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The Changing Biology of Our Food

In today’s post, environmental writer Madison Jones tackles the basics of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and why exactly there is such a debate over the growth and promotion of this new type of food and fuel source. Although a biology or bioengineering degree can prepare scientists to work with GMOs, it cannot tell them whether they should or not. Amidst the arguments in favor of and against GMOs are the effects GMOs have on consumers, a topic recently addressed by a Sustainable Chippendale post about how food choice and quality can affect student behavior and productivity.

The Changing Biology of Our Food

For the last three decades, controversy has surrounded the development, propagation and promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Advocates claim that GMOs solve global food shortages, while opponents argue against the notion of ‘improving’ upon naturally occurring processes. And in the middle of this contentious debate lies the ever-important concern about potential health risks – a topic that GMO publications have thus far avoided.

A genetically modified organism is created when engineering techniques are used to build upon the genetic material of an organism using DNA molecules from other sources. The result is a set of recombinant gene molecules, which are then transferred back to the original organism. According to Dr. Theresa Phillips of SciTable, the notion of producing superior organisms can be traced back to the early 20th century. However, earlier efforts utilized organic processes; some farmers used traditional cross-pollination techniques, while others practiced selective breeding by choosing organisms that displayed superior traits. In recent decades, however,” Dr. Phillips notes, “advances in the field of genetic engineering have allowed for precise control over the genetic changes introduced into an organism. Today, we can incorporate new genes from one species into a completely unrelated species through genetic engineering, optimizing agricultural performance or facilitating the production of valuable pharmaceutical substances.”

A wide array of GMOs exists today. Some GMO crops – such as rapeseed, flax, cotton, soybean, corn and sugarcane – are resistant to pesticides or herbicides. Others are modified to contain higher amounts of certain vitamins and nutrients, one example being rice, in which Vitamin A levels can be increased using human proteins. Fruits and vegetables can also be genetically engineered; these include tomatoes designed to resist rotting, papayas that stave off viruses, peas that cause allergic reactions in mice and sweet corn that secretes insecticide. Genetically modified meat and dairy products are produced when animals are given modified feed. And some GMOs indirectly provide food; one example is the modified canola plant, which not only produces oil but also provides nectar to honey bees, which in turn produce GM honey. Notably, the GMO industry has proven highly lucrative in recent years. In the United States alone, 154 million acres have been reserved for GMO production. As a result, more than 80% of processed food in the United States contains some form of GMO.

However, industrial prosperity and nationwide prevalence have not convinced anti-GMO groups that these foods are safe for human consumption. In 2008, the Institute for Responsible Technology noted several health concerns linked to GMO intake. These include:

  • A 50% rise in soy allergies in the United Kingdom following the introduction of modified soy products
  • Hundreds of allergic reactions suffered by handlers of modified cotton
  • Liver problems in rats fed GM potatoes and canola
  • Various livestock deaths (including cattle, water buffaloes, chickens and horses) following consumption of modified corn

Though the GMO industry has notoriously shied away from publishing data that assuages these concerns, the FDA has yet to characterize modified foods as unsafe. Until this occurs, any ‘health risks’ are considered somewhat unsubstantiated.

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