- Food and Cooking
Genetically modified food
Genetically engineered plants and animals (known by some detractors as "frankenfoods") are becoming ever more commonplace-but are they safe? Genetically modified organisms (soy, corn, potatoes, salmon, etc.) have only been on the market since 1996 and there has been very little research on the safety of growing, raising, and consuming these products. Some genetic engineering has provided a variety of items for pharmaceuticals (for example, insulin, which is actually largely made by E. coli bacteria in a lab) and many scientific trials are currently studying whether genetic engineering may be the answer for many human ailments (known as gene therapy), but the industry is in early stages.
How genetic engineering works
Certain sequences of DNA can be isolated from almost any living cell relatively quickly. A strand of DNA is cut at specific sequences and can be "glued" onto other pieces of DNA with an enzyme called DNA ligase. The result is a smaller strand of DNA with the desired genes. These smaller sequences are called plasmids and can be inserted into bacterial cells (usually E. coli). Each time the E. coli replicates, it replicates this new plasmid as well. The bacterial cell even makes the product that is coded for in the gene. This is how insulin, human growth hormone, bovine growth hormone, and many more are manufactured.
Video genetic engineering
“Round-up Ready” Food
Monsanto, the company the makes the weed killer Roundup, also makes a variety of seeds that result in plants that are resistant to its herbicide. Corn, soy, cotton, and other plants are genetically engineered to contain a gene from Salmonella that resists this specific weed killer called herbicide glyphosate. Now these crops can be sprayed with Roundup without being killed, but weeds and unwanted plants will die--much easier than weeding, no? The drawbacks are that these plants encourage the excessive use of chemicals and pollen from these plants can blow onto non-genetically engineered crops and contaminate them.
Corn, potatoes, and other plants are genetically engineered to contain a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces insecticide. However, insecticides are often carcinogenic and the insecticide isn't effective against all bugs. Often populations of non-susceptible bugs increase sharply in fields where these insecticide-producing crops are raised.
Salmon have been genetically engineered with extra growth hormone genes, essentially with extra copies of their own genes. While the salmon are bigger, the ramifications of these extra genes and extra hormones have not been studied.
Why is America different?
Many countries have banned the sale of these crops-the European Union, Brazil, Japan, Mexico-Zambia even refused aid during a drought because they were offered genetically modified corn. So why is the United States different? Essentially it's the litigious nature of the country-the companies threaten to sue if another company labels its food as containing "No genetically modified ingredients." Several elections around the country have proposed propositions to prevent genetically modified food from being planted or sold in their jurisdictions. When these pass, however, the companies challenge them in the courts and a single one of these has yet to withstand the litigation. The major justification for these genetically modified foods is to increase yields, but this has not been scientifically demonstrated to happen.
Is genetically modified food bad?
We really don't know, only short-term testing has been conducted (often by the company developing the product itself). These are new products on the market and they may be fine-or they may be health hazards. If you choose to stay away from genetically modified food, the only sure way now is to buy organic produce and study labels carefully-chances are items that are derived from corn (such as corn syrup or corn starch) and are found in many items are from genetically modified plants. At this time, approximately 60% of corn crops are genetically modified. If you wish to avoid them, support the farmers who chose not to plant them-buy organic and if you can, buy local and support your community!