Genetically modified (GM) food is a major threat to our food supply and the health of people and the environment. The largest agricultural corporations in the world are hard at work making sure that as much of our food supply as possible is grown from genetically modified seeds. Genetic modification is the most irresponsible invention since the atom bomb. Like radiation, once a GM seed is released into the environment, it can never be recalled.
GM foods are touted as the answer to world food shortages, promising higher yields, drought tolerance, stronger pest resistance, and enhanced nutrients. These are impressive claims, but have GM crops really delivered the goods?
All evidence points to the contrary: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) require just as much pesticides as conventionally grown crops, yields are disappointing and worst of all, GM foods are posing health risks to the humans and livestock who consume it, as well as the farm hands who come into contact with GM crops and countless populations of birds, bees, and other creatures that graze and forage around the crops.
Genetic modification is markedly different from traditional plant breeding, animal husbandry, or selection for desired traits. For millennia, botanists have been selecting certain traits in plants and splicing shoots together in order to create perfectly natural, hybrid crops, such as oranges, carrots, and tangelos. But genetic modification involves a lot more technology than breeding, and a heaping dose of blind faith in the theories behind genetic modification. ‘Experimental’ hardly begins to describe the status of this branch of biotechnology.
Genetic modification involves isolating a gene from one species, say, a frog and injecting it into the DNA of another species, such as a tomato. There are many steps in between, no doubt, but that is the essential function of genetic modification. A certain species of frog produces a chemical that, as it turns out, is anathema to pests that eat tomatoes. So the frog gene responsible for producing that chemical is inserted in the tomato DNA with the expectation that the tomato will produce said chemical and thus be immune to pests.
It’s just that there’s a hitch. You’d think that the scientists knew exactly where in the tomato genome to insert the frog transgene, but instead they are letting the transgene decide where it wants to cozy up with the tomato DNA. Any number of problems can go wrong at this point. The transgene can trigger the production of another, unanticipated, chemical that could be noxious to humans or the environment. Or, the transgene fires up certain tomato genes that normally lay dormant for most of the tomato’s life, resulting in abnormal growth. Or, the tomato produces the frog chemical, but since the chemical is out of context and did not evolve with tomatoes, the tomato over-produces the chemical and makes the food inedible or even toxic. And so on.
As you can well see, this genre of biotechnology is riven with problems that can arise at any point in the process of genetic modification. Sometimes problems can be spotted in the lab, but given the experimental nature of the whole business, unforeseen problems can just as well arise in the field, long after scientists are able to correct it.
Want to know the best part? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not conduct any tests and does not censor the biotech industry. Newly minted GMOs can go on the market and be consumed by humans and animals with scarcely a rubber stamp approval and without any test studies proving the food’s safety. Any information that agro corporations provide in their application is voluntary.
We will be exploring the biochemistry, economics, and politics of genetically modified food in greater depth in successive blog posts. To get you started, here is what you absolutely need to know about GMO:
So how do you make sure you are avoiding GMOs? Eat organic as much as possible. By definition, certified organic foods cannot be genetically modified. As yet, there is no mandatory labeling system to identify which foods and ingredients have been genetically modified, so if you are not sure if the food you are about to purchase is GMO, best to err on the side of safety and buy organic. The silver lining is that only certain crops have been successfully developed and put on the market. If you keep this list of high risk crops in mind, grocery shopping should be a bit less daunting.
High risk crops (in alphabetical order):
Zucchini & yellow summer squash
Erewhon has a zero-tolerance policy on genetically modified foods and we are working very hard to ensure that everything on our shelves meets this standard.