by Jen Matteis
The biotech companies tout it as a “Green Revolution,” a way to feed a growing population on limited land with high-yield wheat or drought-resistant corn. Critics view them as “Frankenfoods,” monsters with unnatural DNA that present a threat to human health. Given that so much of our food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sorting out truth from falsehood is of vital importance.
The debate is nothing new, but the prevalence of GMOs has increased over the past 15 years. Today, they are found in most processed foods. The vast majority of soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the United States is genetically modified. These crops use genetic material from bacteria and viruses to create resistance to diseases, pests, and herbicides. Perhaps the most well-known examples are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, which are resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Other crops contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a species of bacteria that creates its own insecticide. The first GM food animal is also on its way…a new variety of salmon that grows bigger, faster.
The United States welcomes biotech with open arms. The FDA claims no difference exists between GMO foods and non-GMO foods. Other countries disagree. France, Germany, and Ireland have imposed bans; the European Union, Japan, and Australia require labeling. In Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have refused GM food aid during times of famine.
While the health effects are uncertain, other problems are easy to find. Wide-spread use of Roundup has caused weeds to develop resistance, creating so-called super weeds. Farmers must return to older methods — more toxic herbicides, or labor-intensive tilling — to kill them.
Loss of biodiversity is another concern: eighty-million acres in the U.S. are covered by a corn monoculture. Crop diversity adds more than just variety at the dinner table, as varied strains contribute differing resistances to disease and pests. Having one crop as our staple food means that one major disease or one major pest could wipe out our food supply.
Our incomplete understanding of the genomes we alter leads to unintended side effects, such as allergic reactions in consumers, or harm to dependent species, as is the case with Bt corn’s lethal effect on monarch butterflies.
Researchers also pair antibiotic resistance with desired traits in GMOs–if they can’t kill the organism with an antibiotic, it shows them that it has the desired trait, too. There is a small chance that antibiotic-resistant genes could transfer to disease-causing bacteria when ingested, which would create super germs.
Yet another concern is contamination. GM crops approved for animal feed have ended up in the human food supply. And if GM salmon escapes into the wild, it could out-perform native species and cause their extinction.
Another issue is what some have called the “GM Genocide.” In India, GM crops may have caused the deaths of thousands of farmers–not because of any detrimental health effects, but because they committed suicide. Many farmers paid more for GM cotton seeds which must be re-purchased each year. When these crops failed, thousands of farmers went into debt and lost their land, and an estimated 250,000 committed suicide.
It’s hard to sort out fact from rumor, especially in the latter case, but there’s still the matter of choice. According to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 87 percent of U.S. citizens want GMO foods labeled. In light of the above, don’t we at least deserve a choice in whether or not we eat it? For now, there’s only one way to avoid it — even in the U.S, 100% organic foods don’t contain GMOs.