from transgenic crops…” 6

GM crops are better

GM crops are designed to be sturdier and more robust than their non-modified cousins. They are meant to be resistant to drought, diseases, and pests. The Hawaiian papaya industry, for example, only managed to survive a virus epidemic after the introduction of more resistant transgenic varieties. In the face of global warming and climate change, only the more robust crops will manage to survive and thrive.

GM foods have been with us for hundreds of years

The wide variety of many plants that we see today came about through natural as well as traditional man-made plant cross-breeding that took thousands of years. That is peppers come in different shapes, colors, and taste, from the very spicy hot to the sweet types. That is why we have more than 1000 different types of tomatoes. Pro-GM food groups claim that genetic engineering is simply speeding up traditional plant breeding and animal husbandry considerably so that the world doesn’t have to wait for years for the finished products. According to the U.S. FDA “Many of the foods that are already common in our diet are obtained from plant varieties that were developed using conventional genetic techniques of breeding and selection. Hybrid corn, nectarines (which are genetically altered peaches), and tangelos (which are a genetic hybrid of a tangerine and grapefruit) are all examples of such breeding and selection”. 8

GM foods can fight malnutrition

In a world suffering from malnutrition, GM foods can answer the need for more nutritious food. To cite an example, Swiss research strove to create rice strains that contain large amounts of beta-carotene and iron to counteract vitamin A and iron deficiency. Malnutrition is not only a problem in poor countries. In the strictest sense, malnutrition can refer to both undernutrition and wrong nutrition. People in rich and developed countries may have more than enough food but not the proper nutrition necessary to keep them healthy.11

For this reason, researchers at the European-funded FLORA project have developed strains of fruits and vegetables with enhanced content of antioxidants. Through genetic engineering, FLORA oranges have higher than normal flavonoids and phenolics. The FLORA purple tomatoes have three times the amount of the antioxidant anthocyanins compared to normal tomatoes.12

GM foods are good for the environment

The damage to the environment that insecticides such as DDT bring about is well-known. The use of synthetic fertilizers in the farmlands led to the eutrophication of rivers and lakes all over the world. GM foods translate into less use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and therefore less pollution.

GM foods can help medicine

GM foods can be used in producing pharmacological products in the so-called “medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants.” FLORA stands for “flavonoids and related phenolics for healthy living using orally recommended antioxidants” and it sees it self as “a player in the future of medicine.” As early as 2005, Indian researchers reported the potential use of transgenic bananas in carrying vaccines against hepatitis B. In the same year, the biotech company GTC Biotherapeutics based in Framingham, Massachusetts has developed a herd of genetically modified goats that produce milk which contains a human anticoagulant called anti-thrombin.15,16

According to Florida researchers, “the cost of biopharmaceuticals limits their availability. Plant-derived biopharmaceuticals are cheap to produce and store, easy to scale up for mass production, and safer than those derived from animals”.18

GM foods are safe.

The creators of GM crops are quick to assure that GM foods are safe and pose no threat to human health. In the governmental level, GM crops are regulated by three agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. FDA. “The FDA ensures that foods made from these plants are safe for humans and animals to eat, the USDA makes sure the plants are safe to grow, and the EPA ensures that pesticides introduced into the plants are safe for human and animal consumption and for the environment. While these agencies act independently, they have a close working relationship since many products come under the review of all three”.

According to the U.S. FDA, “bioengineered foods do not pose any risks for consumers that are different from conventional foods …We make sure there are no hazards, such as an unexpected allergen or poisonous substance in the food, or that the food is not changed in some way that would affect its nutritional value”.

 

The opponents of GM foods are varied as well. They may be scientists, environmentalists, and of course consumer groups. In addition, many celebrities are openly anti-GM, thus setting role models for the public. Among the most well-known and outspoken GM sceptic is Charles, England’s Prince of Wales.

GM foods are for profit

According to its opponents, GM foods were created for profit and nothing else. They cite the multinational giant Monsanto, a pioneer in GM research and owns the infamous Roundup crops. Companies like Monsanto are unlikely in the GM business for purely noble reasons. 

GM foods are unregulated

The use of GM foods in the world is almost an unregulated free-for-all activity. Going through the U.S. FDA consultation procedures is mainly voluntary. Anti-GM advocacy groups and concerned scientists are asking for more controls and regulations, including obligatory screening by the U.S. FDA. Even if the FDA screening becomes compulsory, there will still be problems in other parts of the world where regulations are less rigid.

There are also reports of GM plants escaping field trials and finding their way to the natural environment, thousands of miles away. In 2006, rice which contained genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (the notorious Bt) found its way to European supermarkets, causing a big outcry. The bacterial gene rendered the rice resistant to insects and the transgenic rice was a test plant that has not yet been approved for human consumption.7

GM foods can harm the environment

GM foods are affecting their environment and some of these effects might actually be harmful. The effects are especially evident in other living organisms within the vicinity.

