In May, a patch of genetically modified wheat was found growing in a field in eastern Oregon, and the whole world–it seemed–was scandalized. Japan and Korea, the two major importers of Oregon wheat, halted all shipments immediately; the US Department of Agriculture set about trying to solve how the wheat–called Roundup Ready–was found growing on its own, eight years after the field trials had ended. In America, the media focused mostly on the wheat’s mysterious appearance–and that, indeed, seemed to be the thing that most agitated the American public. We are a nation of conspiracy theories; and even while consuming GM corn and soy on a daily basis (88% of maize and 94% of soy grown in the US are genetically modified), we were suddenly appalled and intrigued that a non-approved GM wheat was found growing where it should never have been.
But the sensationalist media reports failed to address the core question, the one thing that really worries those people close to this issue: The farmers in Umatilla County, who felt that their livelihood was unjustly threatened; and the consumers in Japan and Korea, who blamed their governments for giving into American pressure, and not standing up for their citizens. Their common concern was not the cause of Roundup Ready’s sudden appearance, but the safety of GM wheat for human consumption. As of yet, no GM wheat has been cleared for commercial farming and consumption in the U.S. But regulations are always subject to change, and to examine the true context of its safety, we need to look at the whole context of genetic modification beyond the regulations. In principle, GM wheat is not different from GM corn, GM soy, GM canola, and countless other crops that are currently dominating our diet, since every GMO is the result of artificially injecting, or splicing, the genes of one species into the genes of an unrelated species. In other words, the underlying process of genetic modification remains the same throughout these plants–and increasingly, animals–and whatever makes the process itself safe, or harmful, might be applied to each of the modified organisms. Thus, the safety of GM wheat really hinges upon the question of overall safety of genetically modified organisms.
So are GMOs safe? The tremendous amount of research and testing done on GMOs have largely supported that they are, in fact, not harmful. In fall 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a statement opposing the labeling of GM products, positing that “the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” The AAAS severely criticized the efforts to require the labeling of GMOs, accusing them of false assumptions unsupported by science. But this argument overlooks the fact that science is constantly evolving, and our history of GM (via molecular biotechnology) is too short for us to have a final verdict on its long term impact. And findings like the presence of nut allergens in transgenic soybeans (crossed with Brazil nuts) show that by principle, genetic modification can introduce allergenic or other undesirable genes from one species to another.
Is it a complete coincidence that in the past twenty-five years of GMO consumption, our food allergies have increased exponentially? Study conducted by doctors at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine estimate that the case of peanut allergies have tripled between 1997 and 2008. Some studies also show that GM soy contains an allergen that is recognized by 44% of peanut allergic population. While there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are responsible for the explosion of food allergies, their labeling would give consumers the right of choice. And even if there is only a tenuous link between GM and allergies, consumers might have other reasons to want to know the genetic composition of their food. Would you really feel the same way about strawberries spliced with artic fish genes (to withstand frost) as with organic strawberries? What about biopharmaceutical corn spliced with human genes (Dow), or with hepatitis virus (Prodigene)? The AAAS tells us that feeling repulsed by such combinations is fear-mongering or unscientific. But our emotional response to such experiments is instinctive and helpful. As humans, our most fundamental decisions–like who we love, and especially what we like to eat–are founded on gut feeling: so instead of bullying consumers about their “superstitious” beliefs, how about giving them the power to decide for themselves?
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