Thursday, March 28, 2013

Genetically Modified Food: Cure or Curse?

Almost all the fruits and vegetables we eat today are shadows of their former selves. That is to say, they are all highly modified versions of the wild variety or even the variety your grandparents ate, now bred and cross-bred to appeal to the consumers’ tastes and aesthetics. Instead of breeding for desired traits, scientists are now able to create desired traits by putting the genes of one organism into the genes of another. For example, scientists tried putting a flounder antifreeze gene into a strawberry gene so that the strawberry crop would be resistant to a frost. Whether or not the thought of mutant mango or bioengineered broccoli makes your skin crawl, there are some pretty good arguments for and against allowing genetic modification. Genetically modified (GM) food can be engineered to be healthier by making the food lower in natural sugars or natural fats. Nutrients can be added to the food, like high fiber corn. Genetic modification can lower fungal toxins that occur frequently in natural varieties. GM crops can be produced using less pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Some are touting genetic modification as the key to ending world hunger. Many third world countries only produce one key staple food, which results in malnourished populations. If crops can be genetically modified to include vitamins and minerals not naturally present, the staple crop can be provided to malnourished populations with greater nutritional benefit. Scientists have also been researching eatable vaccines because this will help lower the costs of manufacturing and storing the drug. Many proponents also claim GM crops will be positive for the environment by engineering plants that will be resistant to pests and require less pesticide. People with food allergies are concerned that GM foods may unintentionally introduce allergens into otherwise harmless food items. Others with dietary restrictions like people who keep kosher or vegetarians have similar concerns. A vegetarian may unintentionally ingest an animal gene contained in a fruit or someone who keeps kosher may eat a vegetable with a pig gene. Antibiotic resistant genes have been found in GM food and some are concerned that this resistance may transfer to people. Many worry about “superbugs” or “superweeds” that may adapt and become resistant to GM crops with pesticides built in. Environmentalists worry about unintended environmental consequences of GM crops. Remember DDT and DDT resistant mosquitos? A Cornell University study looked at the effects of GM corn on the monarch butterfly. Only 56% of the butterfly larvae survived when fed milkweed plants covered in GM corn pollen, while all of the larvae fed milkweed covered in non-GM corn pollen survived. While many scientists contested the validity of the study, it does raise important concerns. No matter how you feel about it, it is difficult to make an informed decision. Right now in the United States, food producers are not required to label their products as GM. Should they? -Rachel Goldstein, Legal Intern