Genetically Engineered Food
Americans have never been further removed from the sources of their food than they are today. Three-quarters of U.S. citizens now live in urban or suburban areas, where most people have no significant contact with the day-to-day activities of farming. In addition, modern machinery and technology have rendered many employment opportunities in agriculture obsolete. Today, less than 3% of U.S. citizens are full-time farm workers, down from 72% in 1820, and the number continues to fall. (Cobb; 78-89)
Consequently, few Americans may realize that some of the potatoes they buy in stores or eat in restaurants have been biologically altered to produce their own pesticides, or that their margarine and baby foods have been made from soybeans designed to withstand powerful herbicides (chemicals that kill weeds). However, these and other so-called genetically engineered (GE) foods are hitting supermarket shelves in record numbers, and more are on the way. GE foods are genetically altered by scientists to enhance the foods’ nutritional value, boost their resistance to disease, insects and weeds, or lengthen their shelf lives (the length of time they remain edible before rotting). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decreed in 1992 that GE foods are completely safe and therefore do not need to be labeled or separated from traditional varieties of food. Since then, the use of biologically altered seeds and supplements on farms has briskly accelerated.
In 1996, just six million acres 2.3 million hectares of the U.S.’s 968 million acres of farmland were planted with GE seeds. In 1997, the number rose to about 25 million acres, and in 1998 it jumped to 58 million. In addition, about 30% of U.S. dairy cows are now treated with a genetically engineered growth hormone designed to make them produce more milk. A veritable revolution in the kinds of food produced on American farms–and the methods used to produce them–has occurred in the span of just three years. (Morgan; 45-51)
Until recently, the movement towards GE foods proceeded with little fanfare. As the number of engineered crops has risen, however, so has public debate about the safety and potential benefits of the GE food revolution. In 1998, consumer groups filed several lawsuits against the FDA alleging that genetically altered foods are unsafe and should be labeled, if not banned altogether.
Those who oppose GE foods contend that consumers have a right to know what they are eating. They demand labels on altered foods that detail exactly how the foods have been genetically altered. They argue that such information is necessary to prevent people from buying and consuming foods that may cause allergies as a result of genetic manipulation.
In addition, many adversaries of GE foods say that by altering the very building blocks of life, genetically altering foods may have disastrous consequences for the environment and human health. Too few studies have been done on the long-term effects of GE foods to justify their widespread distribution in the U.S., opponents contend. Finally, many observers criticize GE foods designed to resist insects and herbicides, saying the foods raise the possibility that insects and weeds will develop a resistance to such substances.
On the other hand, U.S. government agencies and companies that specialize in developing GE foods say altered foods are not only entirely safe to eat, but can help reduce world hunger as well. Companies such as the agricultural supply giant Monsanto Co., based in St. Louis, Mo., and DuPont Co. in Wilmington, Del., point out that farmers have always selected and cross-bred crops with desirable traits. They claim that genetic engineering is merely an extension and refinement of this age-old technique of tailoring plants to farmers’ and consumers’ needs. (Falkner; 66-71) Furthermore, proponents of GE foods contend that genetic engineering will make farming more efficient and less wasteful than ever before. They say crops can now be engineered to be more nutritious and yield more usable output, thereby providing a bountiful new source of food for millions of starving or malnourished people all over the world.(Morgan; 45-51)
Since the 1980s, when the business of genetic engineering first began to boom, agricultural biotech companies like Monsanto have reiterated their position that all GE foods are absolutely safe for consumers and the environment. Every new variety of food that is developed, company officials say, undergoes exhaustive testing in controlled, laboratory settings before it is sent to market. “We’ve done 25,000 field tests on transgenic plants,” says Roy Fuchs, Monsanto’s director of regulatory science. “We’ve done 1,400 tests on Roundup Ready soybeans. The food is as safe to eat as corresponding products.” (Cobb; 78-89)
Officials from biotech companies point out that current FDA policy places responsibility for any safety problems arising from a GE food on the company that developed it. Therefore, they argue, it is in biotech companies’ best interest to ensure the absolute safety of every GE food they formulate. “We have the responsibility to test,” Fuchs explains. “If there is a problem, we have the liability.” (Falkner; 66-71)
Proponents of GE foods note that the most common farm crops and animals have already been subjected to thousands of years of genetic alteration. Indeed, throughout history, farmers have bred the most productive plants and animals with one another. In addition, farmers have long cross-bred different plant and animal species to produce “hybrid” varieties. By the 1960s, for instance, 95% of all corn grown in the U.S. was hybrid, and new hybrids of flowers and vegetables are introduced every year without government regulation. (Farndon; 24-40) Supporters of GE foods say genetic engineering does not differ from traditional selective breeding in principle but merely provides a means to carry out these processes more quickly and efficiently than ever before.
