Genetically engineered (GE) food is often being referred to “Frankenfood”, but who is Frankenstein? According the original novel by Mary Shelley (1998), Victor Frankenstein was the creator of the creature which was never given a name in the story. The creature had a really pure heart and was willing to help the others in needs. Villagers, in the story, despised it nonetheless due to its distinct appearance. It ended up hiding itself in the far North, away from the human society.
The creature is an advance science designed to help the humans, but it was being rejected by the society for only one reason: its ugliness. Thus, by the end of this paper, I hope you will have a better understanding of what genetically engineered food is, how it can benefits our society, and why you should rely on it.
Plant Breeding Methods vs. Genetic Engineering
Genetic modifications have been practiced by farmers over thousands of years. However, the traditional methods (e.g. hybrid) are more “acceptable” by the society. One of the reasons is because the conventional methods still follows Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The techniques of genetic engineering, on the other hand, involve direct human intervention with an organism which is then no longer natural, but artificial. One advantage of GE is that there is no more limitation with the compatibility issues between different species which provides more variety in food. The next section will discuss more about genetic engineering.
What is Genetic Engineering?
The goal of genetic engineering (often referred as recombinant DNA technology) is to “introduce, enhance, or delete particular characteristics of an organism.” (Nottingham, 1998, p.11). Deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) consist genetic information that is structured to be a double helix (Figure 1). Genetic code is the instruction that made up of the sequence of bases, which defines a particular function, on a DNA strand. Gene transfer between species is possible because genetic code follow the same a set of rules shared by all living organisms. If we can decipher the genetic code, we can insert desirable components or remove unwanted elements; thus producing more nutritious products.
Benefits of GE Food
The development of GE technology on food not only lowered the price of our daily products, but it also increases the quality of our food. Producing medical crops is another advantage of this food.
Increase Plant Protection
According to World Heath Organization (WHO) (2011), genetically engineered food is developed to protect crops and enhance its growing efficiency. Insect resistance is achieved by inserting small amount of toxin such as Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) that serve as a conventional insecticide, but safe for human consumption. Further noted by WHO, GE crops also have higher virus resistance, which increase crop yields, and herbicide tolerance that resulted the decreased quantity of herbicide used. Since the production costs of GE food are reduced by lower the amount of chemical and mechanical inputs, we as consumers are benefited from the pricing as well.
Other than producing food in a more cost efficient way, GE techniques also improve the quality in food. A well-known example is the “Golden Rice” that contains beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a source of vitamin A and iron which prevent and treat maternal anemia and blindness. Golden Rice, therefore, reduces the rates in of such problems in the developing world by providing enough nutrition in high production (Schneider K. & Schneider R., 2009)
Another example is the soybean with a modified oil composition made by DupPont. This type of soybeans increases the desirable monounsaturated oleic acid to over 80% of the oil from about 24%. Several companies and public institutions are developing soy, canola, and other vegetable oils with reduced saturated fat content and other enhancements. (McHughen, 2002).
Genetically engineered food not only provides more nutritious contents to the developing world, it also enhances our daily food products.
Medicines and vaccines are very costly to produce for the most times. Researchers are working to develop vaccine in foods. For example, bananas are considered as potential vaccination against hepatitis B. With the development of genetic engineering, we will not need to get vaccination from shots, but simply from eating fruits (McGill Hill, 2000).
Some of the major concerns regarding GE food include the potential risks to human health, labeling issues, and the potential hazards to environment.
Human Health Risk
There have been no negative cases of people dying from consuming GE products. Although an article published in Lancet (Pusztai, 1999) examined the effects of GE potatoes on the digestive tract in rats and showed appreciable difference in the intestines of rats those were fed with GE potatoes and those were fed with ordinary potatoes, the critics contend that the data does not back up with enough scientific proofs (Enserink, 1999). Furthermore, they believe that the experience is flawed because the genes inserted into the potatoes were a snow flower lectin, a substance known to be toxic to mammals, and these potatoes was never intended for human or animal consumption. Overall, scientists believe that genetic engineered food do not present a risk to human health. We will examine more about the safety assessments in Canada after this concern section.
