Health: Controversy over genetically modified foods well-merited

By Stephanie Vilendrer

Remodeling DNA, the fundamental building block of life, was once only a concept of science fiction. But today, scientists working on genetically modified foods (GMFs) have proved it possible. If you pay attention to agriculture in the news, you probably already know that genetic modification is highly controversial, criticized as the unnatural and unsafe corruption of the food supply. Proponents call it a technological masterpiece, a beacon of the human ability to solve problems through ingenuity. Both sides have strong arguments, but to me, here’s the central question: How do GMFs impact human health? Although GM crops have been widely used since the mid-1990s, the answer remains unclear. What is genetic modification? In short, it’s the manipulation of DNA in plants (and animals) to cause an organism to display a trait it wouldn’t normally express. Admittedly, the possibilities are intriguing. One company was able to produce silk protein in goats’ milk. Another created pet “glo-fish” that exhibit an eerie neon color by using genes from other bioluminescent aquatic species. In commercial plant production, genetic modification is often used to increase crop yields. One application involves the transmission of a toxic gene derived from soil bacteria to plant DNA, which causes all of the plants’ cells to produce the toxin. Insects that dine on these plants also consume the Bt toxin, which kills them. Another common application allows plants to withstand high applications of pesticides by making them resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup Ready pesticide. Upon initial consideration, it might seem that these techniques are useful for their utility in agriculture. Farmers can apply more chemicals without losing crop yield. Foods could be manipulated to increase their vitamin content and compensate for nutrient deficiencies. However, it’s also critically important to consider the long-term health consequences of human consumption of GM foods. Many questions remain unanswered. The process by which plants are genetically engineered causes gene changes that are unpredictable, possibly resulting in unintended consequences for those who consume them. Increased pesticide use means that humans are also eating more of these carcinogenic chemicals. Some sources have linked GMFs to food allergies, digestive issues, autism, behavioral issues and possibly even cancer. Plus, the lack of long-term studies on the safety of GM consumption is alarming; as of yet, GM foods have only been widely consumed for about a decade, but serious health issues may take years or even generations to manifest. The United States and the European Union have taken markedly different stances on the issue. In the U.S., the growing and sale of GMFs is legal and unregulated, and both GMFs themselves and those products containing GM ingredients are not labeled or distinguished on the shelves. The European Union, however, has assumed a stronger position against GMFs, requiring that every GM crop and ingredient be authorized before its growth or use in food products. In addition, all GM-containing products must be labeled as such before being publically sold. Today, about 90 percent of corn and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Other GM crops include canola (used in cooking oils), soy and some varieties of zucchini and squash (although certified organic foods can never be genetically modified). Given the frequent use of these ingredients in processed foods, most Americans are consuming GM crops every day without even realizing it. Individuals and organizations are acting to educate the public on this issue through the internet and films (check out “Genetic Roulette” by Jeffrey Smith) and are petitioning the FDA to make firmer policy measures. In California, a law will be voted upon in November’s ballot that would require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The passage of Proposition 37 could signal the beginning of a movement toward mandatory labeling throughout the U.S. In the absence of reliable information concerning the long-term health effects of genetic modification and without GM labeling, consumers must take individual responsibility for their health by making informed choices and raising awareness on this critical issue. refresh –>

October 11, 2012

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