The Truth About Your Food

May 24, 2010
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An estimated 70-75 percent of food found in American supermarkets contains today genetically engineered ingredients, but only 40% of consumers are aware of this fact. People everywhere eat genetically modified (GM) food everyday without actually knowing what they are and the dangers it can hold. GM food is food that is artificially grown using chemicals and genes from another animal or plant to produce a desired effect, whether it is weather tolerance or aesthetic refinements. These alterations are unnatural, and critics argue that GM foods suffer from dangerously poor oversight and regulation. These unfamiliar creations can endanger one’s health, and farmers can be impacted as well. It is harmful to the environment as it can damage wildlife, and it only encourages monoculture. While people say that a greater yield can be achieved, it is quality and not quantity that matters, and it is an unethical process that disrupts nature.

Human health should be the number one priority in everything, and eating GM food involves several health risks. Many people are highly allergic to different foods, and in genetic modification the DNA of two types of species are fused together, so that a GM product may present unexpected allergies. Labeling does not happen in many countries, so knowing if something is GM will also be hard to tell. Some critics even say that there is a possibility of GM food crops unintentionally introducing a new allergen. This is not the only problem, as sometimes bacteria can be living inside food. In the video Food Inc, a two-year old boy named Kevin Kowalcyk one day awoke with diarrhea and a mild fever. He was hospitalized, but because of continuous physical atrophies he died only a week after. Kevin had consumed a burger days before his death, and it was later discovered that the reason for his abrupt death was that there was E.coli in his body, a bacteria that can be found in meat. Normally this wouldn’t happen, though nowadays cows are being fed with corn instead of grass (which is what they were made to digest) because food companies want to speed up the meat production process and make more profit. A corn diet, though, can acidify a cow’s rumen which can lead to diarrhea and have them stand ankle-deep in their own manure. When meat is not properly cleaned of all manure, there is a chance that E.coli resides in it. Another example lies in a study by a group of scientists wherein rats were exposed to GM foods and chemicals. After just 10 days, significant health damage resulted--they had smaller brains, weakened immune and digestive systems, and smaller livers and testicles. They are mammals like humans, so the likelihood of something similar happening to people is higher. Dr. Martha R. Herbert is a pediatric neurologist who believes that the food in supermarkets contains “substances whose effects on our health are unknown.” She assures that no one in the “medical profession would attempt to perform experiments on human subjects without their consent”, as it is illegal and unethical. However, she points out that manufacturers of GM food are “exposing us to one of the largest uncontrolled experiments in modern history.”

Farmers are affected by genetically modified food as well because of the accumulation of debts that traps them in an endless loop. Most GM food is produced by few, large agribusinesses based in the United States whose only goal is to expand their already high market profit. Tyson is one of these companies, and they have contracts made with poultry breeders so that they are allowed to loan from the company. As time passes the interest rates are raised, which drives them into massive debt, preventing them from breaking free of the companies. Based on the video Food Inc a typical chicken grower owes $500,000 and earns only $18,000 per year. Another company, Monsanto, also takes part in these schemes and controls farmers by having a patent for their seeds. These farmers are promised great harvest, as the company advocates the benefits of their seeds. The problem is that these Monsanto seeds cost a lot, and because farmers are desperate for an increased income they will find the money needed even though as much as $1,500 could be used to purchase these seeds. In traditional culture farmers are able to reuse seeds for future seasons, but as said before, Monsanto has a patent for these seeds, which forces farmers to return to Monsanto to buy more instead of recycling them. This cycle continues, which in turn leads to farmer losses. According to the newspaper The Independent, 1,500 Indian farmers committed “mass suicide” due to this succession. Another obstacle that needs to be tackled is monoculture. Few farmers maintain a rich variety of produce suited for climate changes, which provides reassurance when there are droughts or diseases. Drs. Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists and authors of The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops, however, state that plant diversity is already “eroding under the pressure from loss of habitats and the tendency of modern agriculture to rely on a few elite varieties of important crops”, and if there were to be destructive attacks of pests or diseases, these monoculture farmers will be more susceptible to collapsing. This correlates to the environment as well, as different species of plants and animals have been disappearing.

