What is genetically modified food?
Genetically modified foods are foods that have been developed from genetically engineered organisms. Genetic engineering is a technology that alters the DNA or genetic make-up of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria.
How are foods genetically modified?
Genetic engineering involves the insertion or deletion of genes. In the process of genetic engineering, researchers work toward locating specific genes and altering them for important or desired traits.
How prevalent are genetically modified foods?
It is estimated that about 75 percent of all processed foods sold in the United States contain at least one GM ingredient. The most common GM foods are soybeans, corn, cotton, canola oil, and alfalfa. Some varieties of papaya, rice, potatoes, squash, sugar beets, and tomato have also been approved for food and environmental use. Various GM microorganisms are regularly used as sources for enzymes used in the processing of common foods such as breads, cheeses, sodas, and beers. Typically GM foods are plant products, but animals have also been genetically engineered.
The Critics - Consumer groups, some religious organizations, and many environmental activists warn of the potential risks of genetically modified foods for the environment. These risks include unintended effects on other organisms or ecosystems, or harmful effects on beneficial insects. Some critics are also concerned that insects may develop a resistance to the pesticides engineered within GM crops and become a form of “superbug” with extreme resistance.
Some researchers worry that GM crops could cross-pollinate with nearby non-GM crops leading to unintended effects. Another concern is that genetically modified animals or fish may escape into the natural environment, reproduce and therefore introduce GM genes into the wild population.
The Proponents - Proponents of GM crops claim farmers would require fewer pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and have increased crop yields which would lead to less environmental pollution and greater profitability over time. Insects and pests cause tremendous losses of crops each year, which can be very difficult for farmers struggling to make a profit on their land. Many proponents of the GM agriculture industry point out that GM crops engineered to resist insects or pests can decrease cost and avoid these common crop losses.
GM proponents argue that although cross-pollination may occur between genetically modified crops and non-GM crops, there are ways to prevent it. These researchers claim crops can be developed so the plants would not produce pollen or so that their pollen would not include the GM gene.
The Critics - Critics of GM foods suggest that the potential human health impact would outweigh any possible benefits. Many of the genes used in genetically engineered products, because they are so new, have had little as far as safety testing in food products.
Many people, both adults and children, are allergic to foods such as wheat and nuts. Some scientists worry that genetic modification of food crops poses the risk of introducing a new allergen.
Another potential problem with genetic engineering of crops is that often, crops are genetically engineered with antibiotic resistant genes. Some critics worry that the human digestive system might have the ability to retain antibiotic-resistant genes from GM foods. This could worsen the problem of disease-causing bacteria that have already shown resistance to common antibiotics.
The Proponents – Proponents state that genetically modified foods are put through very specific assessments on a case-by-case basis. These safety assessments investigate toxicity, risk of allergic reaction, any nutritional or toxic properties, the stability of the inserted gene and any possible unintended effects. GM foods that are currently traded on the international market have passed risk assessments in several countries and are considered unlikely to present risks for human health.
The Critics - One very controversial concern is using genetically engineered foods as food aid in foreign countries or other areas of need. Critics report that although foods such as rice could be engineered to contain vitamins and minerals deficient in many poor populations, the real issues of poverty are being ignored. They report that proponents of GM foods are using the issue of world hunger as a way to increase acceptance of GM crops in developing countries.
Another concern for many critics of GM agriculture is that by patenting GM crops, many small farmers will be unable to keep up with big farms. This may result in GM crops being too expensive for smaller farms and especially for poor farmers in developing countries.
The Proponents - According to those in the GM industry, genetically engineered crops may offer a great advantage in feeding people around the world as the population continues to grow. The GM industry and many scientists and academics believe that genetically modified crops may help to solve world hunger by increasing the overall food supply. In countries where chronic malnutrition exists, the development of rice that contains greater iron and vitamin levels could help alleviate hunger and malnutrition. Proponents also report that a variety of plants able to survive extremes in weather could prevent hunger in times of drought.
The Critics -Because food is such a part of our culture, changes to the genetic makeup of crops or animals used as food are met with great resistance. Often, critics are more concerned about the process used to develop GM foods instead of the use of the foods themselves. They say GM foods are “unnatural” because of this process.
Many critics of GM technology believe that not enough time has passed since genetic engineering was first developed to fully understand the consequences of GM agriculture. They point out that many pesticides like DDT, dioxin, and PCBs were used in the past then later banned due to the discovery of harm caused.
According to critics of GM foods, labeling a food as genetically modified may not truly address the concerns of some consumers. For example, some GM plants are modified using genes from animals. Many vegetarians may consume these GM plants not knowing that animal genes were used. People with certain religious beliefs avoid pork or pork products. Knowing that a vegetable like a tomato may carry a gene from a pig would be unacceptable to many of these people.
The Proponents - Proponents report that genetic modification is just an extension of the natural process of evolution. Wild grapes and berries have been highly modified to produce the products we now find on grocery store shelves. These products have gone through generations of hybridization and genetic adjustments to change the flavor, size, or color. Proponents report that GM methods are even more specific, allowing for the adjustment of a single gene between plant species.
Labeling of genetically modified foods
Labeling of genetically modified food is required in many nations including Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and the European Union. However, the United States and Canada do not require labeling of GM organisms or foods at this time. Therefore, often there is no way to tell if you are purchasing or consuming a genetically modified food.
The future of genetically modified foods
Future GM organisms will likely include new plants with improved disease resistance or resistance to drought or extreme conditions, crops with elevated levels of specific nutrients, fish with enhanced growth capabilities, and plants or animals able to produce proteins important in the production of medicines or vaccines. Some companies are also researching ways to incorporate drugs into foods, while others work to develop fruit and nut trees that will provide a yield earlier in their development. In addition, researchers will continue to work toward developing foods that don’t cause common intolerances or allergies and plants that will produce new forms of plastics. Although many researchers believe GM foods are just the next advance in food technology, there is much debate throughout the world on the impact of GM foods – a debate that’s likely to continue.