Proponents of GE foods argue that impartial government studies have conclusively established that altered foods–and genetic engineering in general–will not harm the environment. They cite an August 1987 report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a nonpartisan organization that advises Congress on scientific matters, that there is “no evidence that unique hazards exist…in the use of gene-splicing techniques.”(Morgan; 45-51)
In fact, champions of GE foods say that planting engineered crops can actually lessen farmers’ reliance on environmentally harmful chemical pesticides by as much as 50%. (Rees; 120-128) Chemical pesticides can seep into water supplies and make foods dangerous to eat. Supporters of GE foods note that the U.S.’s top two crops, corn and soybeans, as well as other crops, have been altered to incorporate the natural and environmentally safe insecticide BT. As a result, supporters say, farmers who plant crops with BT genes do not need to apply as many chemical pesticides to their fields.
Many foods have already been made healthier as a direct result of genetic engineering, supporters say. They point in particular to margarine, a butter substitute made primarily from soybeans that until recently had contained high levels of trans-fatty acids, substances that can increase the risk of heart disease. In 1997, Dupont unveiled a soybean engineered to contain fewer trans-fatty acids than traditional soybeans. Margarines manufactured with Dupont’s soybean, in turn, have much lower levels of trans-fatty acids than those made with non-engineered soybeans.
Still, proponents of GE foods say the greatest benefit in moving toward engineered crops and meats is their promise of reducing world hunger and ensuring an adequate food supply for the future. They note that worldwide, close to 40% of all crops are lost to insect blights, weeds, flooding or drought each year. Genetic engineering can help make plants resistant to such problems, say proponents, thereby greatly increasing the world’s food supply.
In fact, supporters of engineered food believe GE foods offer the only means to feed the world’s burgeoning population in the decades to come. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that global population will increase to almost eight billion by 2025, from 5.9 billion in 1998. That increase represents an average growth rate of more than 200,000 people per day. (Farndon; 24-40) Proponents of GE foods say that as people and housing encroach upon farmland all over the world, more food will have to be grown on ever-smaller areas. Engineered crops that can produce extremely high yields and meats that are leaner present the only feasible solution to this dilemma, say proponents. “The goals are to help people around the world lead longer, healthier lives, at costs that they and their nation can afford, and without environmental degradation,” says Bob Shapiro, Monsanto’s chairman. (Cobb; 78-89)
Consumers Demand Labeling
A vocal contingent of consumer groups, however, questions the safety and worth of genetically engineered foods, which they call “Frankenfoods.” They say that the long-term impact of such foods on consumers’ health has not been gauged, and that biotech companies are in effect using U.S. citizens as experimental “guinea pigs” for an unproved technology. (Rees; 120-128) Consumer groups say that at the very least, biotech companies and farmers that plant GE crops should be required to label foods containing engineered products so that consumers can decide for themselves whether to buy them.
