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The Genetically Modified Food You Eat

Would you eat food that was genetically modified? You probably already have.

gmfood-leadpicScientists have been tinkering with the DNA of commercial food for nearly two decades, and they’ve covered most of the food pyramid. Modern soybeans, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, and sugarcane have all had their genomes tweaked to serve the human species. Most of the genetically modified (GM) food in the world sprouts on American soil, but the practice is growing in Argentina, Canada, Brazil, and China, to name just a few.

Maybe the strangest part of GM food is that most people have no idea they eat it. The majority of Americans don’t know how it’s done, why it’s done, how it’s regulated, or why they should care. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 70-75% of all processed foods in your local grocery store contain ingredients from GM plants. Genetically modified food: it’s what’s for dinner.

Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger

So why remix food genomes? It depends. Some GM food is designed to resist diseases, insect attacks, or herbicides regularly used in modern industrial agriculture. Plants can be made hardier and more tolerant to environmental stress such as drought or irregular weather. Crops can be made to mature faster (decreasing their growing time) and rot slower (increasing shelf-life). GM food can also produce higher crop yields, and be engineered to lack unwanted toxins (such as allergens).

But that’s not all. Genetic modification is giving a new meaning to the phrase “super food”. Crops are being engineered to produce more nutrients, vitamins, and all that healthy stuff. Work is also underway to turn plants into little pharmaceutical factories, pumping out desired drugs… is “Pfizer Farm” trademarked yet? And (of course) GM foods are specially tweaked to please your taste buds, engineered to make every edible on your plate that much more appetizing.

The ubiquity of GM foods – that 70-75% statistic – comes from its presence in staple ingredients for processed food. Soybean oil, cottonseed oil and corn syrup are three cornerstones of the Western diet, and each one is mostly likely GM-derived. Everything from bread and cereal to frozen pizza gets a dose, not to mention almost every soda on the market.

gmfoodchart1

So now that it’s already in your body, wanna hear how it’s done?

Gene Cuisine

In olden days, farmers had to modify crop genomes the old fashioned way: selective breeding. At the very least, they had to work with the genes already at their disposal (in their crops). No longer. Genetic engineering lets scientists plop totally new genes – ones that would never naturally occur in corn, for example – into the target species to produce a new effect.

Sort of like skinning a cat, there’s a number of ways to genetically modify a genome. Still, they all share the same principles: first, isolate a gene that does something interesting. Next, insert that gene into a vector: a virus, plasmid, or other stretch of DNA capable of invading a cell’s nucleus. Introduce the vector to the target organism’s cells, and allow the new genes to be incorporated into the original genome.

So who does the remixing? Most of the GM strains available to farmers have been developed, patented and marketed by the agricultural biotech giant Monsanto. If you didn’t just wince at your computer screen, you probably haven’t heard of them. Cue transition to controversy section.

Give Me Spots On My Apples

The heated debates around GM food are tricky to untangle. Monsanto, a biotech company leading the way in creating new food strains, is sort of your prototypical evil corporation. Okay, maybe “evil” is a strong word… Let’s go with “ethically questionable”. In the fine tradition of Chevron and Dow, Monsanto has been accused of every manner of unethical behavior. From dumping hazardous waste to bullying small farms, the company has a pretty nasty laundry list of unsettling policy and action. Worse, lots of higher-ups within the company have occupied positions in the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, etc. One begins to wonder where interests conflict.

gmcornAs Monsanto is the largest supplier of GM food seeds in the world, criticisms of GM food can be difficult to distinguish from attacks on the corporation itself. Bananas aren’t evil, but United Fruit was. Sure, Monsanto made Agent Orange… but is GM food a boon to mankind, innocuous but for the company that weilds it? Is it actually safe?

