Engineering the Perfect Produce

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

By Chef Joshua Hebert

Where does your food come from? Unless you buy direct from the source – your local farmer or producer – the answer to that may be hard to trace. Part of the reason is because of the growing use of genetic engineering. More than 85 percent of the nation’s corn and soy come from genetically modified seeds.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern technology. Sounds tasty, right?

While genetic engineering is used in a variety of applications – everything from medical research to pharmaceutical drugs and modifying mammals – we most commonly associate it with agriculture. This is because it is so widely used in our produce, packaged foods and even meats.

Why? In most cases it’s to create a desirable trait and controlled outcome. For instance, in crops many have been modified to resists pests, herbicides, and harsh environments and increase shelf life.

History of GMOs
Biotechnology was first applied to agriculture in the early 1980’s by Mansanto, the company also behind the herbicide glyphosate (weed killer), Roundup. They developed the modified seeds to actually be resistant to herbicides so Roundup could be applied without potentially killing off the crop. The company later introduced GM seeds that makes its own crystalline insecticidal protein from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). How does all this impact our health?

That is the topic at the center of debate and it’s still widely unknown. Some studies have linked GM foods to altered metabolism, inflammation, kidney and liver malfunctions, and fertility problems. Many are also worried that new allergy strains will become more common as genes are transferred between plants.

Most alarming though, is the belief that gluten intolerances may be tied to GM crops. The argument is that our bodies don’t know how to process the super proteins that have been engineered into these seeds that allow them to fight tremendous amounts of poison. Case in point: dent corn. This corn, also known as field corn, is genetically modified and makes up the majority of the nation’s corn crop. It’s inedible and has to be processed before humans can eat it. Yet it’s in nearly everything we eat from packaged foods to meat (most U.S. beef comes from corn-fed cattle).

Many countries, particularly in the EU, have banned certain GM products or require they be labeled, and legislation is currently underway in the U.S. to regulate this. Despite the impending banning or labeling, an increasing amount of genetically enhanced seeds are being planted and there’s even a genetically engineered salmon in the works that grows twice as quickly as its natural counterpart. Currently, GM versions of corn, wheat, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa are already being produced.

While the powers that be debate over the health implications of GM products, the choice is up to you. If you want to reduce your exposure, there are few things you can do:

  • Buy local, buy organic – the use of GM seeds is not allowed in certified organic products. Of course there’s no guarantee that crops haven’t been cross-fertilized via nearby GM crops. By shopping local and getting to know your farmer, the risk is reduced or eliminated.
  • Read labels – look for “Non-GMO Project Verified” labels. While this hasn’t hit the masses, a number of brands have adopted the practice.
  • Get technical – there is a smart phone app and websites that list products that avoid GM ingredients.

Bottom line, you are what you eat, so know what you are putting in your body.

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