“If consumers want to know how their food is produced, they have every right to be told and make informed decisions,” says Steven Taylor, New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner. In a 1997 poll of American consumers conducted by the Swiss biotech company Novartis AG, 93% of respondents said they thought GE foods should be labeled. (Cobb; 78-89)
One recent incident suggests that there are limits to how safe or natural Americans consider GE foods to be. In May 1998, the USDA rescinded a proposal to allow produce suppliers to classify GE foods as “organic” after it received more than 200,000 letters of protest from consumers and public interest groups. Organic foods are typically grown without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides.
Supporters of labeling point to a study of genetically engineered soybeans released in March 1996 by scientists at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The soybeans had been engineered to contain protein genes from Brazil nuts to make them more nutritious. In their study, the scientists concluded that eating the soybeans could provoke potentially deadly reactions in people allergic to Brazil nuts. Proponents of GE foods are quick to point out that the soybeans were never marketed because of these findings and argue that the incident is a good example of the genetic engineering industry’s self-regulation.
However, supporters of labeling say the study confirms the possibility of an allergic reaction to GE foods. They argue that there are so many different human food allergies that it is impossible for scientists to say with complete confidence that a foreign gene will not cause a reaction in anyone. Furthermore, they say it is possible that foreign genes that are not allergens by themselves may cause a reaction in combination with the genes of the original plant or animal. “We’re running something of a roulette wheel as far as people that could have allergic reactions,” warns Margaret Mellon, an agriculture and biotechnology specialist at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which opposes GE foods. (Falkner; 66-71) Mellon and others argue that if biotech companies were as certain about the safety of GE foods as they say they are, they would have no objection to labeling them.
Opponents of GE foods say biotech companies are much more interested in turning a profit than in feeding the world. They point to Monsanto’s “Terminator” technology, a way of engineering plant varieties so that they produce only sterile seeds. Farmers using GE crops will therefore need to buy new Terminator seeds every planting season. Critics say that Monsanto has clearly created Terminator technology to maximize sales of GE crops and maintain a hefty stake in worldwide agricultural biotech profits, which analysts predict will reach $300 billion by 2008. (Farndon; 24-40) If Monsanto were truly concerned with feeding the world’s population, critics say, then it would share its technology freely with farmers.
Environmentalists have taken issue with the ecological safety of GE foods. They argue that while it is true that farmers have long attempted to influence the characteristics of their crops and animals through selective breeding, the results of those efforts appeared slowly. Thus, they say, it is easier to gauge the long-term effect of selective breeding on the environment than it is to monitor the effects of gene splicing.
The more powerful a technology is at expropriating and controlling the forces of nature, the more exacting the price we are forced to pay in terms of disruption and destruction wreaked on the ecosystems that sustain life….Genetic engineering represents the ultimate tool. It extends humanity’s reach over the forces of nature as no other technology in history.
According to their own estimates, biotech companies are doubling their base of knowledge for producing new GE plants and animals every 12 to 24 months. Researchers are set to unveil new GE sunflowers, squash and potatoes shortly. Monsanto’s Terminator seeds are also forthcoming. Many observers say consumer unrest over GE foods in the U.S., unlike in Europe, has not reached a level where any sweeping legislative action appears likely. American biotech companies avow that they themselves are capable of monitoring the safety of the GE foods that they produce without government intervention and that most U.S. consumers and politicians trust them to do so.
Yet opponents of GE foods say that biotech companies are driven by short-term profit and therefore refuse to consider the long-term impact of their products. They hope that recent consumer lawsuits demanding greater stringency in government regulations on engineered food will raise consumer awareness of–and anger over–what they see as the dangers of GE foods.
Cobb, Allan. Scientifically Engineered Foods: The Debate Over What’s on Your Plate. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc, 2003; 78-89
Falkner, Robert. The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food: Diplomacy, Trade and Law. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; 66-71
Farndon, John. From DNA to Gm Wheat: Discovering Genetically Modified Food (Chain Reactions) Heinemann, 2006; 24-40
Morgan, Sally. Superfoods: Genetic Modification of Foods. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2002; 45-51
Rees, Andy. Genetically Modified Food: A Short Guide for the Confused. Pluto Press, 2006; 120-128