You might be wondering why you’ve never seen GM food labeled with a little “tinkered genome” sticker (I’m thinking a little double-helix would suffice). The FDA has approved all GM foods, and doesn’t consider the genetic engineering to pose any major risks to your health. Critics claim there haven’t been any long-term studies done (GM food has only been around for 20 years), that supportive research was biased or inadequate, and that the FDA rushed the approval. Others feel that GM foods might impact whole ecosystems in unpredictable ways, disrupting natural food chains in a sort of domino effect. A few countries – from Hungary to Venezuela – have banned GM foods altogether.

Middle Ground

Unless you’re technophobic by nature (in which case, reading this blog amounts to masochism), it’s hard to deny the benefits of GM foods. In the 90′s, reworking the papaya genome saved Hawaii from having a staple crop wiped out by a virus. GM foods resistant to insect attack actually require fewer pesticides than their natural counterparts, a seeming win for the environment. Stress-resistant GM crops can survive droughts and disease, warding off famine in developing countries across the globe. Frankly, it’s amazing that we can remix our food to be more nutritious, disease- and pest-resistant, faster-growing, longer-lasting, and tastier to boot.

gmfoodpyramidLike all of genetic engineering (say, artificial life), GM foods show the power of the modern biotech revolution. They have the potential to make us healthier, improve ag production, make pharmaceuticals, and survive hell and high water. Maybe future crops could recycle more nutrients back into dirt and help avert the looming topsoil crisis. What kinds of GM foods would you want to see?

But the benefits don’t erase the legitimate concerns over health and the environment. I wouldn’t want Chevron running the EPA; is having Monsanto officials working at the FDA all that different? Ecosystems are so intricately complex and interconnected that it’s difficult to determine the consequences of even small changes (the most important aspect of endangered species conservation). GM foods are so new and exciting, it’s possible that our best science isn’t yet capable of understanding its long-term consequences (making regulation a dicey process). And with Monsanto patenting every crop they remix, it won’t be long until they own the genome of every fruit and vegetable you eat.

So that’s what all the fuss is about.  Given their widespread (and spreading) use, it’s important to keep you, dear consumer, up to date on the food that hits your plate. So now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

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35 comments

  • Pj says:

    Quite scary…

    not only what is happening to what we eat and its possible effects, but also how on company is staking its claim for major control as the industry grows….

    it seems to be about control and power….

    let’s hope i’m wrong…

    where will it end ?

  • Pj says:

    Quite scary…

    not only what is happening to what we eat and its possible effects, but also how on company is staking its claim for major control as the industry grows….

    it seems to be about control and power….

    let’s hope i’m wrong…

    where will it end ?

  • Steve Broner says:

    Genetic Modification doesn’t strike me as any more scary than experimenting with politics, religion, and the genetics of ideas.

    Either way, we’ll do well to discern in what we take in.

    Either way, we’ll do well to pay attention to the “how” of the “what” and golly… don’t disregard what’s local.

    There may be value in having tomato growing in grade school :) so many of us have never grown a thing.

    Some of us even now may have grown up never eating fruit or veggies grown by hand, patience, water, soil, and sun.

    Never forget?

    «Il faut cultiver notre jardin» -Voltaire

  • Steve Broner says:

    Genetic Modification doesn’t strike me as any more scary than experimenting with politics, religion, and the genetics of ideas.

    Either way, we’ll do well to discern in what we take in.

    Either way, we’ll do well to pay attention to the “how” of the “what” and golly… don’t disregard what’s local.

    There may be value in having tomato growing in grade school :) so many of us have never grown a thing.

    Some of us even now may have grown up never eating fruit or veggies grown by hand, patience, water, soil, and sun.

    Never forget?

    «Il faut cultiver notre jardin» -Voltaire

  • Raelifin says:

    Thanks for the reporting on this subject. It’s a tricky one for me, because I don’t inherently dislike GM, but I have huge issues with the businesses that push it (e.g. Monsanto).

    The two biggest issues for me:

    1. How easy it would be for a GM crop to become a pest? If these bad boys can resist drought, predators and pesticides, all it takes is a GM kudzu to wreak havoc on an ecosystem.

