Genetically modified (GM) foods have moved from the realm of science fiction to a reality on our tables. There have been several studies and counter-studies that have alternately eulogised and slammed genetic modification. We sift through the information on GM foods for you.

What are GM Foods?

Every organism, plant or animal, has DNA – a molecule that stores biological information – that determines its genetic makeup. Genetic engineering can introduce specific changes in the DNA, such as removing some genes or tweaking a gene to alter its function. Foods that are produced from such genetically altered organisms are called as GM foods. Most of the genetic modification experiments have been with plants, especially cash crops such as cotton, corn and soybean. Genetic changes have made these crops resistant to pathogens and have increased yields phenomenally. Research is on going to use genetic engineering for enhancing the nutritional content of foods and for reducing the likelihood of food allergies. Apart from experimenting with plants, scientists have also created GM livestock, but these have not been made available commercially.

Do we need GM foods?

There is no doubt that genetic modification has been beneficial to farmers. Farm outputs have increased dramatically and there is less loss to common plant diseases such as blight and canker. Forward-looking scientists and biotech companies have argued that as the population grows, it will become more and more difficult to feed everyone if crop yields are not increased. Apart from diseases, climate change is also adversely affecting agriculture. Genetic engineering can help crops adapt to these changes. If GM foods are so beneficial, why are people protesting against them?

The Concerns

The US is the largest producer of GM foods, with nearly 70% of the processed foods having some GM components. In the EU however, there is an overwhelming tilt towards promoting organic food and keeping out GM foods (which are often labelled as ‘Frankenfoods’ by their detractors). This is largely due to the fact that not enough research has gone into proving that GM foods are completely safe for human consumption, even though many studies have shown no adverse side effects (in the short to medium term). Risks include introduction of allergens and toxins in the food, antibiotic resistance, accidental contamination and creation of ‘super weeds’. Most importantly, long-term effects are not completely known.

Apart from this, studies have shown that micro RNA (miRNA) from plants that we ingest can survive digestion and affect the functioning of human cells. miRNA have a role to play in human diseases such as cancer and diabetes. This opens up a Pandora’s Box of issues, namely what if the modified gene (from a GM food) enters the system and causes changes that we have not anticipated and possibly cannot deal with. Another concern is that GM foods are not always labelled as such, which makes it difficult for the average consumer to really make an informed decision about what she chooses to buy, eat and feed her family.

While it may not be possible to completely escape the onslaught of GM foods, you should have a choice of deciding whether you want to put a GM food on the table. This means stringent monitoring and accurate labelling of these foods. Until we have conclusive evidence about these foods, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

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