There are concerns, for examples, how cross-pollination with pollens from GM plants can affect non-GM plants. According to Italian researcher Maurizio G Paoletti “current products – especially herbicide-resistant plants and Bacillus thuringiensis-resistant crops – have potentially serious environmental and economic impacts, similar to the consequences of pesticide use”.9

Resistance development is another major issue. In China, for example, researchers used antibiotic-resistance marker genes to derive resistant transgenic rice strains. There are concerns that the marker genes will be taken up by naturally occurring gut bacteria and lead to resistant, more pathogenic strains. “Escapees” from field trials of GM rice with bacterial genes have already affected the natural populations of rice in China.10

Other studies also point to possible effects on animal life such as insects which are closely interact with the GM plants. One of the most well-known incidences was the claims that pollens from transgenic corn plants with Bt insecticidal gene markers are adversely affecting monarch butterflies in North America. Although experts say that the butterflies were safe from Bt, environmentalists were not satisfied. Recent developments indicate that the original study may have been flawed and a re-evaluation of the issue is deemed necessary.13

GM is not the same as traditional breeding

Many experts believe that GM foods are intrinsically different from traditionally crossbred plants because of the ability of genetic engineering to cross taxonomic boundaries. Thus, it is not only a matter of gene transfer from different types of berries or grains. It is about incorporating bacterial genes to human food.

GM foods can be detrimental to human health

The main concerns about adverse effects of GM foods on health are the transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity and allergenicity. With genetic modifications come new compounds in the crops which we virtually know nothing about. These compounds may be in the form of allergens and little-known proteins whose effects to human health are difficult to predict. In the food chain, this can even affects animals fed by GM crops and slaughtered for human use.14

The increased incidence of food allergies (e.g. peanuts) in children is creating concerns and GM foods are seen as the most likely culprit. Consumption of transgenic soybeans incorporated with of a brazil nut gene for example, triggered allergic reactions among people previously non-allergic to soya.17

GM foods are not better

Western Europe is a stronghold of anti-GM movement. A European study last year declared that organic foods – which are exclusively non-GM-, are definitely better and more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts. The researchers from the University of Newcastle report that “organic wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce had between 20% and 40% more nutrients… levels of antioxidants in milk from organic cattle were between 50% and 80% higher than normal milk”.19

The UK-based Organic Consumers Association counters the claims that GM foods have better yield. According to Peter Melchett of the UK Soil Association, “GM chemical companies constantly claim they have the answer to world hunger while selling products which have never led to overall increases in production, and which have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failures. As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, we need to move away from oil dependent GM crops to producing food sustainably, using renewable energy, as is the case with organic farming”.20

Recently, two German universities stopped studies on GM maize amidst pressure from politicians and the general public.21

The Bottom Line

There is definitely an urgent need for increasing food production and GM foods seem to be in the best position to address world-wide food shortages. However, like most things new and innovative, the long-term adverse effects can only be speculated upon at this point. And there is a lot to worry about.

So, in the meantime you would think it would be important to know what you are eating. Despite what the GM food lobby says, GMO labeling is long overdue.

Published December 3, 2008, updated May 24, 2012

 

Photo By: Karen Eliot


References

  1. Completed Consultations on Bioengineered Foods, U.S. FDA, April 30, 2012
  2. Studies Show GMOs in Majority of U.S. Processed Foods, 58 Percent of Americans Unaware of Issue, PR Newswire, October 7, 2010
  3. Mark J, Californian campaign pushes for labelling of GM food, Guardian Environment Network, The Guardian, March 12, 2012
  4. Harmon A et al,Battle Brewing Over Labeling of Genetically Modified Food, New York Times, May 24, 2012
  5. Simon M, Fighting GMO Labeling in California is Food Lobby's "Highest Priority", Food Safety News, August 2, 2012
  6. Raney T, Economic impact of transgenic crops in developing countries, Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2006, 17:1–5.
  7. Marris E, Escaped Chinese GM rice reaches Europe, Nature News, 5 September 2006
  8. Genetically Engineered Foods, FDA, October 19, 1999
  9. Paoletti M, Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (eLS)
  10. Qiu J, Agriculture: Is China ready for GM rice? Nature, 15 October 2008
  11. New rices may help address vitamin A and iron deficiency, major causes of death in the developing world, Bio-Medicine August 3, 1999
  12. FLORA, The ATHENA Collaborative Project
  13. Clarke T, Monarchs Safe from Bt, Nature News, 12 September 2001
  14. Lack G. Clinical risk assessment of GM foods, Toxicol Lett. 2002 Feb 28;127(1-3):337-40
  15. Sunil G, Expression of hepatitis B surface antigen in transgenic banana plants, Planta, Volume 222, Number 3 (2005), 484-493
  16. FDA approves drugs from genetically altered animals, Examiner.com, February 6, 2009
  17. Nordlee JA, Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans, N Engl J Med. 1996 Mar 14;334(11):688-92
  18. Daniell H, Medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants, Trends Plant Sci. 2001 May;6(5):219-26
  19. Organic produce 'better for you', BBC, Monday, 29 October 2007
  20. Organic Consumers Association. UK Organic Group Exposes Myth that Genetically Engineered Crops Have Higher Yields, Organic Consumers Association, April 10, 2008
  21. Schiermeier Q, German universities bow to public pressure over GM crops, Nature News, 14 May 2008

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