It is October, the month dedicated to all things spooky. Here’s the scene: the scientist works feverishly adding the DNA of one plant into that of another to create… (cue the triumphant music) the cure to world hunger … or (cue the eerie music) Frankenfood. That scene is no longer something relegated to Syfy channel; it is now reality. Major companies are dedicating huge amounts of resources to research and produce “genetically modified organisms” (GMO’s for short). I am hardly an expert, but if you are unfamiliar with this concept in food production here’s a short primer:
What are they? GMO’s are organisms (plants and animals) that have been created by splicing genes from one organism into another. Some examples are sugar beets that are resistant to weed killers and salmon that will grow twice as fast as normal salmon.
How is that different from traditional methods of improving crops? Traditional hybridization takes two very similar organisms and breeds them together to produce a new crop. Some examples are tangelos (a tangerine crossed with a pomelo or grapefruit) mules (a donkey crossbred with a horse) and the recently discovered naturally occuring hybrid of a polar bear and grizzly bear.
Are they legal? In the United States, yes, the FDA has already approved many GMOs. Over 30 other countries have limited or banned them.
How do I know if I my food contains GMOs? If you live in the United States, you don’t. Companies are not currently required to label food products that are or contain GMOs.
But are they safe? As Shakespeare said, “Ah there’s the rub” (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1). The countries that have banned them do not believe they have been proven to be safe. Many in the United States do not believe they are safe. The companies that produce them insist they have done enough testing to prove they are.
I personally do not agree with the companies that enough testing has been done, and it isn’t just because the manufacturer of weed killer resistant beet seeds also manufacturers the weed killer and buries the advise to use other herbicides in conjunction with theirs in a 34 page instruction manual. Interestingly enough, the weeds have become resistant to the weed killer in a similar way that bacteria have developed that are resistant to antibiotics due to over use of antibiotics. This situation reminds me of Thomas Cole’s painting series The Course of Empire – we beat back nature and built a society, but in the end Nature takes back what we destroyed.
Another interesting article I read leads credence to the belief that working with nature instead of trying to dominate it may be to our benefit. The Rodale Institue has shown that organic farming methods produce more than twice as much as food in drought conditions than GMOs that have been created to do so.
And then there is the political ramifications. The GMO plants can pollinate non GMO plants, and the creators are suing the farmers whose plants have been cross-pollinated by the wind. The Rodale Institutes interview with anti GMO activist Vandana Shiva and the effects of GMOs in India made me pull my head out of the sand and do more research so I could form my own opinions on the subject.
I hope this blog spurs you to do more research on the subject. Surveys have shown I am not alone in my skepticism about the safety of these products, with 87% stating they want products clearly labeled and 53% stating they would not purchase products if they knew they were genetically altered. For more information on labeling and a list of companies that pledge to be GMO free, check out the Non-GMO Project.
Ok, I will jump down off my soap box now. My next blog will be back to recipes and cooking, I promise.
Until next time, happy (and safe) eating.