G-M-Oh My Goodness …

Genetically Modified Organism or “Frankenfood”?

This past St. Patrick s Day the wife brought home a head of iceberg lettuce from the local supermarket produce section. March must be a good month for lettuce in Mexico, she reasoned, why else would they have it on sale. Well mister, I’m here to tell you that that head of lettuce sat in our refrigerator until well after Easter without breaking out in a single blemish or wrinkle … it just sat there, grinning away in the produce drawer, in a world of its own.

I’d pretty much formed a theory that it was sucking the life out of the weaker surrounding vegetables when Dimond Hill Farm owner Jane Presby set me straight.

That’s likely “Frankenfood,” she said, Genetically Modified (GM) produce custom designed to grow faster and last longer than anything Mother Nature could have come up with on her own. Then she just shook her head and wondered aloud at the dangerous games we play when somebody with two decades of schooling and experience figures they can fully understand the impact of mucking around with a design more than two billion years in the making.

Some GMO History

Truth be told, we’ve been tampering with Mother Nature since before Mendel began playing with his peas in the mid-1800s. Of course, this was done on a natural level where cross breeding of plants and animals allowed early farmers to marry beneficial species, increasing both their yields and chances of success.

Most people are familiar with this process through the many flower varieties that pop up in gardens and garden centers each spring, and it has been used by generations of farmers to improve everything from weather resistance to milk production. (That’s also how we came up with the mule … somebody figured they’d try breeding a horse and a jack-a … I mean, a donkey … and how we turned honey bees into hybrid killers.)

Of course, as a whole, our hunger to move things along faster and with more targeted results seems to be insatiable. And so in the 1980s we started looking for ways to migrate our food supply away from biologic combinations and more toward genetic manipulations. The field of Genetic Engineering expanded and scientist began experimenting with ways to slightly alter the winding strands of plant DNA to extend shelf life, improve resistance to pests, chemicals and drought, and to develop varieties that better target local nutritional needs.

Tomatoes were one of the first food crops to be genetically modified, with Monsanto introducing GM seeds in the mid-1980s. Monsanto, a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation based in St. Louis, was once a major producer of plastics and synthetic fibers. By the 1980s, however, the company became more focused on agriculture, more specifically on genetically modifying seeds and food crops to meet certain environmental and commercial needs.

Monsanto now dominates the industry, accounting for a 90% share of genetically modified crops worldwide. Dow Chemical Company and Syngenta AG, among others, control the rest.

Tomato DNA was modified to restrict a certain hormone that triggered ripening. This made tomatoes easier to pick, package and transport great distances without much of the bruising or spoilage problems experienced with traditional tomato crops. Of course, the downside was that without this particular hormone, the tomato may turn red, but it has no chance of ripening. (Anybody who’s eaten a supermarket tomato in February knows what I mean.)

Today, much of what we eat contains at least some genetically modified ingredients. In fact, a recent Brown University study showed that more than 70 percent of food products on our grocery shelves contain GMOs. In addition, the feed crops for much of the dairy, meat and poultry sold in the United States have been genetically modified.

Some GMO Politics

Although GM food products are gaining ground on the store shelves, studies show that consumers are largely unaware of the true impact on their pantry closets and dinner tables. Researchers from the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biologic Sciences found that only 52% of Americans realized that genetically modified foods are being sold in grocery stores and only 26% believed that they had eaten genetically modified foods. Maybe that’s because under current U.S. law, food companies aren’t required to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

More than 60 countries worldwide, however, have passed legislation imposing restrictions and labeling of genetically modified food products, with many EU countries banning it outright. In July, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of food offered for retail sale that has been partially or entirely produced with genetic engineering. However, a growing number of states are considering GMO labeling laws, and Maine and Connecticut have passed similar labeling laws, but those provisions have yet to be put into place.

In March, the US Senate narrowly defeated a bill to prevent states from making GMO labeling mandatory. A similar bill passed the House in 2015, with backing from the food industry, which sought to ban mandatory GMO labeling laws in favor of a voluntary labeling system where the industry could better “educate” the buying public.

The U.S. is the largest producer of genetically modified crops, although more than a dozen countries worldwide employ the technology, including Argentina, Canada, China, Australia, India, and Mexico. Until recently, the EU had largely banned genetically modified foods, mostly in reaction to consumer outcry. Currently, the only GM crop grown in the EU is corn, and less than two percent of that crop is from genetically engineered seed.

GMO Pros and Cons

There are many arguments for and against genetic engineering of our food supply. One issue is fear that genetically modified crops grown in the field can easily “infect” naturally grown fruit and vegetable plants and perhaps threaten the natural food supply. Others fear that there has not been enough research done to see how genetically mutated foods impact our own genetic makeup over time. Also, GM foods currently are being regulated by three government agencies: the EPA, the FDA and the USDA. Of course, we all know how efficient federal agencies can be when they work together, so it likely comes as no surprise that the GM foods industry largely regulates itself.

GM food advocates say that genetic engineering is a way to harness the knowledge of man with the power of nature to customize foods that satisfy the needs of both individuals and industry. Genetic engineering makes it possible to meet the nutritional needs of an increasingly complex and diverse world population. It also reduces the environmental impact of changing global weather patterns by allowing farmers to raise drought, disease and pesticide resistant crops that can be designed to adapt to climate and soil changes.

Advantages include:

  • Increased pest and disease resistance (reducing need for chemical spraying)
  • Drought tolerance
  • Increased food supply
  • Can customize to grow in a variety of weather and soil conditions
  • Able to modify nutritional content to include important vitamins and minerals

Risks include:

  • Introducing allergens and toxins to food (cross apples with a peanut gene and how many pie eaters will swell up?)
  • Accidental contamination between genetically modified and non-genetically modified foods (hard to keep pollen in one field)
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Adversely changing the nutrient content of a crop
  • Creation of “super” weeds and other environmental risks (some parts of the country now have weeds able to drink Roundup for breakfast …)

So, what’s a consumer to do?

Of course, the information provided in this article is but the tip of the GM iceberg … or iceberg lettuce, maybe. Lots more research needs to be done on both sides of the grocery aisle before the final verdict is in on GM food products. For those of you who want to ensure that you are avoiding GM foods, we only know of two ways to do it, three really … first, buy only clearly labeled Non-GMO products; second, buy only organic products, which by regulation cannot be genetically modified; and, third … and this is the best way I know of … buy your food products at the Dimond Hill Farm.

For more information on Genetically Modified food, we suggest you read the following online articles:

The Pros & Cons of GMO Foods

The GMO Controversy: What You Need to Know

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops

US Regulation of Genetically Modified Crops

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