I will take a moment to divert from the discussion of the impact of agrochemicals to discuss non-agrochemical genetic engineering and genetic manipulation through advanced hybridization. Although I believe the largest impact and the most important one to focus on for purposes of anti-GMO advocacy are agrochemicals, there are indeed negative health impacts for people from the genetic altering of our food for the purposes of increased yields and shelf-stability.
Take, for example, dwarf wheat. Until the 1960s we were eating basically the same wheat that our ancestors grew for thousands of years. Modern day dwarf wheat was developed through cross breeding of different wheat strains, back-breeding to winnow out certain characteristics and hybridizing with non-wheat plants to create a shorter stem which requires fewer resources to grow. Dwarf wheat is not the product of genetic engineering and it is not a “genetically modified organism” under current definitions of that term. This wheat is, however, linked to a variety of public health issues.
Dwarf wheat lacks the nutrients our bodies need like magnesium, zinc, iron and copper. It also contains higher level of gluten proteins which is thought to be contributing to the growing number of people expressing celiac disease and gluten allergies or sensitivities. Although there are efforts to create a biocide resistant strain of wheat, it is not currently on the market. So, be aware because this wheat is not genetically modified under the current definitions of genetic modification and any campaign to label dwarf wheat products as “Non-GMO” will not give you any information about the potential health effects of consuming products made with dwarf wheat.
True genetic engineering in the foods we eat other than agrochemical crops are just not that common. In the 1990s a tomato was introduced to the market that was genetically engineered to remove the gene that caused softening and delayed ripening with the idea that the tomato would last longer from the farm to the store to the table. That tomato product was not successful and so today there are no tomatoes on the market that have been genetically engineered so to require tomatoes to be labeled Non-GMO is meaningless. Similar genetic engineering efforts have occurred with the insertion of a freeze resistant gene into tomatoes and strawberries from a cold-water flounder, but these products never came to market. So again, a Non-GMO label would be meaningless.
Most recently, however, is the application to the USDA and FDA for approval of the Arctic Apple. Like other whole food genetic engineering that attempts to lengthen the shelf life of a product, Arctic Apples have been modified to remove the specific genes that cause bruising in apples when we bite them, slice them or drop them. The lines of debate about these apples divide typical parties. When a food is engineered to eliminate bruising and browning are there potential health consequences to the consumer? Are there potential consequences in the environment? Are we eliminating a gene that humans need to consume to remain healthy?
The makers of Arctic Apples note that there are no new proteins introduced into the apples that could have an ill-effect human health or the environment and that the pollination effects have been studied to find no ill effect on bee populations and honey production. The apples have not been engineered so that herbicides can be sprayed on them. Should we, as consumers, be alarmed by the Arctic Apple that minimizes browning and bruising by splicing in the genes of other apple strains that bruise less naturally? Is this where we lose focus in the debate and fight against genetic modification just for the sake of fighting?
Nearly 100% of actual genetic modification of plant species is undertaken for the purposes of increasing the use of herbicides and pesticides. So when we are talking about GMOs and their environmental and health impacts and when we are talking about Organic Foods and why they are important, we believe our focus should remain on the chemicals. In addition, foods that haven’t been gentically altered in any way may still be sprayed with pesticides and insecticides. So again, it’s about the chemicals.