The possibility of GM crops harming the environment has shaken many, and critics believe that the use of this technology is opening a “Pandora’s lunchbox” as it can threaten biodiversity and bring on foreign insects and plants. Although GM crops are able to produce its own herbicide, there have been cases where mosquitoes have become tolerant to them thus introducing the new evolution of ‘superbugs’. What’s more, scientists also predict that a development of ‘superweeds’ could take place. These weeds could become immune to broad-spectrum weed killers (a herbicide typically used by farmers that impacts its surroundings), which happens when it combines with the herbicide-resistant gene from neighboring GM plants. Additionally, this GM process can injure wildlife as dangerous contaminants could be released. Bees and butterflies are animals crucial to food production, and CBS News recently stated that they are dying at an “alarming rate”. They pollinate 1/3 of food all over the world, says Haagen-Dazs, one of many companies who have started a campaign to save bees. In Europe, there is a movement against GM fast food called the “slow food movement”. Species of plants have been disappearing and Carlo Petrini, founder of the movement, wanted to stop the loss of food product diversity. He thought that the extinction of plants was as important as the extinction of animals and deserved the same amount of attention. Statistics from the Slow Food website affirms that 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct in the last century, and one more is lost every six hours.

While feeding a world population of 6 billion is proving to be difficult, some people believe that GM food could be the solution to this as more harvest can be produced through the use of GM crops. GM supporters claim that it is cheap and affordable, and can help third-world countries out of poverty. Firstly, as said before, companies such as Monsanto conspire to preside over farmers, caring only about expanding their empires and not about feeding the world. Furthermore, it is argued that by using GM seeds, developing countries can become more reliant on companies controlling the food industry. Local farmers can produce food for their own countries, but their profits are actually directed to the large food companies in the U.S. An imbalance of power will occur, which will only widen the gap between the wealthy and impoverished. Additionally, there are certainly health defects that can come with GM food, and giving them to the poor can worsen their situation. If they were to be hit with a disease or allergy contained in their food, it would be difficult to pay off medical bills. Furthermore, based on a study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board of Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, some researches have shown that “none of the genetically engineered significantly [increased] the yield of crops.” In more than 8,200 field trials, the GM seeds produced “fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties.” Farmers would be appalled by this, and it makes one wonder how thoroughly tested GM foods are.

Geneticists have insisted that genetic modification is perfectly natural and that plants and animals modify themselves all the time. They claim that it is the basis of evolution and agriculture, and that modern GM methods are more accurate so that the final product will have effects that are desired. It is much faster, and can produce things that would take nature millions of years to achieve. Nevertheless, members of the public have doubted this and say that toying with genes of any kind is inappropriate. It is unethical, and the right to do this does not belong to humans. Nature does not cross the genes of two entirely different species, and anything that needs to be touched by the hands of humans is already considered unnatural. It can interfere with morals and disrespects peoples’ beliefs. Vegetarians would be outraged if they were to find out that a vegetable they have eaten contains the DNA of a chicken. People who follow the rules of eating kosher food would be disgusted if they were to eat a salad with a pig gene, as pigs are not considered ‘kosher’ with the laws of Jewish religion. Others even fear that sooner or later scientists will start manipulating human genes, which can reduce the diverse culture of the world. Dr. Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Genetics of GKT Medical School, Guy’s Hospital, London, U.K., proclaims that if “Nature has spent millions of years building a structure with natural boundaries, it must be there for a purpose.” That purpose, he says, is to “guide the evolution of life and to maintain its integrity”.

Jamie Oliver once said, “The power of food has a primal place in our homes, that binds us to the best bits of life,” yet nowadays it is being taken advantage of and has been destroying the environment, aggravating poverty, and weakening the well-beings of people. Although completely removing GM foods from groceries is not realistic as it already covers most of it, people should be educated by this new technology so they will be aware of its capabilities or disadvantages. Currently, not many countries label if their food contains GM ingredients, and if companies don’t want to inform the public of their creations then is it really safe? In France, 76% of buyers support labeling and food must be labelled if it is modified up to 1%. Of course, buying organic food would be the ideal solution because if the demand of GM food decreases, companies will be forced to switch to systems that would please consumers. However, organic food is expensive so this can only be done if budget allows. Another possibility would be to do-it-yourself. Some people have taken part in planting vegetable gardens so that they can ensure safety as they themselves control how their food is being grown. In some schools, students are educated on cooking at least 10 healthy recipes in classes like home economics so that in the future they won’t have to be so dependent on fast food and buying it won’t be an everyday necessity. This global practice has sparked up countless debates and controversies, but in spite of that people have the right to know the truth about their food

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