Stephanie Rogers – Eco Salon March 21, 2012
Genetically altered to withstand heavy applications of toxic chemicals, resist disease or contain more nutrients, so-called “Frankenfoods” are appearing on supermarket shelves at a rapid rate. Currently, genetically modified (GM) corn and soy can be found in many processed foods, and the produce section may contain GM zucchini, corn on the cob and papaya. But beyond those that have already been approved for human consumption, many more GMOs are on the way – and they probably won’t be labeled. These 20 crops and animal products include both those that are already available (whether we like it or not) and some that are still in development, like cows that produce human breast milk.
If you eat any kind of processed food on a regular basis – tortilla chips, cereal, granola bars – chances are, you consume genetically modified corn. The Center for Food Safety estimates that over 70% of the processed foods in American grocery stores contain genetically modified corn or soy. Corn is altered to contain proteins that kill insects that eat them, so they effectively produce their own pesticides.
Rice plants are often modified to be resistant to herbicides and pests, to increase grain size and to generate nutrients that don’t exist in the grain naturally. Varieties include Bayer’s herbicide-resistant “LibertyLink” rice, vitamin A-infused “golden rice” and the bizarre Ventria Bioscience “Express Tec” rice, which has been altered to contain human proteins naturally found in breast milk. The latter is used globally in infant formula.
Among the first foods to be genetically altered, GM tomatoes have been developed to be unnaturally high in anti-oxidants, to have more intense flavor and to stay fresh longer. While there are not currently any genetically modified tomatoes on store shelves, they’re being used extensively by scientists to study the function of genes that are naturally present in the plants.
The most common genetically engineered food of all is the soybean. Since 1996, scientists have been creating varieties of soybeans that are resistant to both pests and herbicides, and they wind up in places you’d least expect them, like candy bars. A new GM soybean with higher levels of healthy oils was approved by the USDA in 2010; chemical companies DuPont and Monsanto are both working on their own versions of the biotech bean.
We don’t think of cotton as a food, and technically it isn’t – but we still end up eating it. Cotton isn’t classified as a food crop, so farmers can use any chemicals they want when growing it. That means cottonseed oil, which is present in products like mayonnaise and salad dressing, can be packed full of pesticides. Along with soy, corn and canola, cotton grown for oil extraction is one of the most frequently genetically modified crops in the world.
Canola, a cultivar of rapeseed, produces one of the most commonly consumed food oils, and it’s one of America’s biggest cash crops. What you may not know is that canola stands for “Canadian oil, low acid,” referring to a variety of rapeseed developed in the 1970s. 80% of the acres of canola sown in the U.S. are genetically modified, and a 2010 study in North Dakota found that the modified genes of these plants have spread to 80% of wild natural rapeseed plants.
Despite the fact that an environmental impact study has yet to be completed, the USDA has announced that farmers may now plant Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, which have been altered to withstand the company’s herbicide. This decision comes despite a 2010 court order that prohibited planting the GMO beets until the study was performed. Sugar beets provide about half of America’s sugar.
Salmon may become the first genetically modified animal to be approved for direct human consumption. The FDA has decided that a variety of GM salmon that grow twice as fast as their natural, un-modified peers is both safe to eat and safe for the environment.
“We’re looking here at a scenario where the fish might wind up sooner or later in the ocean,” Brian Ellis, plant biotechnologist at the University of British Columbia Vancouver, told Discovery News. “I think if we go down this route, we have to be prepared to accept some potentially unknown consequences.”
Providing the other half of America’s precious sugar, sugar cane is set to debut on our shelves in genetically modified form sometime soon. Brazil’s state-owned agricultural research agency has been hard at work developing drought-resistant sugar cane that also bears increased yields for years now, and may have it certified for commercial use within five years. Australia is also working on its own version.
After the Ringspot Virus nearly destroyed all of Hawaii’s papaya crops, a new variety was engineered to resist the disease, and it now represents the majority of the papayas grown in the United States.
