I scream, you scream, we all scream for transgenic, eel extrusion ice cream. No? Well that’s what manufacturers are hoping with their latest innovation in the quest for low fat ice cream genetically engineered to taste as good as high fat favourites.
Genetically modified foods—the process of enhancing certain traits of a food by isolating a gene in one breed and adding it to another—has been around for decades and concerns about it are not new. But until recently, the technology has largely centred on modifying crop heartiness and pest resistance. Now, a new breed of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s)—touting health and flavour benefits—has come to the North American plate. With iron-fortified cereals, calcium-packed OJ, and probiotic cheese, food that doesn’t do double duty is apparently passé. Corporations are clamouring to create super-foods and genetic engineering appears to be the future of food. Is it safe to eat what skeptics have dubbed Frankenfood?
Examples of GMO’s you likely encounter in the average grocery store are plentiful. About that eel ice cream; Dutch company Unilever has discovered that adding “a protein cloned from the blood of an Arctic fish” produces a very creamy product without all the fat. While the ice cream doesn’t actually contain any fish genes, in a complex process the company genetically engineers a cloned version of the protein using a strain of yeast which prevents ice crystallization, the arch enemy of ice cream.
Enjoy a glass of wine or two? Although currently riding high with news reports on its heart disease prevention benefits, alcohol falls into the category of things we feel we should limit in a healthy diet. Imagine if you didn’t have to. While it’s likely at least 5 years in the making, grapes modified to produce better balanced, more flavourful wines are the realistic evolution of research currently under way. And one expert says they’ll likely be bred to have higher antioxidant content.
And not to leave our little creature friends out of the excitement, currently residing at the University of Missouri, are pigs that have been cloned to produce heart-healthy, omega 3 fats. Finally, according to renowned food writer Mark Bittman in a recent New York Times article, the U.S.D.A is expected to approve a genetically modified, super fast growing salmon to be sold in the U.S.
For some it’s a tempting vision of the future of food. Instead of restraint, can we simply tinker with our favourite foods and avoid deprivation altogether. Can we speed up the growth and boost the nutrition of food with no consequence? Is it reality or clever marketing?
Erik Darier of Greenpeace’s sustainable agriculture campaign says its hype. “These so-called miracle foods are an attempt by corporations to capitalize on people’s genuine concerns about health and nutrition.” According to Darier, large companies wanting to control the food supply are suggesting that they can artificially produce healthy foods, but the research to date has been done by those same companies. And although GE foods are among some of the most heavily tested foods, the FDA and Health Canada actually require no more stringent testing than for other foods and there are no long term human studies on any of these foods. Dr. Steve Lund, an assistant professor of Viticulture and Plant Genomics at UBC doesn’t share Darier’s qualms. “I have no concerns consuming GE foods or feeding them to my children,” he says. A bold statement but Lund has science on his side. “I know what genetic sequences are used for commercial products and I know that they’re safe for humans." He does concede that science has done a poor job of communicating this to allay consumer fears.
And that’s a big part of the problem. According to Mark Bittman, “the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A. do not require any of these GMO products, or foods containing them, to be labeled as genetically engineered, because they don’t want to suggest that these foods are different and bias the consumer.” But Darier says over 40 countries, including Australia, South Africa and 25 EU nations have mandatory labeling of GE foods, and, according to Greenpeace research, 88% of Canadians are in favour of it here. With the technology broadening into new foods, the issue is likely to become a hot one. According to Darier upwards of 40 crops (mostly varieties of corn, canola and soya) planted in Canada contain GMO’s well as one variety of rice, 5 potatoes and 1 tomato that have all received approval. Some estimates and a quick check with Health Canada put the total number of approved foods at over 80 and Darier says about 70% of our food contains some GE ingredients, largely due to the volume of processed food we eat containing grains. According to the Canadian Organic Growers “Canada is the world’s 4th leading producer of genetically modified crops."
Is there enough evidence that these foods are safe? According to Darier, the labeling and testing issues suggest that “there’s no transparency, so the question becomes, who can we trust?” He cites one case where Greenpeace accessed generally tightly held proprietary information about a Monsanto-produced GMO corn. “The company’s own research showed increased levels of organ toxicity and hormonal changes in rats but the government still approved it for human consumption.”
But Darier is confident the pendulum will swing. “Consumers aren’t stupid. There’s a 15 to 20 per cent annual increase in demand for organic foods.” And while he admits it’s difficult if not impossible to pull back entirely from genetic modification, he believes the current push in Quebec and B.C. for labeling will win out, giving consumers the final word.
Some argue GMO’s pose the most likely risk to children with their fast developing systems. With a lack of long term human testing the truth is we just don’t know. So what can you do if you choose to avoid GMO’s?
1. Buy foods labeled 100% organic. Canada and the US do not allow these foods to contain any GMO’s. If it just says organic, all bets are off.
2. According to Nutrition Research Centre at least 85% of soybeans, corn, sugar beets and canola are grown from GMO seeds. Avoid packaged foods with these ingredients as well as farm raised salmon which is usually raised on GMO feed
3. Buy whole, unprocessed foods
4. Check fruit and veggie PLU numbers. Four digits means non GMO, 5 digits starting with an 8 means GMO and 5 digits starting with a 9 means organic
5. Have the space? Grow your own.