Like humans, all organisms have genetic material. When scientists alter genetic material, or DNA, it’s called genetic modification (GM). Genetically modifying foods or food crops can enhance taste and quality, increase nutrients or improve resistance to pests and disease. In some cases, GM foods help conserve natural resources, because the altered version might require less water or energy for processing.
The first genetically modified food to reach our tables was the Flavr Savr tomato. Grown in California, the Flavr Savr tomato received Food and Drug Administration approval in 1994, after two years of testing and assessment. Mounting costs made the crop unprofitable, however, and production ceased in 1997. Creation of the Flavr Savr opened the doors for other GM foods to make their way into our kitchens.
In the U.S., genetic modification has expanded into almost every area of food production. Scientists can introduce some sort of modification into the genes of crops, dairy products and animals. For example, ranchers and dairy farmers normally feed cattle a GM diet, which is in turn passed on to you when you drink milk or eat beef. Do you need to worry about what’s on your family’s dinner table? And are there some surprising benefits to GM foods? As you’ll see, this subject is one hot potato.
The sugar beet is one of the newest GM foods and one under severe scrutiny. Researchers produced an herbicide-resistant crop of GM sugar beets that was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 but banned in August 2010. The genetic modification was meant to improve production because beets grow slowly and tend to battle for light and nutrients with nearby weeds. In 2010, however, federal judge Jeffrey S. White revoked the USDA approval of genetically-modified sugar beets based on the USDA’s failure to present an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). Until an EIS is conducted, planting, harvesting and processing of GM sugar beets has been halted.
In 1991, the World Health Organization challenged scientists to look for a way to make vaccines accessible to everyone. This would mean that children in impoverished areas of the world wouldn’t have to travel for hours to a nearby village to get a shot. The scientists succeeded faster than expected, creating a cholera vaccine-like component by injecting a series of genes into a potato. These genes prompt the human immune system to produce its own cholera antibodies or “vaccine.” [source: Biotech Institute]. The “anti-cholera potatoes” have not made it to the market yet; scientists need to figure out how to package the potatoes to easily distribute and market them.
Protecting potato crops is important too. Researchers are working on a way to produce potatoes that are resistant to disease caused by Phytophthora infestans. Phytophthora infestans can kill entire crops rapidly and was the cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.
People eat only 25 percent of the potatoes grown around the world today. The rest are used to feed livestock and in the starch industry. Scientists also are trying to find ways to make the potato easier to process so it can be of more use in the production of glue and lubricants. These potatoes would not be available for human consumption.
Bt-corn (named after the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria) is a form of sweet corn that has been genetically modified to include an insect-killing gene. This means the farmer doesn’t have to spray with pesticides, because the insects die from eating the corn. No spraying means less harm to the environment and the workers handling the toxic spray [source: Bionet]. The movie has caused debate, however. The same gene that attacks corn predators also appears to kill the Monarch butterfly.
According to the USDA, farmers in every state in the U.S. are growing at least some GM corn at any given time. The numbers are higher in the Southern and Midwestern regions, but South Dakota leads the pack, lending 47 percent of its corn crops to GM varieties. Because the U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world, these numbers have a significant impact beyond the American borders.
Although tomatoes were the first genetically modified food to reach the market, they have since been altered for only one reason: to make them last longer. GM tomatoes don’t rot as quickly as regular tomatoes, so they can tolerate longer periods of transportation. GM tomatoes also can be left to mature on the plants, rather than being picked green. This results in a more tasty tomato that doesn’t need to be stored until ripening.
The original GM tomatoes were resistant to antibiotics. This raised concerns that the gene might be passed on to humans, making us more resistant to antibiotics and in turn less capable of fighting infectious diseases. New forms of GM tomatoes don’t contain these genes, however.
