Did you know that the majority of soy, corn, canola and cotton that you buy in the US has been genetically engineered (GE)? The US lags far behind many European and Asian countries with labeling of GE products and regulation over its production is in constant debate.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a great discussion at the ABC Home store in New York on genetically engineered (GE) food and its rise in the US. The event was hosted by Deepak Chopra as part of his HomeBase project which aims to educate and encourage conversation on a number of topics, including health & wellness, technology, environment, food and sustainability. The talk featured three guest speakers: Andrew Kimbrell and Debbie Barker from the Center for Food Safety, and Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield organic farm. Some of the topics covered were the origins of GE food, its successes and failures and little things that we can do to try and prevent its growth.
Genetically modified food is created by adding or removing genes from plant or animal cells, changing the DNA of an organism. Research began in the 1980s with the aim of prolonging plant life and making crops resistant to pesticides. Some of the first experiments were with tomatoes, for example putting genes from a flounder fish into a tomato in order that the plant might better survive in low temperatures. However, many of the first GE tests failed; GE tomatoes did not live up to expectations and are no longer on the market.
The idea behind GE in agriculture is to create better products at a lower cost, such as drought resistant seeds, plants that can grow in diverse weather or that contain extra nutrients. In theory, these GE plants could solve many of the problems with food scarcity and growing crops in regions of inclement weather. I’m very enthusiastic about technology being used to help enhance our world but only if it is done in a responsible way. And GE seems to be creating more problems that it solves:
- Increasing use of pesticides – Farmers growing crops that are designed to be resistant to herbicides are using increased amounts of chemicals. Weeds are evolving and becoming resistant to herbicides meaning that stronger chemicals need to be used. In addition spraying pesticides harms wildlife and contaminates nearby crops.
- Potentially carcinogenic and limited testing – Studies have shown that GE foods can alter cells and potentially increase the risk of cancer. There is also a possibility that mixing genes from different products will create new allergens and reactions. Testing on GE products has so far been limited and the health risks of altering food in this way are as yet undetermined.
- Overinflated benefits – It has also not been proven that using GE produces higher yield crops than organic farming and the increased nutritional value of these foods is debatable.
- Subsidies – The US government and chemical manufacturers heavily subsidize farmers growing genetically engineered foods. These foods can therefore be sold at a cheaper price, meaning that local and organic farmers are priced out.
One of the biggest debates in the industry at the moment is whether GE alfalfa should be allowed onto the market. Because of the scale of the crop, which is currently the fourth-largest crop in the US in acreage, the risk of contamination is high.
It’s clear that GE food will continue to be created because the industry has a lot of backers, including Bill Gates! But people need to be made aware of the risks and more thorough testing is necessary. The most simple change in the US would be to make GE food labeling mandatory, as it is already in Europe, Japan and Australia. Personally I find the idea of GE food scary; it reminds me a little bit of this…
In an ideal world I’d like to buy only organic produce but price means it’s not possible for me just yet. Organic food currently represents about 4% of US food spend and as the market grows, prices will hopefully come down.
If you’re interested to learn more you can watch a recording of the talk here.