Farmers have been altering the overall genetic traits of their crops for thousands of years. Farmers have collected seeds from their largest, fastest-growing, best-tasting, and most pest- and drought-resistant crops and used those seeds for the next years planting. With each growing season, crops improved in volume, flavor, and endurance. Over centuries of collecting and planting only the biggest and the best seeds, the original genetic traits of these crops were improved. The basic DNA of the plants remained the same, and only specific natural traits were enhanced.
This practice was followed by a variety of other crop enhancing techniques such as:
- Artificial pollination
- Cross pollination
- Mutation through exposures to X-rays
- Chemically-induced mutations
The next step in crop enhancement now comes through the ability to add genes carrying specific traits to a plant at its basic cellular level. Genes within a cell can be added, deleted, or rendered inactive. An admirable trait from one plant can be spliced into the DNA of a completely unrelated plant. The farmers hands-on technique of collecting the best seeds from their crops has been replaced by scientists in laboratories miles away from any field.
Additionally, plants and animals are no longer separated by their basic cellular makeup. A GM tomato was engineered with frost-resistance abilities with the addition of a genetic code from a flounder (a fish!) with natural tolerance to extreme cold.
The concept of GM foods can be exciting, but also can be quite frightening. Following are some aspects of this new science you should know.
- GM crops, corn being one example, have been modified to contain the gene B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural bacterium that produces crystal proteins. These proteins are deadly to insect larvae such as the highly destructive corn borer. However, the B.t. toxin is an indiscriminant larvae killer and harms non-harmful insects that visit the corn, and is distributed far from the cornfield on wind-blown pollen.
- Many GM crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides, making it easier to remove unwanted plants and weeds near the crop through massive applications of herbicides. It may be possible, even likely, this herbicide resistance could be shared through cross-pollination to weeds. This would create super-weeds and would require the use of stronger and stronger herbicides.
- The immense cost incurred in the scientific research behind the development of GM foods must be passed along to consumers. Additionally, many of the companies producing GM seeds are engineering their plants to produce non-germinating seeds. This would require farmers to purchase new seeds each year, rather than using seeds from one years crop to plant the next year. This increased cost of seeds will lead to an increased price of the produce for the consumer.
- Very little long-term research has been conducted on GM food and its effect on people, plants, animals, or the environment it is too new for any extended results. Recent studies indicate GM crops are adversely affecting our water supply, which will be bad for people. Food allergies and sensitivities can be life-threatening. The severity and increasing cases of reactions to food is a cause for alarm, and the added possibility of new allergens created by GM food compounds the problem. There is also the possibility of previously unknown reactions between modified foods and medication or other ingested substances. Currently available GM foods include a variety of fruits and vegetables; cooking oils from cottonseed, canola, soybean, and corn; and salmon.
- Many researchers and scientists believe the modified genes are destroyed in the digestive process. However, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) recommends avoiding genetically modified food. Additional research suggests GM food dangers are extensive.
Currently, the United States does not require packaging labels to identify any ingredients as coming from genetically modified sources. Without labeling, you don't know exactly what you are eating there may be fish in your tomatoes and you have no way of knowing.
Chris Bekermeier is Vice President, Sales & Marketing of PacMoore in Hammond, Ind. PacMoore is a contract food packaging and manufacturing company focused on processing dry ingredients. Capabilities include blending, spray drying, re-packaging, sifting, and consumer packaging.
Find out more about the American Academy of Environmental Medicine