Genetically modified foods (GMF) are created through a biotechnological process known as genetic modification (GM). Genetic modification -- also known as genetic engineering -- alters the genetic makeup of plants, according to the Human Genome Project (HGP). Actually what scientists are doing when they genetically modify a plant is to combine certain genes from different plant species to basically change the DNA in the resulting plant species.
The HGP paper reports that in 2006, some 252 million acres of "transgenic crops" had been planted in twenty-two countries by 10.3 million farmers. These crops (corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, rice, sweet potatoes and canola) were planted in order to reportedly resist insect infestation. The sweet potatoes were modified in order to "…resist…a virus that could decimate most of the African harvest" (HGP). Fifty-three percent of those crops were planted in the United States; 17% were planted in Argentina; 11% were planted in Brazil; 6% were planted in Canada and the remaining percentages were planted in India, China, Paraguay and South Africa (HGP).
Controversies -- Benefits
The HGP explains that the use of GM food is said to potentially increase food security for developing nations. Also, GM crops have "enhanced taste and quality," and they mature earlier than traditional crops (HGP). GM crops are said to have better resistance to "…disease, pests, and herbicides," the HGP site continues. On the negative side of genetically modified foods are the unknown long-term manifestations -- the "…potential human health impacts," and those include certain allergens and the "…transfer of antibiotic resistance markers"; moreover there is the "unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination" (HGP).
Additionally the HGP notes that there is the potential for the production of the world's food by "…a few companies," which could lead to the "increasing dependence on industrialized nations by developing nations" and the possibility of "biopiracy" (foreign exploitation of natural resources) (HGP). There is also the ethical issue of simply "…tampering with nature by mixing genes" among several species and the fact that in many countries (including the U.S.) food manufacturing companies are not required to label the use of genetically modified ingredients on the food packages.
Deborah Whitman writes in the ProQuest publication CSA (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) that genetically modified foods were created in part because the world now has more than 6 billion people and that number is expected to double over the next 50 years. An adequate food supply for those many billions of people is going to be necessary, and hence, GM food corporations have been busy planting millions of acres in GM crops, Whitman (2001) explains. Whitman notes these positives for GM food production: pest resistance; herbicide tolerance; disease resistance; cold tolerance; drought tolerance and high salt tolerance; nutritional value; the production of helpful pharmaceuticals (Whitman, 2001).
Criticisms of GM food production include: a) "unintended harm to other organisms" (for example, a study published in Nature reported that "pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars"; b) "reduced effectiveness of pesticides" (in the same way that mosquitoes eventually developed resistance to DDT, insects could become resistant to crops that have been genetically modified); and c) "Gene transfer to a non-target species" (the possibility exists that crops engineered to resist herbicides "will cross-breed" which could create "superweeds" that would be herbicide tolerant) (Whitman, p. 6).
In addition there are "unknown effects on human health" that could result from genetic engineering and modifying plants genetically could potentially open the door to the creation of new allergens, Whitman continues (7).
Corporate Ethics and Genetically Modified Foods
An article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues (Daboub, et al., 2012) reports that the "potential benefits" of genetically modified foods offer some hope for millions of "malnourished people" while at the same time genetically modified foods "…provide billions of dollars in profits for biotechnology firms" (Daboub, 16). However there are legitimate concerns associated with genetically modified foods, Daboub explains, including the possibility of creating "…new microbes or modified bacteria that could threaten human and animal forms of life" (16). Because of these concerns -- and because genetically modified foods may cause "…some common toxic effects such as hematological, biochemical, and immunological parameters, in addition to reproductive effects" -- the European Union has "refused to import" GM food products (Daboub, 17).
The article refers to the political power put into action by the Monsanto Company, a major producer of GM crops -- Monsanto holds 5,000 patents and spends $2.7 million per day to support its research and development efforts -- as it attempted to "co-opt groups" that opposed genetically engineered crops (Daboub, 18-19). Monsanto certainly had friends in the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1992; and as a result the Food and Drug Administration (with political appointees who formerly worked for Monsanto) dismissed public concerns about the safety of genetically modified foods as "groundless" (Daboub, 19). Indeed, the FDA "…refused to require labeling" of products that contained genetically engineered foods because "…labels might mislead consumers into thinking the food is not safe" (Daboub, 19).
Should Genetically Modified Food Products be Labeled as such?
One of the most contentious issues surrounding genetically modified foods is the belief by many that consumers should be informed if the breakfast cereal or bagels -- or any products -- they are eating contain GM ingredients. Recently in California there was a proposition (Prop 37) that, if it had passed, would have required manufacturers to "…disclose labels on all foods that contain any genetically engineered ingredients except meat, milk, alcohol or foods sold in restaurants" (Weise, 2012). Prop. 37 did not pass;
Industry surveys indicate that "…40% to 75% of processed foods contain" at least some genetically engineered ingredients," according to Colin Carter, a University of California-Davis professor who researched the potential impact of Prop. 37 (Weise, p. 1). In fact 95% of sugar beets grown in the U.S., 94% of the soybeans, 88% of all corn and 90% of all cotton grown in the United States are genetically modified Weise explains (p. 1).
The point of Prop. 37 was to give consumers the full information about what they were eating, allowing them to decide whether their families should be eating genetically engineered foods, according to the media director for the group California Right to Know (Weise, p. 1). Those opposed to Prop. 37 contend that they have the full support of many respected health-related organizations. In fact the pro-GM food group claims it has the endorsement of the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association (among others) (Weise, p. 1).
In September, the polls showed that the public liked the idea of having companies label their food products vis-a-vis genetically engineered or not. The polls showed a 2-1 margin in favor of Prop. 37; and Prop. 37 had the support of Whole Foods, organic farmers, and other organizations. But when the big money started funding a massive attack ad campaign against Prop. 37, the tide turned against Prop. 37. In fact the money pumped into the negative ad campaign indicates that there will be huge battles in the future for any group that tries to force the corporations that grow and sell GM crops to be forthcoming about what products contain genetically modified foods.
The results showed that 54% of voters rejected Prop. 37 and 46% supported it. Millions of dollars were spent defeating Prop. 37 by: DuPont, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto, Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, General Mills, PepsiCo, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, among others. One of the key reasons so many big companies opposed Prop. 37 is that most processed foods are shipped "…regionally or nationally" and that means the labeling process would not just…