    2. It seems like patenting crops should be ridiculous, these are living things after all. But GM crops have a huge patent backing, and when Monsanto (or whoever) owns the “intellectual property” of the entire nation’s food, they hold the sort of power I’d expect from a government.

  • Raelifin says:

    Thanks for the reporting on this subject. It’s a tricky one for me, because I don’t inherently dislike GM, but I have huge issues with the businesses that push it (e.g. Monsanto).

    The two biggest issues for me:

    1. How easy it would be for a GM crop to become a pest? If these bad boys can resist drought, predators and pesticides, all it takes is a GM kudzu to wreak havoc on an ecosystem.

    2. It seems like patenting crops should be ridiculous, these are living things after all. But GM crops have a huge patent backing, and when Monsanto (or whoever) owns the “intellectual property” of the entire nation’s food, they hold the sort of power I’d expect from a government.

  • robot makes music says:

    Re: Raelifin – the really scary part about this patenting is that they’re not actually doing any novel work – they just stick a bunch of genes into a test plant from some other plant, and grow them to see what happens – when they have a winner, they ‘patent’ that. Remixing is definitely the proper term here, because they’re not making anything actually new.

    Re: Pj – it’s totally about control. We HAVE to eat. Right now, we grow SO MUCH FOOD that we burn it as fuel (biodiesel) never mind the fact that there were riots over the price of corn in Mexico last year (THE staple crop of Mexico, no Mexicans could afford it). So food is cheap and easy to make, any one guy with enough machinery can feed a whole city – so control over whether or not they can grow a crop and how much they have to pay you for the seeds – they either inhibit the production of seeds so you can’t crop your own, or you sign a EULA that says you wont seed your own crop – all that equals everyone in America will be paying the Monsanto tax every time they eat.

    As a matter of course, I shun processed foods now. I shun anything with corn or soy listed as one of the main ingredients unless I’m eating something that’s supposed to be corn or soy based. I’ll still eat the stuff, just not preferentially. I’m to the point where I’m going to replace my soy coffee creamer (ten lines of unpronouncable chemicals) with soy lecithin and cold pressed grape seed oil (hey, it has resveratrol, right?) – if all I need is the fat content to make the creaminess, why bother with 10 extra ingredients?

    Lets not forget that monocropping is what leads to disease completely wiping out crops. Witness the North Dakotan farmers trying to get the federal .Gov to legalize hemp (not marijuana) for them to grow (ropes, clothes, paper) – all their other crops are dying of diseases (due to a changing local climate) that hemp naturally resists.

  • robot makes music says:

    Re: Raelifin – the really scary part about this patenting is that they’re not actually doing any novel work – they just stick a bunch of genes into a test plant from some other plant, and grow them to see what happens – when they have a winner, they ‘patent’ that. Remixing is definitely the proper term here, because they’re not making anything actually new.

    Re: Pj – it’s totally about control. We HAVE to eat. Right now, we grow SO MUCH FOOD that we burn it as fuel (biodiesel) never mind the fact that there were riots over the price of corn in Mexico last year (THE staple crop of Mexico, no Mexicans could afford it). So food is cheap and easy to make, any one guy with enough machinery can feed a whole city – so control over whether or not they can grow a crop and how much they have to pay you for the seeds – they either inhibit the production of seeds so you can’t crop your own, or you sign a EULA that says you wont seed your own crop – all that equals everyone in America will be paying the Monsanto tax every time they eat.

    As a matter of course, I shun processed foods now. I shun anything with corn or soy listed as one of the main ingredients unless I’m eating something that’s supposed to be corn or soy based. I’ll still eat the stuff, just not preferentially. I’m to the point where I’m going to replace my soy coffee creamer (ten lines of unpronouncable chemicals) with soy lecithin and cold pressed grape seed oil (hey, it has resveratrol, right?) – if all I need is the fat content to make the creaminess, why bother with 10 extra ingredients?

    Lets not forget that monocropping is what leads to disease completely wiping out crops. Witness the North Dakotan farmers trying to get the federal .Gov to legalize hemp (not marijuana) for them to grow (ropes, clothes, paper) – all their other crops are dying of diseases (due to a changing local climate) that hemp naturally resists.

