The rise of the Frankenfoods

In recent years there have been many an outcry over ‘plastic rice’ reportedly being sold as the real thing as well as other so-called fake foods. But activists say the real danger lies not in food that could easily be outed as fake, but those which cannot. And by this they mean foods grown from seeds that have been genetically modified to make the produce less prone to spoilage among other things, offering huge advantages to the producer/farmer.

The row over genetically modified (GM) foods has long reached cacophonous levels. Proponents of the technology argue that it is safe to eat and should be lauded as a means to feed the world’s fast-rising population since it has been estimated and speculated that food will become short by 2050 if traditional agricultural methods are the only ones used. Traditional agriculture is susceptible to weather conditions and pests often making crop failure rates high. Opponents of GM foods or GMOs as they are commonly called, insist that tampering with the genetic makeup of plants and seeds makes them harmful to consume as they can become toxic and allergenic. Further, anti-GMO activists have—informally—named genetically modified foods Frankenfoods, a reference to the creature created by Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, which in turn destroyed him. 

It should be noted here that GMOs do not only refer to plants. Scientists have long been genetically modifying farm animals and then there is that product known as ‘clean meat’, which is in fact lab-grown meat made of cultured animal tissue cells. As recent as June this year, the US Food and Drug Administration had announced that it would start to regulate lab-grown meat. And on Tuesday last, a law went into effect in Missouri that prohibits the use of the word meat to describe anything that is “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”.

Because of the strong opposition to GMOs, manufacturers producing and packaging foods for sale in the US are now mandated to state on labels whether or not they have used GMOs in any stage of the process. Of the GMO giants, Monsanto Company, a huge seed and herbicide developer has taken the brunt of the verbal and legal backlash and justifiably so, activists say.

However, as Reuters reported early last month, new players have emerged with different technology. They are calling their new moves ‘gene editing’, which they say is more precise than genetic modifying and have so far escaped being regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. So far, at least one company has edited the genes of the soybean and is working on wheat and potatoes.

According to Reuters, experts say this new technology could see bigger harvests of crops with a wide array of desirable traits such as better-tasting tomatoes and apples that do not turn brown. In addition, the $15 billion global biotechnology seed market could double within a decade.

The very visible dollar signs raise questions as to whether this technology is really being pushed for the good of the future of humankind or to further fatten the pockets of the very rich. Plant genes’ editors and modifiers tout benefits such as produce that will be lower priced, have greater durability and nutritional value and improved crop protection including resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses and tolerance towards herbicides. They claim too that what they are doing is not so farfetched since humankind has been modifying crops for millennia through selective planting and grafting.

Anti-GMO activists on the other hand quote studies and statistics which they say prove that altering the DNA of plants and animals causes allergies, liver problems, cancers, reproductive problems, Alzheimer’s and other illnesses. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has spoken very conservatively on GMOs stating that those “currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” 

For all of the lab work being done to modify and edit plant and animal genes, less than a quarter has been spent on thoroughly investigating the actual effects of the consumption of GMOs on the human body. Recent history is replete with examples of where things that were sold as good for human consumption later had to be recalled after they caused illness or death.

So far companies have only publicly stated that they are working with soybean, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and wheat, but there are others, and these are foods that are widely used in the production of countless other items, many of them specifically targeted at children. If GMOs really are Frankenfoods, the people who are expected to consume them have a right to know. And if they are the answer to earth’s reported descent into extreme hunger then there can be no harm in doing what is necessary to promulgate their safety.

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