It is a fight with no end in sight; a battle that pits agricultural purists against agribusiness; religionists against bioengineers; scientist against scientist. And, whether they know it or not, it is consumers who are caught in the middle of this mega-food fight.
The conflict — or philosophical difference — focuses on the field of biotechnology, the science of genetic modification of meat and edible plants. Basically, by genetically modifying these foodstuffs, science has usurped nature to create bigger animals, hybrid fruits and vegetables and new and heartier strains of scores of harvested crops.
While science has for years toyed with creating the perfect farm animal — ones that would provide more meat or milk by manipulating genes — it has only recently begun a full-on campaign aimed at root vegetables and fruit; the idea being that creation of heartier and more pesticide-resistant crops leads to cheaper and more bountiful harvests.
On the surface, what isn’t good about cheaper and beefier beef, porkier pork or more succulent fish and fowl? And, where is the downside to bigger, sweeter fruits and vegetables? Or, what is wrong, ask scientists, with developing a cotton resistant to voracious insects? These are among the most vexing questions in the age of GMO, genetically modified organisms.
“It was an interesting idea,” says Fleur Ferro, a scientist and associate biology professor at Community College of Denver. Ferro is decidedly not sold on this science. But, beyond her basic opposition to GMO, she thinks that if people are going to be buying GMO food and eating it, it should be labeled as genetically modified.
“Isn’t it also our right to know if our food has GMOs in them,” she asks. It may be, but currently there are no government regulations in Colorado or in any other state requiring GMO labeling on the food that grocery stores sell. The federal government, so far, has also seen no reason to put curbs on the food this science produces.
Critics say that the Food and Drug Administration has been lax in its regulation of GMO food and the agribusiness giants responsible for producing it. These companies include Monsanto, DuPont, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. They also argue that the relationship between the FDA and agribusiness is too cozy and say there is a revolving door between the government and agribusiness. They say that is why they don’t expect labeling to get approval.
But Vermont is now considering legislation requiring labels identifying foods as genetically modified. California voters recently defeated Proposition 37, a measure that would have forced manufacturers or food suppliers to label genetically engineered foods. It would have also banned the use of the word “natural” on GMO foods. Monsanto and chocolate giant, Hershey, spent generously to defeat it.
While consumer groups say labeling food is the right thing to do, they also say that manufacturers fear that labeling might frighten off potential customers. There is also the added cost of GMO labeling.
The Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, however, will be bucking this trend. Beginning in 2018, Whole Foods has announced it will be labeling any food it sells that has been genetically modified.
While the government and food manufacturers say genetically engineered foods pose no significant health risks, other countries look at the labeling issue much differently.
The European Union requires labels on any products containing genetically modified ingredients. There have also been demonstrations in England over a test crop of genetically modified wheat. Farmers are concerned that the seeds from the crop will get carried in any direction the wind takes them and allow them to unknowingly take root where they shouldn’t. Australia, China and Japan have laws addressing laboratory altered foods.
Interestingly, religion also plays a part in this game of gene splicing and cross pollination. In a religious state like Israel, the issue is debated regularly and seriously.
Jewish law dictates which foods can or cannot be eaten and GMOs have created a quandary. Does a genetically modified tomato, for example, containing a microscopic cell from a pig, render it unfit to eat? Or, does a farm-raised salmon carrying a gene from an eel that promotes faster growth make it un-kosher?
Jewish law warns against mixing two unlike species. A farm-raised salmon carrying the gene from an eel violates the tenets of Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. Jews can only eat an aquatic creature with fins and scales. Anything else is considered an abomination.
Cross-bred seeds are also forbidden. Linen whose origins came from gene splicing should not be worn. The same holds true for wool from an animal that has been genetically changed.
For secular consumers, concerns fall well below the spiritual and focus on future health problems from consuming GE foods. They wonder if eating GMO food could contribute to future health problems, anything from allergies and birth defects to cancer.
Opponents have raised another concern about this science. Because seeds made through genetic engineering are sterile, people like CCD’s Ferro believe there is a real possibility of the loss — extinction — of an unimaginable numbers of plants.
But food giants have come to rely on the laboratory magic that has resulted in higher yields, more pestilent resistant crops and lower costs. It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of all corn and soy beans grown in the United States are genetically engineered. Both items are indispensible as additives in thousands of foods.
“There has never been a credible study that shows any ill effects,” from genetically modified corn on either humans or animals, says Jared Fiel, Communications Director for the Colorado Corn Association. Fiel says more than 70 percent of corn grown in Colorado is consumed by animals. Corn is Colorado’s number one crop and is a billion dollar asset to the state.
Without labels advising if a food has been genetically modified, what are consumer’s alternatives? “We want everything now; we want everything perfect,” says Ferro. “We need to just become a more conscious society.”
But the argument over the long-term health issues that may or may not result from genetic engineering of food could actually be a secondary issue. Serious as it may be, a more immediate concern is price.
Whether genetically modified food is harmful is not yet known. What is known and is inarguable is that genetically engineered food is less expensive than its organic counterpart. And there is no better example of this than in the milk aisle.
Dairy cows treated with a growth hormone put out more milk for a longer period of time. The milk they produce is the type of milk that most people buy at the supermarket. And the reason is price.
A gallon of this store brand milk sells for not quite three dollars. Organic milk — milk from animals that have received neither growth hormones nor antibiotics are not fed genetically modified grain — sells for double the price.
But despite the complexities and unknowns of genetically modified foods, it may boil down to a single issue. And that is the one they confront at the checkout when they pay for their food — price.