  • Me, The Consumer says:

    Well golly gee willickers Drew, thanks for helpin us lay folk understand what the fuss about GM foods is all about. Bonus points for underreporting the hazards of GM foods (crop failures in India, mutant corn in Mexico, on), only briefly mentioning the concerns countries without a bought and paid for FDA have, and doing it with style. You’ll make a fine corporate shill.

    Unsubscribed. And may god have mercy on your soul.

  • Me, The Consumer says:

    Well golly gee willickers Drew, thanks for helpin us lay folk understand what the fuss about GM foods is all about. Bonus points for underreporting the hazards of GM foods (crop failures in India, mutant corn in Mexico, on), only briefly mentioning the concerns countries without a bought and paid for FDA have, and doing it with style. You’ll make a fine corporate shill.

    Unsubscribed. And may god have mercy on your soul.

  • Raelifin says:

    “Consumer,” I know you’ve unsubscribed, and therefore are unlikely to read this, but I don’t think you’re being fair to Mr. Halley.

    Yes, there are many things wrong with GM crops, and many more things wrong with Big Agri. The comments here have been lukewarm at best, and we’re likely to be the most pro-tamper-with-nature demographic you can find.

    The above article is not one-sided. It is not a corporate advert. It is a balanced look into GM from a pro-tech point of view targeted at the uninformed public. You may disagree with his conclusion, or even dislike how much optimism he places in the technology, but to reject his writing because he isn’t blatantly anti-GM is stifling to the very concept of debate.

    You say that there are “crop failures in India” due to GM? Link to them! Let the discourse continue, so we all might be more informed.

    ——————————-

    @robot makes music:
    Remixing is definitely the proper term.

    I think the key here is separating the technology from those who use it. GM crops don’t cause disease–lack of diversity does that. GM crops don’t attack small farms for accidentally having “patented” material on their land. GM crops don’t make industrial foods.

    With any new technology comes the capability for abuse (as well as ability for good). GM food tech happened to fall into the pockets of those that would keep the power in the hands of the few.

  • Raelifin says:

    “Consumer,” I know you’ve unsubscribed, and therefore are unlikely to read this, but I don’t think you’re being fair to Mr. Halley.

    Yes, there are many things wrong with GM crops, and many more things wrong with Big Agri. The comments here have been lukewarm at best, and we’re likely to be the most pro-tamper-with-nature demographic you can find.

    The above article is not one-sided. It is not a corporate advert. It is a balanced look into GM from a pro-tech point of view targeted at the uninformed public. You may disagree with his conclusion, or even dislike how much optimism he places in the technology, but to reject his writing because he isn’t blatantly anti-GM is stifling to the very concept of debate.

    You say that there are “crop failures in India” due to GM? Link to them! Let the discourse continue, so we all might be more informed.

    ——————————-

    @robot makes music:
    Remixing is definitely the proper term.

    I think the key here is separating the technology from those who use it. GM crops don’t cause disease–lack of diversity does that. GM crops don’t attack small farms for accidentally having “patented” material on their land. GM crops don’t make industrial foods.

    With any new technology comes the capability for abuse (as well as ability for good). GM food tech happened to fall into the pockets of those that would keep the power in the hands of the few.

  • Anonymous says:

    Good article, but you really should have included a bit about the “terminator gene” controversy.

  • Anonymous says:

    Good article, but you really should have included a bit about the “terminator gene” controversy.

  • Raelifin says:

    Let’s hope for a followup piece, yeah?

  • Raelifin says:

    Let’s hope for a followup piece, yeah?

  • Kevin says:

    I don’t know about Monsanto’s tactics, but I’m pretty pleased with any tech that helps keep the world from starving.

    And if you don’t like it, buy certified organic foods. You don’t have a right to keep other people from eating stuff you dislike.

  • Kevin says:

    I don’t know about Monsanto’s tactics, but I’m pretty pleased with any tech that helps keep the world from starving.

