There's definitely not a shortage of opinions when it comes to genetically modified food. Scientists and climate experts say it's the way of the future, considering our warming planet and growing population. Those against it say messing with nature will ruin our health. Where do the facts lie? Who is right in this debate?
Climate change and an increase in population means a shortage of food. As our marketplaces go global, the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables from near and far increases. But with all of the changing environmental factors, sustaining the proper amount of food for the global population is proving to be a challenge; one that needs to be addressed before the shortage has dire consequences.
Genetically Modified Food: What Does that Mean, Exactly?
There is a lot of gray area when it comes to genetically modified food. Sure, there are guidelines in place for defining them, but understanding them is a different matter. Recently, there has been a ton of negative press when it comes to genetically modified foods. Grocery stores and major brands are using the description of non-GMO on their packaging. The results? People are buying into it, based on the fear of the unknown. After all, who can actually explain GMO right off the bat?
First, let's break down what genetically modified means. Basically, the term means that an organism (food in this context) is altered on a genetic level to produce the desired characteristic. This can mean a change of anything from color, taste, or texture to the longevity of the food itself.
Typically, the process is conducted by taking the positive characteristics of a plant or animal and splicing it into another that has the complementing weakness. For example, scientists can take the antifreeze genes of certain fish and apply them to tomatoes that need to grow in colder climates. The main goal is to improve a food or organism by introducing it to its needed strengths.
Genetically modifying plants allows for scientists to apply the positive characteristics of selected plants to complement the weak ones of others
So far, this principle has mostly been applied to crops. Large scale crops such as wheat, corn, soy and cotton are the main recipients of this genetically modified treatment, and with huge success. In fact, roughly 90% of these crops in the United States are already genetically modified to one extent or another, with an increase in crop yield.
With this much of our crops genetically modified, it has to be safe, right? That still remains somewhat unclear. Genetically modified food items have been reported to cause a string of allergic reactions and negative bodily responses. These include hives, reproduction system concerns, and the potential of toxic buildup in the body over time.
The principle of the genetically modified food's mutant DNA does pose some concerns for consumers. According to scientists, mutant genes and altered DNA structures create a cancer risk for those who eat it. However, the data is somewhat lacking still, with a lot of it coming from the standpoint of more correlation, not causation. Instead, experts suggest eating a diet rich with fruits and vegetables to fight off cancer risk; this should, in theory, outweigh the risks of genetically modified foods, according to Erma Levy, a research dietician at MD Anderson.
GMOs All Around Us
Avoiding genetically modified foods isn't easy. In order to fulfill consumer demand, most foods actually need to be genetically modified to keep up with us. Each year, the global population increases by about 82 million people. In order to feed everyone adequately, the planet would need an annual increase in crop yield of 2.4%.
Keeping the crops from sickness, smaller yields, and pests require properties outside of what nature offers. Without pesticides and genetic engineering, most of our crops would die off before they had the chance to be harvested and consumed, a reality we simply can't afford during a time of such exponential population growth.
Outside of grocery stores, restaurants are looking into offering genetically modified food options on their menus. Just recently, an article came out suggesting that genetically modified salmon will be released to restaurants in the upcoming months, pending the success of the experiment.
The company behind this idea is AquaBounty, based out of Indiana. This aqua farming complex is working to create a genetic mutation that allows for salmon eggs to grow to maturity faster. To do so, they inject their Atlantic Salmon with the DNA of other faster-growing fish species. So far, they've had remarkable success, with their salmon growing to full maturity in 18 months; about half the normal rate of time.
Although AquaBounty has worked tirelessly to receive government approval, the consumer feedback hasn't been great. The lingering sense of uncertainty is keeping consumers from embracing the future of genetically modified foods, and for valid reasons. We don't know exactly what the effects will be, seeing as the science behind it is still so new. But, grocery giants such as Kroger and Wholefoods aren't taking the risk, with the vow to not carry this new genetically modified salmon in their supermarkets.
The genetically modified salmon from AquaBounty has received mixed reviews from consumers
As the food industry moves forward with genetic engineering, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. The fundamentals of what makes a food GMO or not is looking murky, and the long-term effects aren't plain to see. This is exemplified in the situation of the salmon, where a huge amount of eggs are treated, and then left to reproduce as normal. Because of this process, there's the question of whether or not the salmon would be subject to the same GMO regulations as other foods.
Basically, the jury is out when it comes to genetically modified foods. Some take a more scientific approach and see it as a solution to a global food shortage problem. Others see it as humankind overstepping its boundaries in nature, with negative climate and health effects. For now, we will have to wait and see what the industry becomes while the debate for or against GMOs marches on.