Science and food: The genetically modified future
by Melody Reid
It's a familiar scene - perusing the produce section at the local grocer's - mountains of bright reds, yellows, and greens, perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables arranged in rows under florescent lights. This is the bounty of genetically modified foods, altered to create the most aesthetically pleasing tomato, or the perfect ear of corn.
Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be genetically modified or transgenic. GM products include medicines and vaccines (for instance insulin for diabetics), foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers. While the United States embraces this technology, concerns about the long-term effects remain.
Some concerns include the fear that genes from genetically modified plants might transfer to other plant species to cause genetic pollution or cross-contamination and create invasive superweeds. It has been suggested that these genes would allow a plant to compete aggressively with other plants and wipe them out. Critics of GM are also concerned that possible gene flow between genetically modified crops and other plants may damage biodiversity, and that pest-resistant crops could take away important food sources for wildlife.
Biotechnology promises to enhance food taste or quality, increase food nutrients and crop yields, and improve resistance to pests and herbicides, but studies as to the validity of these claims are ongoing.
While claims of herbicide and pest resistance spearhead the arguments supporting gene modification technology, recent reports are indicating that the benefits are not as big as originally believed.
Charles Benbrook, director of the Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center, found that when first introduced, most of the crops needed up to 25 percent fewer chemicals for the first three years, but afterward they required significantly more.
"There's now clear evidence that the average pounds of herbicides applied per acre planted to herbicide-tolerant varieties have increased compared to the first few years," said Benbrook in his 2003 report based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
GMO’s are capturing global headlines this month with the European Member states voting to block the import of genetically modified foods from biotech giant Monsanto. Also recently announced, Syngenta, another biotechnology company working on genetically modified crops, is moving its headquarters from Britain to the United States. In 2003, the United States accounted for over two-thirds of all biotechnology crops planted globally, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
Despite the prevalence of genetically modified foods in recent headlines, it seems the local public is still unaware of the issue. Even educated consumers find difficulty in making their food purchases. With genetically modified foods becoming the norm at local grocery stores, many consumers who may know about the controversial products are left with little choice in the matter. In Houston, a new outcropping of local farmer's markets and the growing popularity of stores like Whole Foods may provide some relief, but just how much is questionable.
Currently in the United States there are no labeling requirements in place for genetically altered foods. There are, however, labels for Certified Organic, foods that are produced without synthetic chemicals (e.g.: fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones) and are free of genetically modified organisms, and do not use genetically modified seeds. If a consumer wants to avoid purchasing GM foods, it seems that the best they can do is to purchase organic.
Inquiring directly with grocers is sometimes a frustrating option. On a recent trip to a Randall’s in North Houston, neither of the employees working in the produce section was familiar with the term Genetically Modified Organism. They could not say how much, if any, of the produce on hand was genetically altered.
A quick phone call to Whole Foods on Kirby and West Alabama served as helpful.
“We do not carry anything that’s a GMO,” said Angel Gonzales, the produce manager at Whole Foods. “This is a natural food store, so we try to stick to foods that are in their natural state.”
Whole Food’s official stance can be found in a store brochure where it states, “we are concerned about the disruptive effect genetic engineering may have on our environment and whether long-term human health issues have been thoroughly addressed.”
Shopping at local Co-ops and Farmer’s Markets gives consumers the option of purchasing organic foods that have been locally grown. The Central City Co-op at 2115 Taft, and the Houston Farmer’s Market at 3106 White Oak, both in Houston, provide a vast assortment of organic fruits and vegetables.
Urban Harvest is another option. Urban Harvest is a nonprofit organization that helps start community gardens and offers classes on growing fruits and vegetables. They are also working to start a farmer’s market in central Houston. Bob Randall, executive director of Urban Harvest said, “Urban Harvest is strongly committed to organics. We advocate and teach sustainable approaches.”
The controversy and debate on genetic engineering doesn’t stop with just fruits and vegetables, either. A new study published on June 8, 2004 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved growth hormone transgenic coho salmon, which have greater appetites and can grow up to seven times bigger than wild cohos. The fish were divided into three separate groups and were given varied amounts of food. As long as the food was plentiful, all groups thrived. However, when faced with food shortages, the GM salmon became more aggressive and muscled-out the wild fish for the food. Also, the survival rate of the GM fish showed a significant reduction when faced with food shortages. Many GM-fish appeared to have died from attacks and there were several instances of cannibalism. Comparatively, the fish in the wild-salmon only group fared very well. During the 14-week food shortage, the wild salmon showed a constant increase in population biomass.
Despite the controversies, GM products continue to stock the shelves. The 10/15 supersweet onion, and the seedless watermelons and broccoflower are not new items in the produce section of our local grocers. Other recent GM developments are Golden Rice, rice genetically fortified with Vitamin A, and Bt Cotton, which is cotton that produces a toxin to bollworms, a major cotton pest. With the adoption of food animals in the experimentation (as with the salmon), the capacity of gene insertion technology to change our world has brought us to a crossroads of fundamental importance.