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The Furor Over Frankenfoods – Do You Worry About Eating Genetically Modified Foods?

Posted Dec 12 2012 9:06am


Do you like scary movies? Whether it is due to a bad experience with The Changeling (not the Angelina Jolie version but the really old 80′s one) or just an overactive imagination (seriously, we watched it for an 8th grade birthday party and the front door blew open the exact same moment the front door in the movie slammed open – clearly ghosts be afoot, not mischevious middle schoolers!!), I normally stay as far away from the scary stuff as possible. The other night however, I found myself parked in front of my computer glued to the scariest movie I’ve seen in the past decade. It had all the makings of a horror flick: wickedly powerful bad guys, gruesome deaths, a citizenry unaware of the disaster just around the corner and just a handful of helpless good guys standing between us and them. The movie that’s been haunting my dreams? The Future of Food.

I know, it sounds like one of those 1950′s film reels that they used to punish us in elementary school on rainy days and yet I’m telling you this was seriously frightening stuff. It was all about what “GM” – genetically modified – foods are doing to humanity and our critical food supply. If this subject interests you, I certainly recommend watching the whole documentary – you can even see it for free on Hulu – but I’m warning you: you will never look at your food the same way again.

This was actually my second go-round with the movie that first demonized corporate food giant Monsanto (doesn’t the name just sound evil?) and I was re-watching the 2007 flick because of this e-mail my mom sent me: (She’s a nurse and has to take continuing education classes to keep up her mad skillz.)

“Here are some indisputable facts:

  • About 50% of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, obtain most of their carbohydrate from rice every day.
  • White rice contains little more than carbohydrate, and no pro-vitamin A carotenoid.
  • Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of childhood blindness, affecting half a million children every year.
  • VAD is responsible for at least 2 million preventable deaths each year.
  • Genetically modified (GM) rice, also known as Golden Rice, was invented more than a decade ago and can prevent VAD. But its introduction and planting, though cost-free to growers, continues to face opposition from those who believe GM foods pose an ecological threat.

Guest author, Adrian Dubock. Ph.D., Advisory Board Member, the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, School of Life Sciences and School of Soft Matter Research, Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat, Freiburg, and Executive Secretary of the not-for-profit Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, presents the case for GM in Genetically Modified Foods: Scientific Perspective and Controversies. .

If you want to stop a food fight, it might help to find out if you agree with Dr. Dubock or if you think the evidence against GM is stronger.

This activity has been approved for 1.0 AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM”

I’m not sure which I found most interesting: the fact that this is a class being recommended to medical professionals (didn’t say it was bad, just interesting) or the fact that someone is actually sticking up for genetically modified foods. How terribly un-cool of them!

Anyone who knows me knows that few things have caused me more consistent grief than food. While I’m doing so so much better these days in the past I’ve worried about everything from food combining to food timing to food in general – until I became full-on look-at-the-crazy-lady-on-TV sick. Strangely, in all of my worrying about food it had never before occurred to me to spend much energy worrying about the genetics of my food.

But now not only do we have to worry about whether our food is healthy (nutrition) and if it was grown in a healthy sustainable way (organic), we have to worry about whether or not it was monkeyed with by scientists and if that monkeying will monkey with my own monkey-ed DNA. My current obsession has been with organic vs. local food. Everyone from Jillian Michaels on down says that pesticides and food additives wreck your metabolism and harm your general health. But the other thing everyone tells you to do is to eat locally – it saves the environment and supports local farmers. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to do both exclusively as one generally precludes the other. Especially in Minnesota where the only food that grows on trees is sno cones. The organic-local debate was wiped clean from mind though after hearing what scientists are saying about all of our genetically modified foods. Who cares if there is pesticides on the outside of your peach if the very genes that make it up are dooming you personally and society as a whole?

But is all the furor over frankenfoods legitimate or just hysteria? The e-mail makes a compelling point, frankly. Basically what we’re talking about are plants that have been altered at the genetic level to provide some benefit, i.e. drought tolerance, higher crop yeilds, resistance to pests and so forth. The potential benefits are immense – in addition to the “Golden Rice” referenced in the e-mail, you may have heard of the “miracle” rice that is touted as Africa’s salvation or the GM wheat that sparked the green revolution in the 1950′s and saved millions in developing nations from starvation and helped make America into the powerhouse it is today.

The problem however, is that nature didn’t create the plants that way and even though we think we are making them better, humans are notoriously short-sighted when it comes to “better” food. For example, the negative effects of the Green Revolution are just beginning to emerge in hard-hit areas like India. The saving wheat turned out to be heavily reliant on nitrogen-based fertilizers which in turn have wrecked the soil, destroying large percentages of previously arable land. GM foods also introduce other significant economic problems such as patent rights for seeds and all the attendant problems that come with single-source and single-strain farming. Not to mention all the anecdotal evidence out there. (The movie summarizes all these arguments quite well.)

It’s basically Science vs. Science. I hate it when that happens.

Unsurprisingly most of the research into GM foods has been conducted by the massive food conglomerates, such as Monsanto and Cargill, that are most heavily invested in them. The FDA (Federal Drug Administration) and the WHO (World Health Organization) have also done some studies. One WHO report states: “Foodstuffs made of genetically modified crops that are currently available (mainly maize, soybean, and oilseed rape) have been judged safe to eat, and the methods used to test them have been deemed appropriate.” The author cautions, “However, the lack of evidence of negative effects does not mean that new genetically modified foods are without risk.”

Unfortunately the discussion may be moot. The problem with worrying about GM food is that right now they are so prevalent in our food supply, mostly in the form of GM corn and soy, that it would be nearly impossible to avoid them completely. Also, while a few places such as the European Union have introduced legislation requiring labeling of GM foods, most places including America do not. Buying organic doesn’t mean it wasn’t genetically modified or engineered. Even going so far as to buy your own seeds, plant them and grow your own food won’t necessarily help because most conventional seeds come from the same few seed banks which use GM seeds. And even if you were to splurge on heirloom seeds, chances are yours would get cross-contaminated with the GM seeds that your neighbors are using.

You’d think that the inevitability of it all would give me a free pass to stop worrying about it but somehow it makes it weigh heavier on my mind. In the end, it just doesn’t seem natural. Of course neither is mascara and I use that all the time. Before I twist myself into mental knots, tell me – Where do you fall in this debate? Does it matter to you if your food is genetically modified? Do you take any steps to avoid it? Is it even possible to completely avoid it?

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