A Guide to Genetically-Modified Frankenfood

If genetically-modified food had to be labeled accordingly, what would that tell us?

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On March 27 of this year, a petition arrived at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with a record-breaking one million signatures. The demand was simple. Food containing genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such, a measure that over 90 percent of voters support.

There’s no guarantee that the will of the people will be served. So far, the FDA is holding firm that GM food labels are unnecessary and that the foods themselves pose no risks.

But even if that changes and little GM labels started appearing on our groceries, would we understand what it meant? According to a 2010 survey by Reuters about 75 percent of Americans are clueless as to what GM foods are. The rest presumably think of laboratory-hatched chickens, cancer-causing corn or “Franken-food.”

Fear not – we’ve put together a little primer.

What it is 
OK. Genetic modification is the transfer of genetic material from one species to another. The result is a ‘transgenic organism,’ containing some combination of genes from animals, plants and bacteria.

So, rather than breeding two similar plants, like grapefruit and tangerines to create tangelos, genetic modification involves inserting one species’ genes into another. It’s done for a range of reasons, from increased food production to making plants resistant to various conditions and disease. Genes from fish that live in frigid water, for example, have been inserted into strawberries so they won’t wither away in the cold.

It’s happening quickly 
Monsanto launched the GM food movement in 1995 when it introduced Roundup Ready soybeans. It found that by inserting into the crop the genes from a kind of bacteria that was safe for humans but deadly for every other plant besides soybeans, the beans thrived in weed-free soil at a lower cost to farmers. Within ten years, Monsanto had 90 percent of the world’s soybean production.

“What happened was, the technology was delivered much faster than the population had time to absorb the significance of it,” said Paul Lang, president and chief executive officer of SALT International and general manager of Natural Products, Inc. in Grinnell, Iowa—one of the few companies worldwide that produce non-GM soybeans.

The FDA approved Roundup Ready quickly and Americans tend to trust that system, he said. Europeans, however, tend to question such systems, and worldwide views of GM foods and the rapid introduction of the foods are major factors in Americans’ confusion and concern. It’s believed that risks abound, from increased allergies and antibiotics resistance to elevated cancer risks.

Luminous pigs 
In Taiwan, there’s a pig that glows in the dark. In 2006, researchers at the National Taiwan University successfully bred three glow-in-the dark male pigs by injecting florescent green proteins from squid into the embryos. Why? For use in stem cell and human disease research, reportedly. Other researchers are using similar technology to develop glow-in-the dark frosting, beer and champagne.

It’s already in you 
Maybe not the luminous pork chops, but Lang says that soybeans are the primary protein source for every farmed fish, pig and chicken worldwide. So unless you stick to certified organic varieties, you ingest GM ingredients indirectly via the animals. An estimated 80 percent of packaged foods sold in the U.S. also contain GM ingredients, namely in the form of transgenic soy and corn products.

Monsanto-approved research says it’s fine 
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of studies have analyzed genetic modification, most concluding that GM ingredients are as safe and nutritious as other foods. GM soy is the most researched food on the planet, says Lang. “It would be unfair and almost to the point of fear-mongering if we don’t support that our food system is the safest that we know of,” says Lang. (The reason he avoids genetically modified food is philosophical: “God didn’t intend it”.)

That said, opponents argue that the studies are too short to assess long-term risks. And here’s the clincher – independent researchers can’t even study GM foods without the approval of Monsanto, as renowned food activist and author Michael Pollan told NPR in February, 2011. “The average person assumes that before they introduce something like that they’ve fed it to thousands of rats and monkey and watched what happens,” he said, “when in fact that’s not what happened.” Genetic modification has been successful in at least one arena, says Pollan – profiting Monsanto.

Feeding the world 
Monsanto shareholder and zillionaire Bill Gates believes that GM foods can help end world hunger. But a three-year study funded by the United Nations and the World Bank showed otherwise. A team of 900 scientists found that Monsanto’s seeds led to a failure to yield and excessive costs. Drought-resistant corn, for example, required more costly pest controls, fertilizers and seeds. Traditional farming methods were found more efficient.

Making wise choices 
Though labeling isn’t yet enforced and health risks remain unproven, you can avoid GM foods if you wish to. Pollan recommends buying organic food, which contains few, if any GM ingredients. You can also cut back on processed fare, particularly products containing corn derivatives, like corn oil, starch or syrup, soy products, like protein and isolates, canola oil and cottonseed oil. Eating more whole foods such as produce, brown rice, legumes, nuts and seeds, is healthier anyway.

You can also look for the “non-GMO” label, which companies can place anywhere but the front of packages. (The FDA fears that overt non-GMO labels would inappropriately suggest that GM foods are risky.)

And if you want to be really hip, you can download the True Food Shoppers Guide mobile app on your iPhone or Android. A brainchild of the Center for Food and Safety, the app provides shopping tips, GM news and policy updates and ample information on GM foods. After all, knowledge is power, right? Just keep in mind that avoiding every genetically modified ingredient won’t be easy—at least not anytime soon.

For more information, check out visit The Center for Food Safety.

August McLaughlin is a writer in Los Angeles and the executive producer of BodyWise, a series of body image and nutrition-related public-service announcements.

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