Frankenfood. It’s the derogatory term used to describe foods produced or treated by “unnatural” methods. You might hear it referring to irradiated foods, foods with artificial ingredients too hard to pronounce, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Last week, the Senate agriculture committee passed a bill that would stop states from requiring the labeling of GMO foods. It’s still up in the air whether the Senate as a whole will consider this bill anytime soon. There are plenty of folks who are already angry it’s gotten his far.
But are GMOs a safety concern that should require labeling?
The term GMO is used interchangeably with GE, or genetically engineered. Its roots go back to Gregor Mendel. In case you don’t remember freshman biology, Mendel was the Austrian monk who performed thousands of experiments on peas. His research gave us a framework to understand how specific traits are passed between generations. This was back in the mid 19th century, before we had any idea what a gene is.
Over the next century, with Mendel’s work as the foundation, the field of genetics exploded. In 1973, Cohen and Boyer succeeded at cutting and pasting DNA. This first successful attempt at genetic engineering opened the door to a new world of scientific possibilities. In the medical world they include vaccines, gene therapy, diagnostic tests, and more.
But it’s the food world where legislation is focused. Genetic engineering can be used to design crops that grow faster, resist pests, or withstand herbicides. It can yield crops that require less water, produce more food, and have a longer shelf life.
The process is simple to understand, if not so simple to perform. A gene is a specific DNA sequence that codes for a specific trait in the organism. In the genetic modification of food, a gene for a desired characteristic is taken from one organism – maybe a plant, a bacteria or virus. Then it is spliced into the DNA of a recipient organism – maybe a corn or tomato plant.
The benefits here are obvious. They allow farmers to produce larger amounts of food at lower cost. I like the idea of my food being less expensive. But the bigger impact this technology can have is on parts of the world with significant hunger problems.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations projects that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by the year 2050 to meet the food demands of a larger, more urban global population. Molecular biologist, Jill Farrant, provides one example of how genetic engineering may be used to meet the need to grow food in drought-prone areas.
The potential here is big. But what’s the downside? Specifically, are GMOs safe for health, environment, and economy? And should we demand GMO foods be labeled as such?
Well, let’s start with the economy. The concern here is with Agribusiness giant Monsanto who owns patents to about 90 percent of GMO seeds. This issue has already been considered by the Supreme Court, and will no doubt land there again. If you’re a fan of the economies of scale offered by large corporations, you likely feel one way. If you are a champion of the “little guy,” you probably feel just the opposite. But however this shakes out, it will continue to have a significant effect on the agricultural economy.
The second issue is environment. The first GMO plant crop was only approved for use in the food supply in 1994. The first GMO animal, a salmon, was only approved for inclusion in the food supply in 2015. This makes us pretty inexperienced in managing the environmental impact of these foods.
The AquAdvantage salmon is engineered to grow continuously for 16 to 18 months to maturity. This is a full year and half shorter than wild Atlantic salmon. Some have raised concerns that GMO salmon will make their way into the wild. The containments being used make this scenario unlikely. It is frightening to imagine what kind of environmental ripple effect these salmon would cause if it did happen.
In the plant arena, there are environmental concerns as well. One major genetic modification created crops that are herbicide resistant. This allows them to withstand spraying of herbicides. The spray kills surrounding weeds, but leaves crops unharmed. Today we face a problem of herbicide resistant weeds. To be clear, these “superweeds” are a product of herbicide overuse. Genetic engineering didn’t create them, but herbicide-resistant crops do contribute to the problem.
Messing with Mother Nature is tricky business. And as the number of GMOs on the market increases, so does the risk of unintended environmental consequences.
The final area of concern is health safety. If you ingest GMOs, are you putting your health at risk? I’m coming down very firmly on the “no” side here.
The process of testing GMOs involves comparing their chemical make-up to the non-GMO version of themselves. GMO tomatoes to non-GMO tomatoes; GMO soy to non-GMO soy. They should be chemically identical to one another, except for the proteins encoded by the inserted genes. These new proteins are fed in massive quantities to lab animals to test for toxicity. In addition, they are tested to determine the likelihood of inducing allergies.
DNA and proteins are broken down into their component nucleic acids and amino acids during digestion. This makes absorption of complete molecules into the blood stream a non-issue. I don’t care to anger Mother Nature, but I (and many scientists out there) don’t see a mechanism for this to be a direct health concern.
I do have one indirect health concern regarding GMOs. Seventy percent of processed food in your grocery store contains GMOs. That’s because almost all of the corn and soy - which feature prominently in processed food - in the U.S. is GMO. Genetic modification makes it easier and cheaper to produce massive quantities of these crops.
The cheap availability of these foods contributes to the unhealthful habits responsible for obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases reaching epidemic levels.
Should Congress vote to require labeling of GMOs? I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be informed. Even so, I’d pick a GMO zucchini over a box of a non-GMO noodle dinner every time.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.