Genetically engineered foods (also called genetically modified organisms, or GMO) have long been posed by scientists as a solution for food issues around the world, like feeding the growing global population. No doubt, GMO have enormous potential for providing solutions to many of the agricultural issues faced today: addressing famine and malnutrition in developing nations by producing higher yielding crops with extra nutritional value, or saving farmers time and money by creating herbicide-tolerant, pest-resistant, heartier plants. However, whenever scientific manipulation of nature occurs, it can result in unknown and unintended consequences.
Biotechnology, or the manipulation of genes in organisms, has been used to improve the traits of certain foods, like making crops resistant to pests or drought. A method using what is called recombinant DNA technology allows scientists to transfer genetic information from one organism to another, producing plants, animals, and even vaccines. The crops that are created from this process are referred to as genetically modified organisms, or sometimes frankenfoods, by opponents of the practice.
Potential benefits of GM foods
There are a few main types of genetic modification at this time: crops that are able to resist pests, disease, and other threats, crops that provide extra nutritional value, and those with industrial purposes that can be used in pharmaceuticals or as biofuels. High-yielding crops could allow farmers to create more food using fewer resources, including land.
Insects and weeds are two major threats that farmers face with any crops. Pesticides and herbicides have been created to address these issues, but these can be toxic and harmful to consumers. One alternative is to create plants that are themselves resistant to these threats. Corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, and potatoes are commonly modified to be insect- and herbicide-resistant. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is one type of pesticide that has been added to plant genetics to create pest-resistance. This type of genetic engineering makes up the majority of GM crops. In 2010, up to 90 percent of U.S. Soybeans, and 70 percent of U.S. corn and cotton were designed to resist herbicide and insects.
The idea of fortified crops, which provide more nutrients, has been proposed as a method of fighting hunger in developing nations. Adding vitamins that do not occur naturally in commonly grown foods, like corn or rice, could help fight malnutrition. However, GM fortified produce has yet to been made commercially available. The USDA approved soybean oil with extra ocleic acid (beneficial fats) in 2010, which could have health benefits.
The type of genetic engineering that is used for industrial purposes has been used to create the biofuel ethanol, which is made from GM corn, potentially providing a solution for energy concerns.
When it comes to creating genetically engineered animal products, progress and acceptance has been much slower. Typically, genetic modification of animal products works to increase the amount of meat or milk the animal produces. A growth hormone known as rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormones) has been approved by the FDA, but never approved for commercial use in Canada or the EU. The hormone causes increased milk production when given to cows. Genetic engineering has also been used to create larger fish, creating pigs with reduced phosphorus levels in their manure (called Enviropigs) or stopping the spread of animal diseases like the avian flu.
History of Genetically Modified Foods
1972: US scientists invent recombinant DNA technology, altering the DNA of a virus
1973: Scientists in China create first interspecies fish clone, rice hybrid
1982: Monsanto scientists become the first to modify plant cells
1986: first field trials of GM plants occur in the United States, France
1991: USDA approved field test of fish tomato
1992: People's Republic of China became the first country to commercialize GM plants with tobacco
1994: Flavr Savr tomato became the first GM crop approved for commercial use in the United States
1995: US EPA approved the Bt potato, which became the first approved pesticide producing crop in the country
1996: Britain imports GM tomato paste from the United States
1999: Britain began field trials of GM crops
2000: Genetically engineered varieties became the majority of the US soybean crop
2001: The chymosin enzyme was used in 60 percent of hard cheese in the US
2004: GM maize approved in Britain
2005: Genetically engineered varieties became the majority of the US corn crop
2006: German firm BASF was approved for trial of GM potatoes in Britain
2009: Across 25 countries, 11 different GM crops were grown commercially
2010: Over 365 million acres of GE crops were cultivated in 29 countries (about 10 percent of global cropland).
2010: Amflora, a GM potato used for industrial purposes, was approved by the EU
Concerns and Consequences
Health and Safety Concerns:
Though proponents of GM foods ensure that these foods are safe for human consumption, critics argue that their effects have not been studied long enough or thoroughly enough. Some peer-reviewed research studies have indicated that consuming GM foods could have negative effects on our bodies. Some studies showed that rats who regularly consumed GE corn developed liver and kidney problems, which may have been caused by the higher metabolic rates from their GE diet. A study in 2007 suggests that Bt may not be safe, after finding impaired liver and kidney functions of the rats on a Bt corn diet. The research on whether Bt is harmful to humans has not been satisfactorily completed. Italian researchers found evidence that biotech genes may be able to survive pasteurization in a study on milk from dairy cows, which would put the hormones into consumers bodies.
Allergens may be introduced into foods where they do not occur naturally. Some scientists have studied the effects of splicing cross-species proteins, and found they caused allergic reactions in test mice.
The potential long-term risks are still unknown, and critics of genetic engineering believe that there is not sufficient scientific evidence or testing to conclude that GM foods are safe to eat.
