Many people don’t give genetically engineered food much thought, perhaps because they figure that because it’s being used, it must be safe. However, the idea that the Food and Drug Administration would never allow a harmful practice into widespread use is now being questioned.
“Farmers are using genetic engineering a lot more than people know,” said Jessica Moore, an assistant professor specializing in developmental genetics. “They have crops that are engineered to be treated with certain pesticides.”
Genetic modification (GM), also called genetic engineering or gene splicing, is usually defined as the isolation and manipulation of DNA from one organism to be introduced into the cells of another organism. This way, certain products can gain desired traits found in other organisms. The problem is that most GM foods aren’t specifically labeled as such.
An article from April 1995’s FDA Consumer states, “Most genetically engineered foods will not need special labeling because they will be similar to traditionally bred varieties. But there are exceptions, such as when a gene from a food that could cause an allergic reaction Ã¢€” peanuts, for example Ã¢€” is transferred into another food.”
For example, tomatoes can be bred to stay ripe longer, potatoes can be altered to absorb less fat, tobacco plants implanted with firefly genes make them glow mildly in the dark and implanting a bacterial growth hormone into cows can increase the amount of milk they produce.
This science has come a long way in development of treatments and medicines. For example, human insulin is created through the use of altered bacteria. However, the use of genetic modification in food production is much more controversial.
Religious, vegetarian and environmental advocates express concern over DNA exchanges between different species. USF alumna Angela Blackner tries to exclude genetically altered food from her diet.
“To a certain extent (I feel safer not eating genetically modified food),” she said. “I am vegan, and I like knowing that my food is natural. I don’t really have any food allergies, but there are a lot of people who have food allergies that can’t eat genetically altered food.”
One specific gene modification that worries some vegetarians occurs when a gene from winter flounder is put into a tomato to give it resistance to freezing temperatures.
“I don’t have a problem with (genetic modification) as long as they are fully tested and people know what they are buying,” Moore said.
Critics argue that consumers don’t understand the effects of GM sufficiently enough to be exposed to it. Raaj Patel, the owner of Nutrient Works, is one such critic.
“Genetic engineering changes the cell structure of the food,” Pates said. “It might later affect the human genes in your body and increase the risk of cancer.”
According to the FDA, all GM foods will be analyzed just as carefully as other products released in recent years.
“The important thing for consumers to know about these new foods is that they will be every bit as safe as the foods now on store shelves. All foods, whether traditionally bred or genetically engineered, must meet the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” the FDA Consumer Report said.
Researchers for GM make claim that GM can decrease the amount of pesticides used, increase the nutritional value of crops and could lead to a greater production of food, which could then “cure world hunger.” Despite some of the potentials that GM offers, there are many opponents to GM, including environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
WorldWatch magazine writer Brian Halweil wrote in his article, “The Emperor’s New Crops,” that it is impossible for GM to eliminate world hunger. It’s not a matter of having enough food, it’s more of a food distribution problem.
GM scientists have had moderate success creating breeds naturally resistant to pests and diseases, which can grow in areas otherwise infertile for plants. For example, the salt tolerance gene found in mangroves can be spliced into corn crops.
However, Halweil wrote, “There is a systemic problem in the background … pest resistance.
Modern pest management tends to be very narrowly focused; the idea, essentially, is that when faced with a problematic pest, you should look for a chemical to kill it. The result has been a continual toughening of the pests, which has rendered successive generations of chemicals useless … there is abundant evidence that pests of all sorts … will develop resistance.”
This resistance includes the GM producers.
Opponents of GM often turn to organically grown foods because organic food farmers don’t unitize pesticides or herbicides. Instead, they combat pests and weeds by growing various specifically planted crops, so that pests or weeds won’t prosper. These crop combinations should complement each other and give each other needed soil nutrients.