Labeling the contents of GE products is another concern for many people. However, it is not necessary. According to the book, “A Consumer’s Guide to GM Food” (McHughen, 2000), the two major purposes of labeling are: to provide us nutritional information or serving as advertising purposes. No food production companies would mention “poison” as an ingredient to their products. Instead, the labels are carefully manipulated with the art of language while speaking the truth. It can therefore be very misleading. Some labels can be factually informative, but appear useless for the consumers. The information might be too broad (e.g. the only labeled ingredient for vegetable oil is “vegetable oil” without specifying what kind) or too technical (e.g. mentioning chemical substance like sodium benzoate that normal consumers would not understand the consequence from eating it). Since the main purpose, which is providing useful information to the consumers, is not served, there is no point having it.
Furthermore, because no food is truly 100% pure, it is just impossible to list all of them down in a cost effective way. Even if it is possible, the lower end of the market will be deeply affected financially by labeling and regulating GE products because of their uncertain provenance. Some countries, such as United States, do not require labeling in GE products (Dechenne, Jafri, Ruesch, & Shiva, 2004). Moreover, the researchers at the University of Minnesota found that only one percent of the human population reads the entire label (Mauro, 2011). Since nearly no one is reading it, it is not necessary to go through a complicated process and waste more the resources just to label the contents of GE food.
Many people are concerned about the environmental issues as well, but it is preventable. One of the major concerns is genetic engineering products may cause harm to the other organisms. According to the laboratory report published in Nature (Losey, Rayor, & Carter, 1999), pollen from Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) corn caused high mortality rate in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Because the caterpillars consume milkweed plants instead of corns, the study conclude that the pollen from BT corn might be carried by the wind to the milkweeds in neighbouring fields. However, a further study by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other non-government research groups suggests that the original study may be flawed (Niller, 1999).
Several solutions proposed include:
□ Create GM plants that are male sterile which therefore will not produce pollens and so no cross-pollination will occur. (Gressel, 1999).
□ Modify the pollen of GM plant so that it does not contain the modified gene. (Gressel, 1999)
□ Create buffer zones. It is estimated that the necessary width of buffer zones range from 6 meters to 30 meters or more (Daniell, 1999).
Since solutions are being proposed, problems will take into notice and be resolved. There is no need to worry about polluting the environment from eating GE products.
GE food in Canada
A long complicated process required to be done in Canada before a GE food can be publicized. It usually takes seven to ten years to research and assess the safety of a new genetically modified food (Heath Canada, 2011). Manufacturers and importers, who wish to sell or advertise a GM food in Canada, must submit data to Health Canada following the steps below:
- Pre-submission consultation
- Pre-market notification
- Scientific Assessment
- Requests for addition information
- Summary report of findings
- Preparation of food rulings proposal
- Letter of no objection
- Decision document on Health Canada Website
Further noted by Health Canada, the safety assessment looks at the following items:
- development of the modified organism
- composition of and nutritional information about the GE food compared to a non-modified counterpart food
- the potential for production of new toxins in the food
- the potential for causing allergic reactions
- microbiological and chemical safety of the food
- the potential for any unintended or secondary effects
- key nutrients and toxicants
- major and minor constituents
Since our government carefully examines the food for us, we should give our trust them. After all, they are consuming the same products as we do.
Advance science and technology are to better our human society. The method of genetic engineering is being used in agriculture and food production to provide more, better, and safer products. Not only the quality and quantity of food has been enhanced using GE, medicines are also easier and cheaper to produce. Although concerns such as the potential risks to human health and environmental damages are being proposed, there is no scientific proof on these aspects and solutions are also discovered ready to be solved the issues. We might not know what we are really eating without the labels, but the government has done the long process to assess and ensure the safety of the food products we buy from supermarkets. Genetic engineered food is the food for our future.