The genetically modified (GM) food industry has been facing controversy for years. Consumers have been slow to accept the use of GM crops in food production, while the scientific community assures consumers that GM benefits outweigh the risks. Despite the friction surrounding the industry, GM crop production continues to advance on a global scale. GM crops have been around for more than 20 years, and the industry generates roughly $18 billion annually. As technology continues to improve and consumer demands continue to increase, the GM food market will face some significant challenges.
GM Foods - A Global Market
GM crop production is a worldwide industry, spanning six continents and 30 countries. Currently, the global market produces about 108 million tons per year. That number is predicted to increase to 122 million tons by 2020. GM crops are used for both direct consumption and as ingredients in processed foods. Ingredients procured from GM crops like corn and sugar beets have become so widely used that the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that GM ingredients are present in 70% to 80% of all packaged foods.
The Science Behind GM Foods
The concept of GM field crops was introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato, which was engineered to ripen without going soft. Two years later, GM corn hit the marketplace and opened the door for other GM foods. Today, the most common GM field crops include corn, sugar beets, soybeans, cottonseed, and canola. Not only are these foods used for direct consumption, but they're also used to produce sugars, oils, and other ingredients.
GM foods are made by extracting components of DNA and splicing or inserting those genes into seeds. This is similar to the process of selective breeding, in which two organisms are bred to express their most desirable traits or genes. When producing GM foods, however, those genes may come from a completely different organism. For example, one strain of GM potatoes uses genes from a type of bacteria, which is inherently poisonous to insects. The potato can resist insects thanks to this bacteria, which makes it less dependent on pesticides. As you can imagine, being able to pick and choose the strongest genes turns ordinary crops into delicious and resilient "superplants." On the other hand, it's also led to quite a bit of controversy.
Concerns in the GM Foods Industry
The jury has been out on the use of GM crops since the late 1990s, when researchers began speaking publicly about possible risks. Currently, only 37% of consumers consider GM food acceptable. Some of the major concerns are as follows:
- Health risks and side effects of consuming genetically modified foods.
- Allergic reactions to proteins produced by the introduced genes.
- Privatization of the GM seed industry and seed debt. Because seeds from GM crops cannot be saved and replanted, farmers must buy new seeds every season.
- Random transfers, when the plants cross-breed with natural varieties and their GM genes are inserted into the ecosystem.
Cross-breeding in the natural ecosystem is one of the biggest concerns with GM food production. Environmentalists and organic farmers often refer to research which outlines the correlation between GM food, damage to the ecosystem, and illness and death in consumers. However, the research itself is controversial as well, as many scientists claim the studies are flawed.
Overcoming Challenges in GM Food Production
As GM crops have become more prevalent, scientists have been hard at work coming up with solutions to some of the biggest challenges the industry faces now and will face in the future. Last year, scientists released a new method to prevent cross-breeding of GM crops. These "genetically recoded organisms" (GROs) have been modified to be dependent on a synthetic amino acid that is not found in nature. When the plant attempts to cross breed, the seeds will not survive. While this killswitch technology has been tested and found effective, it is not yet ready to be used on an industrial scale. It does, however, offer a sound solution for biocontainment.
Environmental concerns aren't the only problem that's inspiring industry change. Currently, regulations on GM foods are complex and inconsistent. While more than 60 countries have adopted laws making it mandatory to label GM foods, the regulations themselves are not uniform. For example, the GM content threshold level for processed foods in America is 5%, while it is 0.9% in Europe. Furthermore, the way GM products are labeled varies widely across different countries. Some countries require labeling when GM products are used in the process, others only require labeling when the end product contains traceable GM ingredients. The industry is gaining much attention from international trade organizations looking to establish globally consistent standards. Alpha-numeric codes for traceability are currently being implemented by GM producers while several organizations are researching new standards and tools for tracking.
Will GM Foods Ever be Accepted?
The GM food industry is on the precipice of great change. GM food production is already a billion dollar industry, and it will continue to grow steadily. The truth is, GM foods do hold a wealth of benefits for the world's growing population and tightening consumer demands. With shorter grow seasons, resistance to disease, better production time, and reduced spoilage, GM foods offer a real solution to the hunger crisis that's affecting more than 800 million people worldwide. If the industry can reconcile the environmental and economic concerns and create safer, more uniformly regulated products, consumers may embrace GM foods more readily.