“Papaya would be unique in the sense where the industry in Hawaii is dependent on biotech,” says Kevin Richards, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau. “What you have in Hawaii is a very contained, isolated agro-eco system, which is vulnerable to diseases.”
The first genetically modified food to be approved for cultivation in Europe in over a decade, Amflora potatoes are currently being grown in Sweden. High in starch content, the potatoes are actually meant for use in paper, glues and other commercial products rather than as food, but that doesn’t mean they won’t end up affecting the food chain. Nearby farmers worry about their rabbits, deer, and especially their bees.
Could genetically modified crops have something to do with the mysterious ailments that are killing honeybee colonies by the billions? Some researchers believe so. A zoologist in Germany found that genes used to modify rapeseed crops had transferred to bacteria living inside bees. GMOs are currently considered to be among the possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder. And if the genes are causing changes within the bees, they’re also likely to cause changes to the honey that the bees produce.
After banana crops in Uganda were affected by a bacterial disease that caused the plants to rot, scientists developed a genetically modified variety that could help alleviate the $500 million annual loss. The ban on GM crops was waived to make way for the GM version of Uganda’s staple food. A gene from sweet pepper was inserted into the bananas that make them resistant to the bacteria. Cultivated bananas have almost no genetic diversity, so supporters of this decision argue that introducing the GMO fruits will actually help bananas as a whole.
Zucchini are among the foods currently on store shelves that are often genetically modified. The main threats to zucchini harvests are viruses and fungal infections, and GM zucchini eliminate those problems.
Pigs are currently being genetically modified for the possibility of producing human organs as early as 2013, but that’s not their only use. Another variety may eventually end up on our plates. A project called “Enviropig” has inserted genes from mice and E.coli bacteria into pigs to make them process their food more efficiently, potentially reducing their environmental impact. The modification allows the pigs to digest chemicals called phosphates which are present in cereal grains; these chemicals normally just pass right through a pig’s system where they can end up in waterways.
Genetic modification is making its way into the sprouts on your sandwiches and salads. The GMO industry demanded that the USDA allow unrestricted planting of genetically modified alfalfa, which makes up about 7 percent of U.S. crop fields. Alfalfa is a prolific pollinator, so it can easily spread to non-GMO alfalfa. USDA chief Tom Vilsack resisted the idea at first, but in January 2011, he gave in.
Meat and Eggs
The importance of that GMO alfalfa decision? It has a huge domino effect on the entire food chain. Alfalfa is not just grown for edible sprouts, of course – it’s mainly animal feed. Livestock have been fed genetically modified grains like corn and soy since 1996, when these crops were first introduced, and adding alfalfa to the mix will substantially increase the amount of GMOs that animals like cows, chickens and pigs take in. Of course, just like all of the other effects of GMOs, how all of this will pan out for the livestock and for us is not yet clear.
And direct genetic modification of food animals is in the works, too. Aside from the previously mentioned pigs, animals that are in “laboratory stage” include cows and goats that can produce milk containing drugs like antibiotics, and chickens that produce drugs in their egg whites. Under current FDA rules, GMO meat and dairy won’t need to have special labels on store shelves, making it extremely difficult to tell what is modified and what isn’t.
Aside from the contamination that may occur when dairy livestock consume genetically modified feed, GMOs can end up in your milk in other ways, too. The United States is currently the only nation in the world that allows milk containing the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to be sold for human consumption. Milk from cows treated with these artificial hormones has been found to contain lower nutritional value, higher pus content (yes, you read that correctly) and increased levels of the cancer-causing hormone IGF-1.
And then there are the cows that are being genetically engineered to produce human breast milk. Scientists in China have bred a herd of 300 dairy cows with milk that resembles the balance of fats and nutrients that are best for human babies. The researchers believe that this modified cow milk is a possible substitute for human milk, and could be sold on store shelves in the future.
How can an artificial substance be genetically modified? Aspartame may seem like an odd addition to this list, but the fact is, Monsanto makes it using genetically modified bacteria. The bacteria produce the amino acid phenylalanine, which, when combined with aspartic acid, creates the faux sweetener.