Genetic engineering poses untold risks to the environment, like the creation of superweeds or super-pests that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides. This has already started to occur, and results in the use of stronger, more toxic chemicals to keep weeds and pests away. This could eventually lead to pest and weed takeover that kills off the crops themselves, leading to a food crisis. One biotech company, Syngenta, predicted that herbicide resistant weeds will infest a quarter of U.S. cropland by 2013.
Other environmental issues are the possibility of contaminating natural and wild types of the crops, and ruining biodiversity. Pesticide-resistant insects as well as crops that are full of pesticide can harm the beneficial insects as well, like ladybugs and bees.
Genetically Modified Foods in the United States
Many of the early inventions and innovations surrounding GMOs came from the United States, and so did many of its biggest proponents. The United States currently produces the largest percentage of GMO crops, with 68 percent of the world's supply.
Genetic engineering has had a large impact on the US agricultural industry, both positive and negative.
Monsanto, a corporation at the forefront of biotechnology, has reaped many of the benefits of GMOs, patenting their genetically modified seeds and licensing them to farmers. Monsanto's controversial business practices such as the licensing of seeds as intellectual property have brought the company to the center of the debate, and for this reason, some farmers have cited corporate control of the food industry as their biggest objections regarding GM foods.
Genetically engineered foods are regulated by three different government agencies: the USDA, FDA, and EPA. The USDA is in charge of ensuring that GE crops are safe to grow, the FDA must ensure that GE foods are safe to eat, evaluating whether the good is similar to the non-GE variety, and the EPA ensures that GE products do not harm the environment.
But the system does not address the actual safety of the food â€“ instead, it relies on self-reported research submitted by the biotechnology companies themselves. The companies then go through voluntary consultations with the FDA to get the foods classified as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).
This process has left much room for mistakes, however. Several cases of finding traces of GE crops, such as corn, which had not been cleared for human consumption, were found in processed foods on supermarket shelves in the United States. Difficulties in keeping GE foods separated from traditionally grown foods have caused numerous problems like this, including in US exports to foreign countries. The Government Accountability Office identified six incidents of contamination between 2000 and 2008, which have had adverse effects on international trade. For example, StarLink corn, a type of GE corn used as animal feed not human food accidentally made up 70 percent of a shipment to Japan, despite making up less than 1 percent of U.S. corn crops. As a result, Europe banned imports of corn from the United States, costing the US agriculture industry up to $300 million. A similar incident involving GE rice caused Japan to stop imports from the United States, and led to more regulations on trade with the European Union, potentially costing the US rice industry $1.2 billion.
The issue of whether to label products has been a contentious one, with difficulties surrounding the process and how to keep GE products separate from non-GE products. In the United States, about twenty states are set to vote on creating their own legislation to enforce labeling of GE foods, but state-level labeling rules would be complicated to enforce.
Global Response to Genetically Modified Foods
European nations have been resisting genetically modified foods for many years, probably resulting from general lack of consumer confidence in food safety after issues like the Mad Cow Disease scare. As a result, the European Union has much stricter regulations on GMOs than the United States. The United States claimed that an EU ban on import of GM agricultural products violates international trade agreements, and filed a complain with the WTO along with Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, and Uruguay. These countries all produce genetically engineered agricultural products.
As a result, in 2003 the EU Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety began to require labeling on GM foods regardless of detectable presence of the DNA or protein in the end product, as well as making strict rules on the traceability of these engineered crops. They also required biotech companies to present more extensive risk assessments. The EU labels require food with any GE content to be labeled, including those with greater than 0.9 percent GE content. Biotech companies like Monsanto argued against labeling because it can imply that their products are inferior to traditionally grown crops, which has not been sufficiently proven. This stigma damages the reputation and sales of GM crops, the company said.
Now the EU has approved over thirty GE products for sale, many of which are soy and corn used in animal feed. Some GE crops have even been cultivated in the EU, like a type of potato that recently made its way to Britain for field trials. Several EU countries currently ban GE cultivation completely: Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Luxembourg. Japan is another region that strongly opposes GM foods.
Like the United States, Canada both produces and uses GM foods, though government regulations require the biotech companies to supply scientific data before approval. While Australia allows GM foods to be imported from the United States, the country is also in dispute with the United States over the issue of labeling.
The United States grows 68 percent of the world's supply of genetically modified foods (which are mostly soybeans and corn), followed by Argentina with 23 percent, Canada with 7 percent, and China with about 1 percent. Other countries that grow GM foods include Australia, Bulgaria, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay.
Farmers have been carefully selecting their best produce or livestock to use in methods of selective crop breeding for many years. This process could be considered the natural version of genetic modification: breeding for crops with specific desirable traits. Is genetic modification by scientists simply the next step in the evolution of food science?
Could GM foods be the solution to world hunger? Will genetic engineering of foods place too much power in the hands of corporations like Monsanto, or can governments successfully step in and create legislation and regulations on GM products? Could lab-grown meat become the next step in genetic modification of food? Should GM foods be banned, labeled, regulated, or allowed to mix in with traditionally grown foods, unmarked? Do consumers have the right to know whether their foods have been genetically engineered?
Do the potential risks of GM foods outweigh the rewards?