By Kristin Shea
We’ve all been there. You walk into the dentist office and think you hear your favorite song. But something is not quite right. The lyrics and the basic tune sound very much like “Suedehead,” but with Morrissey’s crooning voice replaced with another and with a note changed here and there. Can this altered version of the song really still be considered “Suedehead?”
In much the same way, can a genetically modified organism, or GMO, still be considered authentic? The fruit you’re about to bite into may be red, round, sweet and fibrous, but with the splicing of another gene, it is no longer truly an apple, but rather a bad remake of an apple.
Even the ostensibly negative traits that GMOs “correct” serve a purpose. For example, Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits has created the Arctic Apple, which is genetically modified to block enzymatic browning. However, we lose an important visual cue by interfering with the natural spoiling process. Browning of an apple sliced days earlier indicates that the fruit is not as fresh, not as nutritious and not as tasty.
History has taught us that “improvements” of food can actually be dangerous and that the correlation between the altered food and health problems may take years to accurately diagnose. This was the case when Europeans introduced white rice to the Dutch East Indies in the 1870s. The polished rice lasted longer and many people considered its flavor superior to whole grain rice. By the 1880s, Beriberi, rarely seen in the region over thousands of years, had grown into one of the most common diseases in Southeast Asia. Scientists mistakenly suspected a bacterium was the cause of this deadly epidemic. However, during his search for Beriberi-causing bacteria, Christiaan Eijkman discovered that the new and improved method of milling rice was responsible for the disease. The removal of husk, bran and germ gave white rice its better taste and longer shelf-life, but also stripped the grains of a vital substance, which Eijkman called the anti-Beriberi factor and which was later determined to be vitamin B1. Eijkman won the Noble Prize for discovering that the alteration of a seemingly negative aspect of rice directly caused disease, a lessen that should be heeded in our approach to genetic modification today.
Companies that sell GMO products claim genetic modification is safe. But, without controlled studies, the connection between an altered food and disease is difficult to determine. In addition, despite our substantial nutrition knowledge, we have a lot to learn. Just as vitamins were an unknown entity in 1895 when Eijkman made his groundbreaking discovery, other crucial yet-to-be-discovered components may be removed from genetically modified foods to the detriment of our health. The adverse health effects may not be known for years, or ever, without thorough research.
Imagine somebody sells you a ticket to an Annie Lennox concert, but instead an Annie lookalike performs covers of her songs. Even if the singer sounds identical to the Grammy-winning soul sensation or, improbably, sounds even better, you were sold a ticket to hear Annie Lennox and that is what you have the right to expect, not an Annie knockoff.
Yet, food companies are legally permitted to sell you food knockoffs without telling you. Current labeling laws allow companies to pass off the altered GMO version of a food as the real thing. An Artic Apple can, therefore, simply be marketed as an apple, with no reference to the modified genes. The same goes for corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and other produce on the market and the AquAdvantage engineered salmon awaiting FDA approval. Even now, scientists are tinkering with the DNAs of many of our most beloved foods, including oranges, chili peppers and rice, which may hit the supermarket aisles in coming years.
Fortunately, you can avoid GMOs. Federal laws prohibit foods labeled “organic” from being genetically modified or containing GMO ingredients. In addition, the nonprofit Non-GMO Project has created a successful verification program. The Non-GMO Project butterfly-flower seal indicates that a product is not genetically modified and does not contain GMO ingredients. The Non-GMO Project website also lists non-GMO verified products in its extensive database. So, enjoy a sweet bite of a real apple and savor its natural brown imperfections.