Wednesday, October 10, 2012

G-M-Oh-Oh (Part 2)

In G-M-Oh-Oh (Part 1), I talked about what Genetic Modification is, and the different methods with which it is done. In this post, we will take a look at the many common foods that have undergone Genetic Modification (GM). Hey, you can eat whatever you choose, but, isn’t it a good idea to know what it is that you’re putting into your body before you reach for it? I think so. If you agree, read on.

The public was first offered a commercially grown GM food in 1994, when the FDA approved the sale of the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato had been engineered to slow the ripening process, which was supposed to have enabled farmers to let the tomato ripen before harvesting, as opposed to the traditional method of harvesting green tomatoes and allowing them to ripen during transport. It didn’t quite work out as intended. The unfortunately-named Flavr Savr tomatoes actually had very little flavor, which, combined with how difficult they were to transport, led to their being off the market only 3 years later.

But, while the Flavr Savr was an unmitigated failure, it opened the floodgates for a tidal wave of GM foods to hit the market. By far, the most common GM organisms are crop plants, but there are all kinds of altered foods that we regularly eat, mostly without even knowing it. Like what, you ask? Well, here you go…

Potatoes - Currently, the only GM potato is the NewLeaf, a Burbank Russet variety. This plant has been engineered to produce Bt, which enables it to protect itself against the Colorado potato beetle, as well as other pests. But, the Bt may also be lethal to beneficial insects – we just don’t know the full impact of this yet. Think about all of the french fries, mashed potatoes and baked potatoes that are eaten in a given day. Maybe they’re made with GM potatoes, and maybe they’re not. There’s really no way to know at this time.

Corn - Our number-one agricultural commodity. In 2000, 79.5 million acres of harvested cropland in the U.S. were corn, 25% of which was genetically engineered. This includes Bt and Roundup Ready corn varieties. Roundup Ready means that the crop can withstand being sprayed by the herbicide called Roundup, produced by Monsanto. In case you missed the news, almost all of our processed and packaged foods contain corn or corn products. You know, like high-fructose corn syrup and glucose? Yup. Sometimes I make a game of reading food packages, trying to find one that doesn’t contain these ingredients.

Tomatoes – Several varieties, including a cherry tomato, have been genetically engineered to delay ripening and extend shelf life. Store-bought tomatoes these days don’t taste anything like the ones I grow in my garden. I wonder why?

Soy - The number-two U.S. agricultural commodity. Sixty percent of processed foods contain soy ingredients, and 82% of edible fats and oils consumed in the U.S. are soy-based. In 2000, 54% of the 74.5 million acres of soybeans grown in the U.S. was Roundup Ready. I find it hilarious that soy milk is trumped as a health food when we know so little about the effects of all this gene tampering.

Canola/Rapeseed - About 43% of the seed is oil, and after the Canola Oil is pressed out, the remaining meal is used as animal feed. So, even if you manage to avoid the oil, you may be eating meat that was fed with canola meal. Canola Oil is found in peanut butter, salad dressing, frozen foods, pretzels, Oreos, and many, many other packaged foods. Of the 15 million acres of canola grown in the U.S. and Canada annually, 35% is GM, mostly for herbicide-resistance.

Cotton - Yet another crop engineered to produce the Bt toxin. In 2000, 61% of the 15.5 million acres of cotton grown in the U.S. was GM. Every year, half a million tons of cottonseed oil makes its way into salad dressings, baked goods and snack foods. About 1.4 million tons of cottonseed meal is fed to livestock annually. Again, almost impossible to avoid.

Dairy – Lactating cows are injected with the GM bovine growth hormone (rBGH/rBST), so that they produce more milk. rBST has not been allowed on the market in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and all European Union countries. In the United States, public opinion has caused a number of products and retailers to become rBGH/rBST-free. That’s actually great news, because the consumers have spoken and industry has responded accordingly. We are powerful, people!

Aspartame/AminoSweet – This an addictive and dangerous artificial sweetener commonly found in chewing gum and "diet" beverages. The amino acid phenylalanine, a building block of aspartame, is usually manufactured with the aid of genetically modified E. coli bacteria.

Papaya: More than one third of Hawaiian papayas have been genetically engineered to withstand the papaya ringspot virus. Organic papaya growers in Hawaii worry that the pollen from GE papaya trees will contaminate their crops. When I think of Hawaii, I think of warm breezes and lazy days, not laboratory creations masquerading as fruit.

Radicchio: Currently one variety of radicchio, called Seed Link, has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glufosinate. So when you order that healthy salad at your favorite restaurant, do you even know what you’re getting?

Squash: Several varieties of summer squash have been genetically engineered to resist mosaic viruses. Some scientists are concerned that resistance to the virus may spread to weedy relatives, such as gourds, creating invasive superweeds.

Salmon: We now have salmon engineered with genes from two different fish species so that it grows much more quickly than non-GM salmon. The company that developed this fish now seeks FDA approval to market it for human consumption. Escaped into the environment, (which is inevitable on fish farms), the GM fish may be larger and more aggressive, eat more food, and mate more often, though their offspring are less fit to survive in the wild, and thus raising the possibility of wild species extinction. Human health effects are also relatively unknown. Currently, research on transgenic strains of 35 fish species world-wide is underway.

So, there you have it. Genetically modified foods are a fact of life in our world today. In the next and final post in this series, we will talk about the effects of genetic modification and what we can do to turn things around.

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