|Roughly 75 percent of all U.S. processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to a
2005 estimate by the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
It was 2002 and an intense famine had struck Zambia. 2.3 million people were starving, and though the United Nation’s World Food Program had set up an emergency food aid system, the Zambians weren’t having it. “I will not allow Zambians to be turned into guinea pigs, no matter the levels of hunger in the country,” President Levy Mwanawasa was quoted as saying, before rejecting over 40,000 tons of maize (corn) from the United States. What was the “poison” in the maize that the Zambians so vehemently opposed? Genetic engineering.
Genetically engineered foods are foods derived from plant varieties developed using recombinant DNA technology. Basically, scientists cut and paste genetic code from one organism to another to make unique strands that would otherwise not exist. Though studies have shown the gene splicing technique to yield products safe for human consumption, the general public remains highly skeptical of these new creations. As Zambia so clearly illustrated, these so-called “Frankenfoods” have — at least in the past — developed a highly toxic rep.
Although genetically engineered foods have only been around for a couple decades, people have been altering the genetic makeup of their food for millennia. Between 4,000 and 2,000 B.C, for example, Babylonians controlled date palm breeding through the use of selective pollination. Traditional techniques like this allow people to produce desired traits — sweeter tastes, larger fruits, hardier plants, etc. — in their crops, but the results are imprecise. Cross-fertilization mixes thousands of genes from multiple plants, requiring many attempts over many years to weed out unwanted traits. By controlling the precise insertion of just one or two genes into a plant’s DNA, scientists are able to speed the process up and pinpoint particular traits to transfer.
Today, the United States is the world’s most enthusiastic adopter of genetically engineered crops, and leads the world in their production. In fact, over half of all genetically engineered crops are planted in this country. Though consumers may not be aware of it — the FDA does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such — chances are most Americans consume genetically altered foods in each of their three daily meals. Eat any meat today? That animal was likely raised on genetically engineered animal feed. Like cereal, frozen dinners or boxed meal mixes? Anything containing corn syrup or cooking oil? Roughly 75 percent of all U.S. processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to a 2005 estimate by the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Behind the genetically engineered foods in the U.S. agribusiness, one company dominates the market in a monopolistic choke hold. Nearly 90 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 80 percent of the corn crop and cotton crop are grown with seeds containing technology from the St. Louis-based agricultural giant, Monsanto. Consider: In the 2009 fiscal year, Monsanto sold $7.3 billion of seeds and seed genes. The second largest company, DuPont, sold only $4 billion.
Founded in 1901, Monsanto is perhaps most famous for its one-two punch of Roundup, Roundup-ready. The company first commercialized Roundup — a glyphosate-based herbicide that kills a broad spectrum of weeds — in the U.S. in 1976. Two decades later, Monsanto developed genetically modified soybeans, corn and other plants resistant to Roundup (“Roundup-ready”) by inserting a gene from glyphosate-resistant bacteria. With farmers now able to spray herbicide on their fields without killing their crops, regular tilling was no longer necessary to control weeds. Needless to say, the killer combo became a whopping success.
This system of minimum-till farming has revolutionized American agriculture, saving farmers many hours of hard labor plowing fields. In addition, a report released last month by the National Academy of Sciences has found that the practice reduces erosion and the runoff of insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. Most importantly, it has lowered production costs and increased yields — a fact, which advocates of genetically engineered foods point to as key in this time of rapid population growth.
Critics, on the other hand, point out that world hunger is not a problem of supply and demand; according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, we are already producing one and a half times the amount of food needed to provide everyone in the world with an adequate and nutritious diet. As the position of environmental organization, Greenpeace, states, “Hunger and malnutrition are a direct result of a lack of access to, or exclusion from, productive resources.”
Furthermore, critics worry that genetically engineered crops are being developed too quickly, and put into wide release before they’ve been adequately tested for long-term impacts. Impact on insects that feed on genetically modified crops is a concern, as well as gene flow from crops to weeds that would create herbicide-resistant superweeds. Indeed, a May 3 article in the “New York Times” recently reported a serious infestation in western Tennessee of glyphosate-resistant pigweed, which can grow three inches a day and reach seven feet or more.
Despite this, the tide may be turning for genetically engineered food. Though negative public opinion and conservative public policy has kept genetically engineered food out of Europe (and poorer countries who want to export food to Europe), recently, the European Commission has begun a new push to allow farmers in Europe to grow more genetically engineered crops. Just last month, farmers began planting the genetically modified Amflora potato produced by German company BASF. Prior to that, the only other bioengineered crop grown in Europe was a type of corn produced by Monsanto, which was approved in 1998.
In the end, after two more years of famine, Zambia’s president eventually accepted food aid inclusive of genetically engineered food. Given the choice between the “poison” of genetically engineered food and starvation, he chose the former for his country — and so far, things seem to be going okay. As for the future? We’ll just have to wait and see.