Genetically modified food is making a lot of headlines. More and more, we are eating foods that are genetically altered in some way, even if many consumers don't realize that modified foods can easily make their way into supermarket carts.
Breeding plants and animals for more desirable traits is nothing new. Hybridization, or interbreeding, is the traditional method used to improve the quality and quantity of crops. But even tried-and-true breeding techniques have their limits. For example, hybridization is time consuming and doesn't necessarily make for a plant with the best qualities. That's because hybrids contain all the genes of the parent plants, so undesirable aspects are part of the bargain, too.
Tinkering with genes allows breeders to select only the characteristics they want, and get quick results in the bargain. Transferring genes from one organism to another sounds scary and futuristic, but altering the natural order of things has its benefits. Using sophisticated techniques, scientists are able to insert gene fragments from bacteria or viruses into plants to make them resistant to disease. They can even move genes into other single-celled living organisms to produce life-saving medicine, including insulin. Scientists can also design plants that are resistant to pests and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides; increase crop production by developing hardier plants; and produce plants that yield healthier foods, such as cooking oil with less fat.
So, what's the downside? The question of safety. Concerned consumers cite the fact that every day, we eat foods produced from transgenic crops without knowing about any of the long-term consequences. Some experts say that breeding "designer" crops will shrink the botanical gene pool, ultimately leaving plants more vulnerable to disease. Gene manipulation could dangerously elevate levels of naturally occurring toxins and allergens in plants, too.
Lack of labeling ranks high on the list of consumer concerns about genetically modified food. There is no way to tell whether raw food such as potatoes or tomatoes has been genetically altered, or if food products such as a muffin mix or baby food contain ingredients that have been, either. Some genetically altered foods such as soybean products are ubiquitous in the food supply; they are in everything from margarine to cake mixes. The FDA has proposed voluntary labels, but many consumer groups say that's not good enough.
You may want to steer clear of genetically modified foods, but it's probably next to impossible without mandatory labeling. Without a consistent labeling requirement, you won't know whether produce was grown with transgenic seeds or if a product is manufactured with genetically altered ingredients. The best way to avoid genetically altered foods is to buy certified organic foods. Organic certification prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms.