When genetically modified crops were first introduced early in the 1990s, Europe responded with immediate distrust, marches and protests. European governments decided to move slowly in accepting any genetically modified products with the result that almost none are allowed to be grown or imported in Europe today. Over this same time period, genetically modified foods have crept into American fields and markets with little fanfare and less opposition.
Now in the United States and Canada, the genetically modified food industry is trying to get approval to sell GM animals as food. AquaBounty Technologies has developed a salmon that grows at twice the rate of unaltered salmon. A small group of US Representatives are working to block the FDA from approving the fish as safe food, including Rep. Don Young from Alaska, who calls the engineered species “Frankenfish” (Paul Voosen, House Moves to Ban Modified Salmon). In Canada, University of Guelph research teams have developed a species of pig that, with the help of genetic material from mice, produces lower phosphorous content manure. This feature is meant to make pig farming a more eco–friendly enterprise, and has earned the pig the nickname EnviroPig (John Miner, Messing with Nature). These two products are vying to be the first genetically altered animal to be approved for human consumption by the FDA.
For centuries humans have selectively bred plants and animals to enhance favorable traits in each species. Proponents of biotechnologies see genetic modification as the next step in that human tradition—and an improvement over selective breeding because changes can be affected in one generation instead of several. Also, genetic material from unrelated species is used to bring in characteristics not previously found in a plant or animal.
Some of the modifications already widely in use include alterations to corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and cotton which allow the plants to produce pesticides or make them resistant to herbicides. These changes are intended to bolster profitability of crops by reducing the costs of treating fields for bugs and weeds and by increasing crop yield.
Scientists may be like kids in the candy store, or maybe the Lego store is more appropriate, mixing and matching genetic building blocks across species, but the technology is not without its opponents. One of the main concerns of GM detractors in the US is that these foods do not have to be labeled as such. Since genetically altered varieties are usually visually indistinguishable from naturally occurring species, it is impossible to guarantee 100% segregation.
Corn and soybeans are the most prevalent genetically altered crops, and their byproducts are found in many processed foods. Soy lecithin is an additive found in products from ice cream to bread. And high fructose corn syrup is likewise found in a wide range of foods. This means that unless you are eating only 100% certified organic foods, or homegrown produce, you are probably consuming genetically modified products on a regular basis, even more than you may realize.
On the surface genetic changes appear to be for the better, yet it seems disingenuous for scientists to claim that altering living things at the genetic level can be achieved without any negative side effects. This technology is still less than 20 years old and is being tested mostly on an unwitting public in the United States and Canada. Will we begin seeing negative effects, or will these products be the agricultural panacea they are designed to be?
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