Squash is more prone than some crops to viral diseases, which is why it was genetically modified to ensure crop survival. The original purpose was achieved, but the modification backfires in an unexpected way. It seems cucumber beetles that carry bacterial wilt disease like to feed on healthy plants, like the GM squash. After visiting unhealthy plants, they land on the nice, healthy GM squash plant and pig out, wounding the leaves and leaving open holes on them. When the beetles’ feces fall on the leaves, they’re absorbed into the stem and cause bacterial wilt disease.
Experts also believe that the GM squash may have already found its way into the wild by accident. GM foods are meant to be grown under controlled environments, in well-tended fields. If they’re introduced and mixed with wild varieties of the same species, a number of unpredictable environmental issues could occur, such as gene transfer or the plants becoming more vulnerable to bacterial diseases.
Golden rice was first created to fight vitamin A deficiency, which affects 250 million people around the world and can cause blindness and even death. Rice is one of the most common foods on Earth. In fact, almost half of the world’s population survives on a single daily bowl of rice. Because getting vitamin supplements to every single person on the planet would be impossible, scientists believed that the answer was to create a grain of rice that already had vitamin A in it. And so golden rice was born. Its name came from the bright golden glow added beta-carotene causes. The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A
Scientists now are working on a new GM rice. This new variety would have an iron gene, causing the grain of rice to become an important source of iron. Iron-deficiency causes low-birth-weight babies and anemia, both of which can be fatal. It hasn’t been possible to combine both vitamin A and iron in the same grain, but scientists are hopeful that this will be possible at some point in the future.
As of 2004, 85 percent of the soybeans grown on U.S. soil have been genetically modified. Because soy is widely used in the production of other items (including cereal, baked products, chocolate and even ice cream), chances are everybody in the U.S. is eating GM soy. It might be worth noting, however, that tofu and soy sauce are usually made from non-GM soybeans, a variation from most other soy products, which likely are GM-based. The bulk of the soybean crop is not destined to human consumption but instead used for livestock feed. For those who aren’t vegetarians, this becomes another source of GM foods, as the gene is passed on through the meat.
We don’t normally think of oils as part of our food list, but the truth is that they’re not only for cooking and flavoring, but show up as an ingredient in a large number of prepackaged foods we eat on a regular basis.
The U.S., India and China are the world’s largest producers of GM cottonseed oil. As a result, it’s hard to avoid this GM food, even if you don’t buy it bottled. In the U.S., GM-modified oils are sold as cooking oils, but also commonly used for frying snacks such as potato chips and also used in the production of margarine . Canola or rapeseed oil became an important crop only after being genetically modified. Before that, the oil was too bitter to be used in foods. The modification did away with the bitterness and also increased rapeseed resistance to herbicides. This allows crops to be sprayed with weed-control products without running the risk of affecting the actual crops.
A large percentage of animal feed is made up of crops such as soybeans. The world’s three largest producers and exporters of soybeans, the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, all grow mostly GM soybeans. This means the chances of livestock eating GM feed is very high, no matter where in the world you live. While not all corn is genetically modified, it is simply cheaper and more efficient to feed livestock the crops that are GM. The same is true of GM rapeseed oil used in the production and processing of animal feed.
Genetically engineered food from animals might not be on the market yet, but a few already have been approved. GM salmon is, as we speak, on its way to our dinner table. Wild salmon matures slowly, taking up to three years to reach its full size. GM salmon, on the other hand, not only will grow faster but also should reach about twice the size of its wild cousin. The creators of the GM salmon, a private company called AquaBounty, promises to harvest the salmon before it reaches its full size, thus preventing “giant” versions. The GM salmon, known as AquAdvantage, is meant to be grown in fish farms. According to proponents of the modification, this would reduce fishing of wild salmon, in turn protecting both the wild population of fish and the environment from human intrusion.
Ironically, the major concern in the production of GM salmon is its impact on the environment. Although the genetically engineered fish is supposed to be sterile, experts believe there’s no way this can be ensured, because DNA tends to mutate over time.