Whole Food Facts

03.10.13

Nine Things You Should Know About Genetically Modified Organisms

By 2018 you’ll know exactly whether or not your favorite products at Whole Foods have undergone genetic alteration. But when the time comes, should you be scared of that little label on your favorite brand of cereal? The answer is simply no, reports Melissa Leon.

Whole Foods just made history by becoming the first U.S. retailer to require labeling of any foods containing genetically modified content. Though the labeling won’t actually happen until 2018, experts are calling the move a game-changer that could totally alter the food industry. But before you accuse Whole Foods and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) of trying to turn us all into radioactive monsters with food concocted in Petri dishes, read up on some facts. They might surprise you!

Europe has been onto the labeling game for years. Whole Foods may be the first U.S. retailer to commit to labeling genetically modified foods, but to Europe, this is nothing new. A 1997 regulation required food products to be labeled if GM content could be detected in the final product. That law changed in 2004 to extend to all foods that made use of GMOs at any point in their production, regardless of whether or not it could be detected in the final product.

They’re not going to kill you. Despite the “Frankenstein food” talk, genetically altered foods have largely been deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association. Genetic modifications have allowed crops to grow on land that would normally be inhospitable, helping make food more available to hungry populations around the world.

They’re saving you money, too. An Iowa State University study showed that without the altering forces of biotechnology, global prices would be 10 percent higher for soybeans and 6 percent higher for corn. Which explains why most of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified (the soybeans’ alterations make them resistant to an herbicide used in weed control, and the corn actually produces its own insecticide).

And … they’re curing cancer?! Well, not quite, but in a small clinical trial in the U.K., a partially disabled cowpox virus (designed to destroy cancer cells and mobilize patients’ immune systems) prolonged the lives of terminally ill liver cancer patients. Though the work still needs to be confirmed in larger studies, it was found that 16 patients who were given a high dose of the vaccine survived for an average of 14.1 months, compared with 6.7 months for those who received the low dose.

GMOs can be cute! Glo-Fish, the neon fluorescent zebra fish, were the first genetically altered organisms to be sold as pets. They were originally developed by scientists in Singapore who integrated a green fluorescent protein (extracted from jellyfish) into zebra fish embryos’ genomes. The original point of the experiment was to develop a fish that could detect environmental toxins—but they make for pretty rad pets, too.

Speaking of fish … Massachusetts biotech company AquaBounty has developed a genetically modified salmon—called an AquAdvantage fish—that carries a growth-hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is under the control of a genetic “switch.” The AquAdvantage fish produces growth hormone year-round (rather than just during the summer, like normal salmon), allowing it to reach adult size in a year and a half instead of three years. This could potentially ease some pressure off wild fish stocks, which have been depleted by growing global demand.

GMOs may be a source of energy in the future. Last year Department of Energy researchers unveiled a device that generates energy by harnessing electro-mechanical properties of genetically engineered viruses. The (benign) viruses, contained within a nanotechnology-based power generator, produce an electric charge when pressure is applied to the device. Voilà!

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There are still those with concerns (though you should take them with a grain of salt). A French study last year concluded that rats who were fed biotechnology giant Monsanto’s genetically modified corn or exposed to its top-selling weed killer Roundup suffered tumors and organ damage, dying earlier than those on a standard diet. The study prompted sharp criticism from other scientists though, who questioned the study’s basic methods. It turns out that the strain of rat used is prone to mammary tumors when food intake is not restricted (the study did not provide any data about how much the rats ate or what their growth rates were), and most of the study’s control group (consisting of a mere 10 rats of each sex) also ended up with tumors, despite not eating the genetically altered food.

The guy who helped start the anti-GMO movement is now sorry he did. Mark Lynas, who, by his own admission, “helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s,” publicly apologized in January for years of “ripping up GM crops.” In a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lynas openly defended the technology as a way to feed the earth’s growing population without devastating the environment. When explaining what changed his mind, his answer was simple: “I discovered science.” He said that, until then, his views on GMOs had been shaped largely by nonscientific forces, including a mistrust of corporations, fear of unchecked technology, and instinctive queasiness. “As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path. I now regret it completely,” he said.