Stop! You probably don’t realize it, but your dinner plate is swarming with controversy. If anything you’re about to eat contains soy, corn, canola oil, high-fructose corn syrup, or so-called “natural” or “artificial” flavors, chances are that it’s been genetically modified. Many scientists and government officials say your dinner is perfectly safe, yet other scientists and environmental organizations are more than a bit skeptical.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have been genetically altered by cutting a gene out of one organism’s DNA sequence via restriction enzymes and transporting it to the cell of another organism by means of a vector. This isn’t so different from breeding plants or animals with certain traits to produce offspring with traits, which we have been doing for thousands of years. The key differences, however, are that the dramatic modifications do not start from natural occurrences, that they happen immediately rather than gradually, and that genetic diversity is often lost to one “perfect crop.”
Whether miraculous or insidious, there are some risks associated with GMO crops. The World Health Organization recognizes three problems. Allergenicity (the tendency of a product to cause allergic reactions) and gene transfer (when cells from a genetically modified food are transferred to the human body or bacteria in the body during consumption) are addressed by U.S. government regulations. Outcrossing (the transfer of genes from genetically modified crops into nearby natural crops) is a problem that appears to be more difficult to regulate.
While many other countries require labeling of genetically modified foods, the U.S. stands as a notable exception. Jeremy Rifkin, president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, expressed his concern in a PBS interview, saying that many modified foods may be safe, but we cannot be sure they all will be: “Even the Food and Drug Administration, in internal documents by their own scientists that were forced out in a lawsuit, suggested that these foods could pose some potentially serious allergenic and toxic reactions among consumers.” According to the Scientific American article “Labels for GMOs are a Bad Idea,” labeling would scare consumers, which would inhibit efforts for genetically modified crops that could provide an invaluable source of nutrition in foreign countries.
GMOs also mean deeper corporate involvement in our food systems. One of these corporations, Monsanto, claims that its genetic modifications help advance our food system by creating crops resistant to pesticides or rich in vitamins, such as “Golden Rice,” which is designed to fight childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiencies in third world countries. Monsanto was recently awarded a World Food Prize for their efforts. However, activists who point to a $5 million dollar donation to the Food Prize organization by Monsanto are suspect of the agenda of such corporate involvement in food. A farmer is left dependent on the corporation in ways that some see as problematic.
India, the site of one of the largest revolutions against Monsanto, has suffered from use of Monsanto’s “BT Cotton,” a seed modified to include bacterium harmful to some problematic insects. But the seeds have other (initially undisclosed) weaknesses that require the farmer to purchase Monsanto’s pesticide. Activists such as Vandana Shiva, physicist and philosopher, connect the presence of genetically modified seeds to rates of Indian farmer suicides (more than a quarter million in the last 16 years, deemed “the largest wave of recorded suicides” according to the New York University School of Law). Meanwhile, the vast majority of the processed corn and soy that we buy at our local grocery stores in the United States also supports Monsanto.
GMOs are an epitome of the issue of how much we want science and corporations involved with our diet. Unless we all want to grow our food ourselves and be entirely subject to Mother Nature’s whim, there is no question that food, scientific technology, and companies can be successfully intertwined. But what relationship do we think is best for people and the planet? And, perhaps more personally, what can we do to educate ourselves about what’s in the food – both politically and biologically – that we are putting on our family’s dinner plates?