Though the thought of glow-in-the-dark cigarettes may seem bizarre, they are actually scientifically feasible to produce. The glowing tobacco plant, which made its debut in 1986 when scientists at University of California, San Diego inserted the genes of a firefly into the tobacco genome, was one of the first genetic engineering experiments and introduced the world to the concept of genetic manipulation of crops. Since then, genetically modified plants have become ubiquitous in society. In fact, most products — the foods you eat and even the clothes you wear — contain a genetically modified plant or organism.
Why Produce Genetically Modified Foods?
Organisms whose genes have been artificially engineered are called genetically modified (GM) organisms. A number of methods exist to insert new genes for the modification of the original organism, including biological vector techniques, in which a specific gene is inserted into a plasmid DNA that is introduced to the organism, and microinjection, in which genetic material is inserted directly into a single living cell.
Since these changes occur at the molecular level, it may seem difficult to distinguish genetically modified foods from regular foods at the macroscopic level. In today’s society, however, it is valid to assume that most of the produce you see at the supermarket is genetically modified, as GM foods tend to have a more appetizing appearance. For example, GM strawberries are bigger, sweeter, and more enticing when compared to their organic counterparts, which are likely to contain a bug bite or two.
GM foods are, from a superficial standpoint, incredibly appealing. Their enhanced traits can include increased crop yield, better resistance against pests, increased shelf life, higher nutritional value, and better taste. Genetic engineering techniques produce these alluring qualities more rapidly and efficiently than selective breeding, the traditional approach for breeding organisms with specific traits. In fact, if it were not for these methods, the seedless grape may still be just an idea of science fiction.
GM Foods: Here, There, Everywhere
Whether to grow vitamin-enriched rice or pest-resistant corn, a significant portion of the agriculture industry has adopted GM foods to provide consumers with “better” products. In fact, over eight out of ten packaged foods in the United States contain some type of GM product. So what foods are not genetically engineered? Honestly, not many. When looking at the major agriculture crops grown in America, around 90 percent of all canola, cotton, corn, and soybeans grown on U.S. soil have been genetically modified.
And it does not stop there. GM foods have also made their way into many processed foods, such as oils and sweeteners, and other products like sugar substitutes and vitamin C tablets. Therefore, whether you shop at a supermarket or eat at a restaurant, you are much more likely to consume a GM food than a non-GM, or “natural” food.
Potential Health Risks
Even though GM foods constitute a majority of American agriculture, scientists have performed shockingly few studies investigating their safety. Overall, there have not been many definitive findings exposing the dangers of GM foods, though recent studies implicate GM foods with potential health concerns.
For most of us without food allergies, we would not think twice about, for example, chomping down on a sweet, unblemished ear of corn. However, perhaps we should. One study performed in 2003 disturbingly confirmed that farm laborers exposed to GM cotton and corn developed allergies that irritated the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract. Another study conducted in 2005 showed that GM foods elicited an allergic inflammatory response in mice from consumption of GM field peas. Because foods produced through biotechnology may result in the introduction of proteins new to the human diet, these new proteins can sometimes induce an allergic response to sensitive members of the population.
It is also imperative to examine the heavy use of chemicals in the farming of GM foods. Monsanto, one of the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology corporations, manufactures specific herbicides and crops. These GM crops can survive the harsh herbicides, which kill weeds. Although this agricultural method is efficient, a troubling study performed in 2010 linked two Monsanto products — Roundup® herbicide and Roundup Ready® soy — with birth defects in animals and humans living nearby. Malformations affecting the skull, face, and developing brain and spinal cord in frog and chicken embryos were traced back to Roundup® herbicide. And, these birth defects present in animals were frighteningly similar to the birth defects appearing in humans around parts of Argentina growing genetically modified Roundup Ready® soy.
Despite the shocking results of these preliminary studies, it is important to note that they are still not definitive. Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health comments, “The potential downsides [of GM foods] have not been fully tested and are not discussed much by the public.” Overall, the process of fully evaluating the safety of a single GM food is extremely long and convoluted, and many health consequences cannot be predicted or measured in hindsight.
GM Foods and the Environment
Just as it can be difficult for drivers to fully realize their contributions to air pollution, the environmental consequences of GM foods are not always immediately apparent. One such consequence is that the use of GM foods increases the resistance of pests to pesticides, making them harder to kill. In 2008, the first case of a pest resistant to a GM crop was documented. A certain type of bollworm, which was supposed to be eradicated by the toxin of a genetically engineered cotton crop, had developed resistance and began to spread through many parts of the U.S. In order to combat this pesticide-resistant insect, farmers utilized more potent toxins — an environmentally detrimental practice.
This same situation is currently plaguing the weeds of the Midwest. Through cross pollination, herbicide-resistant genes in GM food crops are spreading to wild weed populations, resulting in new “superweeds.” These superweeds are resistant to most herbicides and have been infesting both human and natural ecosystems.
Fueling this vicious circle, scientists plan to develop GM food crops resistant to an even deadlier poison called dicamba with the hope of spraying crops with this herbicide to eliminate the encroaching superweeds. However, dicamba is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a developmental and reproductive toxin. Thus, the end result of these GM foods is a dangerous cycle of increased resistance and increased use of potent chemicals. This not only places all members of society at risk of potentially life-threatening health complications but also creates the possibility of destroying natural ecosystems.
The Benefits of GM Foods
Despite the many concerns of GM foods, there is no doubt that the rise of these products has significantly contributed to the development of the world’s economies and societies. Some say that GM foods may even be the answer to feeding a booming global population and satisfying world hunger. Gale Buchanan, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Scientist, is a proponent of GM foods and advocates that they can address climate change, improve agricultural productivity, and extend food security to developing countries.
Regardless of their risks and benefits, however, GM foods are here to stay. Concerning the future of GM foods, Brownell notes, “There might be tighter government regulation, increased evaluations, and better labeling so that consumers understand when they are consuming [products] that contain genetically modified crops.” These actions could minimize the majority of risks posed by GM foods, and in this sense, GM foods could potentially tackle some of the world’s most fundamental problems.
Yet GM food companies are becoming so powerful in the U.S. that increased government restrictions and labeling of GM foods are not likely to emerge. In the last decade, the GM food industry has spent nearly $600 million to lobby in favor of relaxed regulation. Thus, while there are laws that require the labeling of GM products in many countries, the U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that does not require the food industry to disclose whether or not their ingredients are genetically engineered.