    And if you don’t like it, buy certified organic foods. You don’t have a right to keep other people from eating stuff you dislike.

  • dave says:

    I think this article is completely one sided. GM crops consistently underproduce in comparison to non-GM hybrids. Thousands and thousands of people have committed suicide because of total crop failures and the oppressive debt marketing of seeds. Look at India poor subsistence farmers are tricked into taking out loans to buy GM seed. The crop fails they loose everything. They have to pay royalties to save seeds from their own plants. GM food is all about controlling the population and who gets to eat and who gets to die. The FDA and the companies do not test for safety hence the deadly anaphalactic shock that happens to people that are allergic to peanuts when they eat some GM-soy. These companies should check all products for safety and not try to prop up the pharmaceutical companies by creating a sickly population from low grade toxic food.

  • dave says:

    I think this article is completely one sided. GM crops consistently underproduce in comparison to non-GM hybrids. Thousands and thousands of people have committed suicide because of total crop failures and the oppressive debt marketing of seeds. Look at India poor subsistence farmers are tricked into taking out loans to buy GM seed. The crop fails they loose everything. They have to pay royalties to save seeds from their own plants. GM food is all about controlling the population and who gets to eat and who gets to die. The FDA and the companies do not test for safety hence the deadly anaphalactic shock that happens to people that are allergic to peanuts when they eat some GM-soy. These companies should check all products for safety and not try to prop up the pharmaceutical companies by creating a sickly population from low grade toxic food.

  • XM833 says:

    A risk that is sometimes overlooked with GM crops is the reduction of genetic diversity. The more that one particular strain is adopted, the greater the risk of some disease (insect, fungus, virus, etc) creating a disastrous failure because of the genetic homogeneity.

  • XM833 says:

    A risk that is sometimes overlooked with GM crops is the reduction of genetic diversity. The more that one particular strain is adopted, the greater the risk of some disease (insect, fungus, virus, etc) creating a disastrous failure because of the genetic homogeneity.

  • XM833 says:

    A related issue is the creation of crop strains which require a specific type of chemical fertilizer or herbicide to be used. For example, there are glyphosate-resistant crops which allow extensive spraying of fields with glyphosate to eliminate weeds. Thus it is not simply the crop but also the treatment which is potentially controlled by one company. This can be better for the environment if the herbicides chosen are safer, but at the risk of monopolization.

  • XM833 says:

    A related issue is the creation of crop strains which require a specific type of chemical fertilizer or herbicide to be used. For example, there are glyphosate-resistant crops which allow extensive spraying of fields with glyphosate to eliminate weeds. Thus it is not simply the crop but also the treatment which is potentially controlled by one company. This can be better for the environment if the herbicides chosen are safer, but at the risk of monopolization.

  • avan says:

    Thank you, for this article. I realy get new information about GMO in general.

  • avan says:

    Thank you, for this article. I realy get new information about GMO in general.

  • Katie says:

    @Kevin
    “And if you don’t like it, buy certified organic foods. You don’t have a right to keep other people from eating stuff you dislike.”

    You are right. We people who like our food to not be mutated, infected with viruses and bacteria, and pushed out without being labeled as such should just protect our own children and leave yours out of it. Though, when they get sick, you really shouldn’t blame anyone but yourself.

    As for me, I will take heed of the Japanese who have said that they will “watch the American children for the next 10 years”. You can be the lab rat (many of those rats got sick), I will be the wise consumer.

    http://tinyurl.com/nbzzqd

  • Katie says:

    @Kevin
    “And if you don’t like it, buy certified organic foods. You don’t have a right to keep other people from eating stuff you dislike.”

    You are right. We people who like our food to not be mutated, infected with viruses and bacteria, and pushed out without being labeled as such should just protect our own children and leave yours out of it. Though, when they get sick, you really shouldn’t blame anyone but yourself.

