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Food, Modified Food

Over 70 percent of the processed food in America already contains ingredients that have been genetically modified. So why is the biotech industry nervous about its future?

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genetically modified GM food

Most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlicePopkorn

If the weather outside didn’t make us feel like we’re on a tanning bed cranked up to fry, this would be a big weekend for grilling. Imagine cooking salmon steaks from fish that grow twice as fast as normal. Or even better, imagine following them up with a slice of cake containing the same Omega-3 fatty oil that makes the salmon so good for your heart.

Both of the above are well within the realm of possibility. In fact, the growth-spurting fish already are swimming in pens in Massachusetts. And agriculture giant Monsanto is close to marketing soybeans that can be converted into oils rich in Omega-3 that could one day be used in cakes, snacks, sodas and dairy products.

But when–or even if–they make it into the markeplace is hard to predict because both are riding on what’s become the third rail of the food business. Both are genetically modified.

In theory, genetically modified, or GM, food seems to be just what the planet needs. With the world’s population of 7 billion expected to climb at least another 2 billion by mid-century, using science–specifically DNA manipulation–to make crops hardier, more productive, and less vulnerable to pests and weed-killing herbicides would appear to be a sagacious way to help the food supply keep pace. And so far, there’s little to indicate that GM food is harmful to humans; already more than 70 percent of the processed foods in the U.S, such as snacks, breakfast cereals and vegetable oils, contain traces of GM crops because common ingredients, including corn, soy and canola oil,usually have been genetically modified.

So what’s up with the third rail talk? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated.

Son of Frankenfood

While the GM food industry has taken off in the U.S.–with the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has concluded that engineered foods pose no danger–it’s been demonized elsewhere, particularly in Europe.

Critics there raised the spectre of “Frankenfood,” an unnatural creation of, if not mad scientists, overzealous ones. Less provocative opponents expressed concerns about the potential for new kinds of food allergies, or accidental cross-breeding with nearby plants to create “superweeds” or unintended damage to other crops or animals in the area. Others argued that GM products would make it that much easier for a handful of companies with the right patents, such as Monsanto, to dominate food production on the planet.

So, for much of the past 20 years, Europe has largely been a no GM zone. Only 5 percent of the food sold there has traces of GM crops. But attitudes are changing, driven by anxiety that countries in the European Union will lose ground as the biotech industry grows elsewhere in the world.

For instance, a recent story on the BBC website, titled “Time for a re-think on GM crops?,” quoted a report from a British biotechnology board which concluded,”Britain has a strong pedigree in agricultural research, including biotechnology. But we’re in danger of being left behind as other countries including China and Brazil encourage investment and surge ahead.”

A gene changer

Here’s the kind of research that’s making them nervous. Earlier this month Chinese scientists revealed that through genetic engineering, they’ve created a calf whose milk can drunk by people who are lactose intolerant.

In another recent study, also in China, scientists say they’ve created a cow that has omega-3 fatty oil in its milk, which means, potentially, much healthier milk. And in yet another Chinese experiment, announced last year, researchers genetically modified 300 cows so their milk had the same qualities as human breast milk.

Yes, these could become major biotech innovations. But they also are the kind that can make people uneasy. As long as genetic modification deals with fighting pests or stretching growing seasons or providing medical benefits, such as engineering bananas loaded with iron to help fight anemia in poor countries, it’s easy not to get upset. But when it moves into our food chain beyond the trace amounts we now consume, then you’re talking about what we see on our plates.

And now, a fish story

Remember the fast-growing salmon I mentioned earlier. They’re Atlantic salmon given a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon. They’re also modified with DNA from an eel-like creature that keeps the gene functioning even in cold weather, unlike normal salmon. So the modified Atlantic salmon reach market size in 16 months instead of 30.

The FDA tentatively concluded almost two years ago that the salmon would be safe to eat, but it has dragged its feet on final approval. And it’s not likely to happen during an election year, particularly when members of Congress from salmon-rich states are trying to keep the GM fish from coming to market.

That includes Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who, yes, actually referred to it as “Frankenfish.”

Read the label

So while there’s talk of a rethink of GM in Europe, the tide may turning in the opposite direction in the U.S. The industry faces a crucible this November in California, where voters will decide if food that has any GM ingredients has to say so on the label. That’s the way it is in Europe.

If they vote for labeling, biotech companies and giant food corporations like Monsanto could take a big hit. Because even if consumers aren’t aware of any specific risk of eating GM products, knowing that a food contains them is enough to give them pause. GM companies contend that the California ballot initiative is less about giving consumers information and more about environmentalists and organic farmers wanting to drive GM food out of the market.

They have reason to worry. In a recent Thomson Reuters/NPR poll, more than 90 percent of those surveyed said that GM food should be labeled, although only 25 percent said they really understood genetic engineering.

For its part, the FDA has said that labeling isn’t needed because genetic modification doesn’t really change the food. Just a few weeks ago, the American Medical Association agreed that mandatory labeling isn’t necessary, although it did call for safety testing of GM products before they go on the market.

But consumer groups argue that people should have the right to know everything they can about what they eat. Says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University: “If companies think consumer objections are stupid and irrational, they should explain the benefits of their products.”

She’s right that GM firms have a lot of work to do to change the image of their business. Because Frankenfood, it seems, dies hard. A few weeks ago when a herd of cattle in Texas died, the story quickly spread that the cows had been chomping on a GM strain of grass. That’s how it was reported on local TV. Turns out that the cattle died when the grass started venting cyanide. But GM had nothing to do with it. The more likely culprit? The state’s relentless drought.

The science of chow

Here’s more recent news from the food front:

  • So long, sweet pigs: The last of a group of genetically engineered pigs at the University of Guelph in Canada were euthanized last month when funding for the research project ran out. Known as the Enviropigs, they were created when a bit of mouse DNA was introduced into their chromosomes. The goal was to produce pigs with low-phosphorus feces and to reduce waste at large factory farms.
  • Finally, salmonella spray: Micreos, a Dutch company, says that within the next year it will start marketing a consumer version of a spray it’s invented to kill the bacteria that causes salmonella poisoning.
  • You’ll feel better just reading it: A team of British food researchers have created a menu of what they contend is the ultimate healthy meal menu. It includes a mixed leaf salad dressed in virgin olive oil, chicken casserole with lentils and mixed vegetables, yogurt topped with walnuts and a sugar-free caramel sauce and yes, our old friend, salmon.
  • Who needs healthy when it’s such a sweet fit?: According to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, the latest trend among fast food restaurants is to serve foods like fried chicken in containers that fit snugly into your car’s cup holder. Now you can dine and drive with all the style that only a good cup holder can provide.

Video bonus: A stem cell scientist in the Netherlands is growing meat. That’s right, he’s working on the first test-tube burger. Mark Post is creating a hamburger by capturing stem cells from cow muscles. He says it will be at least November before he has a full patty. Post calls it “shmeat,” short for sheet of lab-grown meat. Bon appetit.

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