Engineered Food

GMO is now a household word

Juan Carlos de la Calle Velez/istockphoto

Many of us who shop at Whole Foods or seek out the organic label when buying food were surprised by the accusations of betrayal that arose in January 2011, after Whole Foods and several other organic retailers publicly agreed to federal deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa produced by the Monsanto Corporation. Although Whole Foods issued a statement on its blog reinforcing its support for non-genetically modified foods, its backing of Monsanto left many organic food advocates seething.

Genetically modified (GM) foods are also known as “bioengineered” foods. Add an “O” to “GM” and we have the acronym GMO, which refers to any organism that has had its DNA altered by human engineering. All GM foods are produced from GMOs. Initially, this scientific process was designed to improve the quality of crops. Using genetic engineering, selected individual genes could be transferred from one vegetable to another to enhance color, or from one species to another to provide resistance to viruses or insect damage.

The “organism” in GMO can be a plant or an animal. Today, in addition to GM crops like corn, soy, canola, and cottonseed oil, we also have genetically modified animals that can produce more milk, reproduce more rapidly, and/or have superior disease resistance.

In the case of the Monsanto Corporation, the company’s alfalfa seeds were genetically modified to increase their tolerance to herbicides, or weed killers. Monsanto is the world’s leading producer of the herbicide known as Roundup and also the world’s leading producer of genetically modified seeds.

Opponents typically cite health risks as one major reason to avoid GM foods. In one famous case, genes from the Brazil nut were inserted into soy plants, which aggravated reactions in those who were allergic to nuts when they ingested the soy. Although these altered soybeans never made it to the neighborhood grocery store, a health alarm was raised.

Despite the fear surrounding GM foods, Dr. James Collman, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Stanford University, says, “Scientific research has really found no harm. Fear of GM foods is often due to the belief that ‘the way we used to do it must be better,’ and is really just an emotional response.”

Of course, science is an ever-changing and often contentious field. What is “proven safe” one year has often been determined carcinogenic or dangerous the next. In Europe, despite official reports assuring the safety of GM foods, most consumers are still highly wary. Since October 1998, the European Union (EU) has not allowed GM foods to be marketed in any EU nation.

Sunny Meuller, owner of San Jose’s popular Vegetarian House restaurant, describes GM foods as “unnatural” and provides his customers with anti-GM shopping guides and flyers. “In 2009, after learning of the dangers of genetically modified foods, we removed them from the menu,” Meuller says. “Genetically modified foods pose serious health, ecological, and environmental dangers.” The restaurant now serves exclusively organic vegan products.

Meuller believes that GM foods may impact much more than the health of individual consumers. He cites various studies indicating that GM crops may actually have worse yields than traditional or organic crops and are potentially harmful to animals. He also worries about the environmental impact of genetic “outcrossing,” which is the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional or organic crops or related species in the wild.

According to the World Health Organization, the risk of outcrossing is real, as was illustrated when traces of a type of maize, which was approved for use only in animal feed, appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States.

"It is important to balance our obligation to make the world a better place with our obligation to pay proper respect to the world that has been given to us as a gift."

Dr. David Magnus, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Ethics at the Stanford School of Medicine, is also concerned about the implications of outcrossing. He says that with cross-pollinating crops such as corn, genetic transfer among species could occur in the fields, leading not only to potential “contamination” of organic crops, but to changes in the balance of the ecosystem.

Anti-GMO advocates often argue that companies like Monsanto will monopolize the world’s seed inventory and distribution, giving corporations and scientists too much control over our food supply and environment. “People worry about companies playing God,” Magnus says. “It is important to balance our obligation to make the world a better place with our obligation to pay proper respect to the world that has been given to us as a gift.”

Dr. Walter Falcon, Professor Emeritus of International Agricultural Policy at Stanford University, provides a more positive perspective on the economic impact of GM foods. He believes GM foods may have the potential to relieve hunger problems in developing nations, thanks to the increased profitability of crops and bio-fortification of nutrients in foods.

“Personally, I’m a great believer in farmers’ markets. I’m delighted by the freshness and quality, but I am also in a privileged situation,” Falcon says. “Buying organic simply isn’t an option for many lower-income people, both in our country and in developing nations.” 

Restaurant owner Meuller also acknowledged such disparities in price, admitting that being a stickler for non-GMO ingredients “has meant significant increases in our costs.”

Due to a lack of labeling laws in the United States, consumers have no way to determine whether their food is genetically modified or not. Meuler says that “unless you buy only 100 percent organic, it’s impossible to know which foods are GMO-free.”

To combat the lack of GMO labeling, the Non-GMO Project was founded in Berkeley in 2003. Retailers and producers joined together to form the non-profit, which now oversees a regulatory system to assess food products for GM ingredients. The organization provides a seal of approval to foods that are determined to have fewer than 0.9 percent GMO content. A printable shopping guide, iPhone app, and list of participating retailers make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions about buying GM foods.

Nonetheless, since an estimated 80 percent of all commercially available foods contain GM ingredients, entirely avoiding GM foods is extremely difficult. Thoughtful consumers who care about their health, the environment, and the world economy see GM foods as a complicated conundrum. Ultimately, the pros and cons of GM foods are a small piece of a bigger puzzle: As consumers, how can our choices help to improve our individual health and the health of the planet? 

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