    As for me, I will take heed of the Japanese who have said that they will “watch the American children for the next 10 years”. You can be the lab rat (many of those rats got sick), I will be the wise consumer.

    http://tinyurl.com/nbzzqd

  • Uriel says:

    Genetically modified foods enlarge the endocrine glands, shrink vital organs and create severe alergies. Because they are designed with antibiotic resistant genes, they can be passed onto the bacteria in our bodies, breeding super antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. There is now proof they are damaging bees, ladybugs (vital to growing plants) and even making dogs, cats, and birds sick. When genes from one species are sliced into another, the body can not register the mutated combo properly. Anytime you eat a seedless watermellon, or grape, or seedless anything…you are eating a genetically modified food.

  • Uriel says:

    Genetically modified foods enlarge the endocrine glands, shrink vital organs and create severe alergies. Because they are designed with antibiotic resistant genes, they can be passed onto the bacteria in our bodies, breeding super antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. There is now proof they are damaging bees, ladybugs (vital to growing plants) and even making dogs, cats, and birds sick. When genes from one species are sliced into another, the body can not register the mutated combo properly. Anytime you eat a seedless watermellon, or grape, or seedless anything…you are eating a genetically modified food.

  • gwtt says:

    Genetically modified food must be treat as a computer virus, in the case if it infect natural food products during natural generative process used ny GOD. This production must be designed as safe and non infecting genetic programming, so in other cases companyes that create genetically modified food products must be treated like computer virus robbers and terrorists.

  • EnviromentalScientist says:

    Aside from the other false statements in this article (i.e. higher nutritional value), the egregious statement “GM foods resistant to insect attack actually require fewer pesticides than their natural counterparts, a seeming win for the environment.” is completely and totally FALSE!!!
    All one has to do is look at the sales of Round-Up since GM crops were introduced to know that this statement is patently false. Of course, one could also do a little more substantive research before helping perpetuate this myth.
    It’s only a win for the environment of the GMO’s don’t contaminate other non-GM crops, which they will. That’s incontrovertible and well-documented.
    Additionally, GM crops do not necessarily tolerate environmental stresses better (unless they are specifically engineered to), and thus when it comes to ACTUAL yield, overall, they do not produce a higher yield.
    Although raising certain (but by no means all) valid concerns over GMO’s, this article is pretty poorly researched and helps perpetuate too many of the lies being told by the bio-tech corporations.

  • EnviromentalScientist says:

    Aside from the other false statements in this article (i.e. higher nutritional value), the egregious statement “GM foods resistant to insect attack actually require fewer pesticides than their natural counterparts, a seeming win for the environment.” is completely and totally FALSE!!!
    All one has to do is look at the sales of Round-Up since GM crops were introduced to know that this statement is patently false. Of course, one could also do a little more substantive research before helping perpetuate this myth.
    It’s only a win for the environment of the GMO’s don’t contaminate other non-GM crops, which they will. That’s incontrovertible and well-documented.
    Additionally, GM crops do not necessarily tolerate environmental stresses better (unless they are specifically engineered to), and thus when it comes to ACTUAL yield, overall, they do not produce a higher yield.
    Although raising certain (but by no means all) valid concerns over GMO’s, this article is pretty poorly researched and helps perpetuate too many of the lies being told by the bio-tech corporations.

  • Plant Gal says:

    There is a big difference between GM and just hybridized and there are different levels of Genetic modification, I mean by all means disease risitance yes I am totaly behighnd that but when we are taking DNA from Carp (fish) and putting it into a Tomaot to make it more cold toleren, thats just sick. you don’t know what kind of effect that fish dna in your tomatoe might do to you. also yes we can hybridise thing to be resistant and even hardier yyea it takes longer but i cna wait .. No Fish DNA in my Tomatoe please!!!

  • Artisimo says:

    One of the main things that bothers me is that it’s entirely in the hands of “for profit” corporations. The made a tomato to be more resistant to the pesticide Roundup that they also sell. If that doesn’t point out the problem for you nothing will. The FDA is no kind of checks and balance system at this point and it’s downright creepy that labeling is not required/allowed.

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