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Art Composition with Tomatoes and Needlech
Cover Story:
The Science in Your Kitchen

No, it’s not your appliances, it’s your pastas and produce. Here is a guide to become an instant expert on the issue of genetic modification in foods.

Everyone knows the age-old saying, “You are what you eat.” But what happens when people don’t know what they are eating? And do they have a right to know? This is the issue at the center of the current controversy surrounding genetically modified foods. At this time it is not required in the United States for producers or markets to identify a product as containing genetically modified materials. A growing number of critics argue that people have a right to be informed on the presence of such materials in what they purchase. The fundamental question is whether a country has an ethical responsibility to inform its citizens on the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in products available for consumption. For now though, scientific studies widely support the safety and use of genetically altered crops and animals, and will undoubtedly do so until they are proven wrong.

In this country, at least 75 percent of products in supermarkets contain materials that have been genetically changed in some way. This means the item has had the genes from other organisms added to its DNA to ultimately create a different product with desired results. But a recent poll conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology suggests that the majority of Americans don’t know what genetic modification means, and that roughly six out of ten people in America do not know that genetically modified products are available for purchase and consumption. The Pew Initiative is a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit organization that encourages public debate and education on biotechnologies.

The World Health Organization has declared products stemming from genetic alterations as safe for both growth and consumption by humans. Therefore, in the United States it is not required for producers to divulge an item as genetically modified to potential consumers. Europe takes a more consumer-based approach to the issue, and requires genetically modified products to be labeled as such, while other countries have banned the use of such products altogether. The WHO Web site (http://www.who.int) features a wide variety of information on the topic, ranging from GM safety on humans and the environment to their effects on international trade.

In the United States, the task of monitoring the production of GM foods is divided among three separate government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects crop growth may have on the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture then determines whether the plant is safe to grow. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration evaluates whether the food resulting from the growth will be safe to eat. This split process can sometimes be unproductive as each department carries different standards and abilities in their approach to evaluation. This leads to a lack of communication between departments, and gaps regarding responsibility. And, because of inadequate funding, the amount of crops tested for safety is often limited, causing many crop producers to carry out inspections independently before sending their products to market.

Countries outside of the United States have adopted stricter methods of regulation almost entirely for the reason that there are no long-term studies measuring the safety of GMOs regarding human consumption, or the effects the growth of such crops may have on the environment. Critics skeptical of GMO safety argue that such tinkering with genes between species could potentially be damaging to human health years later by creating problems such as resistance to disease, stronger viruses, and possibly even human genetic changes.

Genetic modification in crops has taken place since the early 1990s. At that time, the resulting produce also became available for human consumption. The most common altered ingredients we may end up buying include soybeans, cotton, corn and canola oil. Genes from plants and animals are mainly modified to produce longer shelf life, increases in size, and insect-resistant crops.

While the jury is still out regarding their undisputed safety, GMOs do appear extremely promising in the areas of advance in treatments and cures for human diseases like cancer and AIDS. Labs are now testing viruses that have been modified to attack and kill cancer cells in mice while leaving healthy cells alone. If this method of treatment is found successful after extensive trials, it could result in cures for various types of tumors and cancers in humans. In addition to these endeavors, scientists plan to engineer specific food products that will contain vaccines to common diseases, such as hepatitis. If the result is proven successful, it would make vaccinations much cheaper, available worldwide, and as painless to receive as eating a piece of fruit.

Genetic modification is also used in food production for populations with disease and hunger problems in developing countries. A vitamin-rich strain of rice has been introduced that lowers the extremely high child mortality rates from malaria worldwide by facilitating faster recoveries. Through GM foods, scientists hope to tackle the problems of world hunger, too. With longer shelf lives, and increased resistance to disease, it’s possible that under correct management larger amounts of food will reach those around the world who are in need. These potential uses of genetic modification could save many millions of lives a year.

The nutritional benefits of foods we eat have the potential to be shifted as well. Through genetic modification, scientists hope to create animals that have increased resistance to disease, and higher productivity, while having the ability to assist humans in many different ways. Laboratory pigs have been modified with a gene from spinach resulting in bacon with lower fat content, making bacon of the future a bit more guilt-free. Animal genes are being altered so that they produce various hormones and medications needed by humans. Cows have been created that produce the human growth hormone, and just a handful of such creatures will supply the total amount of human growth hormone needed worldwide. Even insulin production for the treatment of diabetes is an example of genetic modification as the hormone is grown from modified bacteria.

GMOs have been beneficial for the environment in some ways, the “New Scientist” reported in June 2006. There has been a significant drop in greenhouse gases resulting from the cultivation of crops modified for insect and disease resistance. These farmers use less fuel and fertilizer because they don’t need to spray their fields as often. Also brought into question are the unknown effects GMO crops have on the intricate biodiversity within the environment.

But while GMOs have been found to have positive effects on the environment in this one aspect, there is still widespread concern as to the effects that genetic engineering may have on the complex and delicate biodiversity within nature. GM crops are mainly produced to be resistant to disease and pests. These results are good for farmers, but carry the potential to be disastrous in the wild. Countless species depend on a specific food chain to be present for survival. If just one piece of the chain is removed, entire species might disappear. It’s possible too, that the resistance to pests and diseases found in GM crops could foster the evolution of stronger breeds of insects and viruses.

Another way genetically modified crops alter the environment is through cross breeding with nearby unmodified crops. If this is left unchecked, inspection and regulations will be virtually impossible, as the gene alterations would literally become a part of nature itself. Partially with this phenomenon in mind, a few bioengineering companies have created crops that are capable of growing just one cycle. The seeds of these crops are then unable to cross-pollinate with wild plants. While this discovery supports the clear benefits on natural diversity within the environment, it is also controversial because a one-cycle crop means that farmers will then have to purchase more supplies directly from the engineering company.

This is a potentially unfair practice as a growing number of GM crops are harvested in developing countries, and it could lead to their increased dependence on industrialized nations. One-cycle crops also present the issue of biotech companies issuing patents on genetic patterns within their products.

So what can shoppers do with all this scientific information? Make informed choices on what to purchase. Going organic is an alternative to the use of products that most likely contain genetically modified materials. Organic refers to a final product free of growth hormones, antibiotics and genetic changes. A growing number of supermarket chains have introduced their own lines of organic foods to pick from, creating more options for health and environmentally conscious customers.

Organic products may be a little more expensive than the standard produce and meats, but they are produced with strict guidelines regarding levels of fertilizer, radiation, pesticides, food additives and, of course, a complete rejection of genetic modifications. Buying organic may also mean supporting local farmers.

Studies suggest that organic farming is also beneficial to the environment. These farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides that have the potential to harm local wildlife, and the farming is also less harmful to the various ecosystems in nature. Look for the labels stating “USDA Organic” and you’ll know the item has been highly regulated during its production.

Genetic modification of food carries the potential to enhance the nutritional value of what we eat, produce cures for human disease, and above all save lives. And while the future possibilities of genetic modification are endless, its safety is still not guaranteed.

Opponents of genetic modification are fighting for citizens’ rights to be informed on what their food contains through the appropriate labeling of modified products. But for now, the battle over genetically modified products comes down to choices you make in the produce department.