GMO. These three letters have sparked a worldwide debate. GMO is a popular term used by consumers and media to describe foods created through genetic engineering, in other words, “genetically modified organisms”. Genetic modification has changed the way we eat food. What does this mean for us? Does it affect our bodies or the way we cook food? GMO is here to stay. The question is, how far will this take us.
A Brief History of GMO
Genetic modification is not a new thing.
For thousands of years, we have been modifying our food with methods such as cross-breeding plants and animals with others that have more desirable traits. Genetic modification as we know it today was approved for sale for the first time in 1994 with an engineered tomato that was bred to delay its ripening, increase its stress tolerance and pest resistance, as well as improve its taste and nutrition. A multinational team of researchers used genetic modification to add six times the amount of Vitamin E and double the amount of Vitamin A in each tomato.
To achieve this, they first identified the genetic information of the desired trait, then copied that information from the organism with that trait and inserted the DNA into a new organism, the tomato. The new modified tomato was then grown.
By 2012, genetically engineered produce was grown by over 17 million farmers on over 170 million hectares. This included 81% of the world’s crop of soybeans and cotton, 35% of the corn produced, and 30% of the canola produced.
Today, GMO’s have a growing presence in both the Canadian and international food market, with over sixty varieties of genetically modified plants approved for safe consumption.
The Great GMO Debate
Advocates of GMO products say that technology is the only way to feed an increasingly populated world.
They further argue that these crops have lowered the price of food, increased the output, and improved farmer’s safety as fewer pesticides are required. Scientists and supporters both argue that the precision of the technology used makes it less likely that any surprises will occur. They point out that consumers have already consumed trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients over the past few decades, and that not one single verified case of human illness has been attributed to genetic alterations.
Whether they are right or wrong, the debate over their use continues to grow. Consumers are concerned with the long-term health effects, and environmentalists are concerned with the consequences of GM agriculture. Will the biodiversity of our ecosystems be affected? Will GM agriculture create superweeds or super pests that can disturb the balance of nature and cause hazards for beneficial insects?
Those against GMO argue that scientific data has indicated that some animals fed by GM crops have been harmed or even died. Cows and other livestock that have grazed on Bt-maize, a genetically modified corn that contains a common soil bacterium gene that is toxic to insects, have shown complications including early deliveries, abortions, infertility, and even death.
They argue that we will experience a loss of biodiversity, an emergence of superweeds and super pests, an increase in allergies, and antibiotic resistance. Advocates counter that biotechnology is the only solution to food shortage and the lessening of environmental resources.
Despite all the assurances, countries still refuse to accept GMO’s. In Africa, several nations refuse to import modified foods even though so many people are starving. A genetically modified rice that will deliver more Vitamin A than spinach, “Golden Rice” is not manufactured in any country. Vitamin A deficiencies cause more than one million deaths annually and half a million cases of irreversible blindness in third world countries.
The production of GMO crops will continue to develop as our needs continue to grow, regardless of the opposition. The majority of crops developed are designed to increase resistance to insects or viruses, increase tolerance to certain herbicides and environmental conditions (ex. drought), and provide enhanced growth and nutritional quality.
Testing and studies are continuous. Scientists are concerned with allergenicity, the potential of the protein of the introduced gene to cause an allergic reaction, the nutrients, and the toxicity, the effects of the levels of Bt toxins which are lethal to some insects. Tests conducted measured the reproduction or development of animals fed GM crops. These tests, however, did not measure long-term effects on animals or the effects a GMO diet will have on the next generation of animals.
By law, proper labeling is mandatory. This certification, however, covers only how the food is grown and not the content of the food itself. That does not guarantee that a product is GMO-free as cross-pollination or cross-contamination during processing and handling may compromise it.
What Does the Future Hold?
The next step in GMO leads us to animals. To date, no modified animals are in the human food supply. There are two, however, that lobbyists are strongly pushing: the AquAdvantageTM Salmon and EnviropigTM.
This salmon was introduced in the 1990s and contained genetic growth material from the Chinook salmon. It allowed the salmon to grow at an accelerated rate, thus decreasing the time required for harvesting. Like the salmon, the EnviropigTM was also developed in the 1990s by scientists at the University of Guelph. Unlike the salmon, however, the development addressed the environmental issue of the phosphorus excretions of pigs. High levels of phosphorus can harm aquatic ecosystems as they cause oxygen depletion and kill fish and algae. This new GM pig’s excretions are up to 60% less phosphorous, and one-third of the land is required to spread the manure.
The opposition of this technology argues that, in the case of the salmon, there is uncertainty associated with the consumption of food containing elevated levels of growth hormones. High levels of the IGF-I and GH used have been associated with higher risks of developing some types of cancers and increased aggression to existing tumors in humans. On the flip side, genetically modified animals may be disease resistant, need fewer veterinary interventions, special feed supplements or growth stimulants. Only time will tell if these products make it to our local grocery shelf.
One of the most interesting stories that I came across was about a new genetically modified pepper created by a scientist named Michael Mazourek. He and his three friends used DNA analysis to identify the specific genetic traits of peppers and create a new pepper called a “habanada”. This pepper was a cross between a habanero and various other plants.
What they achieved was a pepper that had all the taste but none of the heat. It was piquant and full of flavor, but absolutely no burning heat.
What does this mean for the world of cooking? Imagine being able to cook a meal with one or two ingredients and achieving the flavor of using 12 different spices or produce? Imagine that you purchased a product that would take seconds to cook instead of hours? In today’s over-worked and over-stressed world, we are always looking at ways to cut our preparation time down. We buy pre-grated cheese, pre-packaged ready-to-mix salads, and sometimes even ready-to-serve meals. The art of slow-cooking is fast becoming a thing of the past. We want all of the same flavors in a fraction of the time.
With this in mind, the final question remains – what happens if we use only these modified products and not what nature intended for us to consume? The answer is up to each individual to either support the use of GMO products or not.