Have you ever stopped to think about what went into the food you eat? Not just the ingredients, but how it got from the farm to your plate? Only 150 years ago, the answer would have been simple. As discussed in Down to Earth, farmers planted their own seeds and harvested the crops; many farmers were merely focused on providing food for their families or for small surrounding populations. However, as time went on, it became necessary to meet the demands of a growing population. In order to meet this need, scientists and farmers utilized technology and created a controversial solution to many of the problems that come along with farming crops. Today, there is a hidden ingredient found in the majority of food that Americans eat. This mystery ingredient has only been around for roughly 25 years, and it’s not a preservative, additive, or pesticide. It’s also banned in at least 26 countries. It’s genetic modification, and it can be seen in over 80 percent of the crops that the United States produces. On one hand, genetically modifying food epitomizes scientific advancement and ensures crop resilience and sustainability. On the other, it raises questions about the ethics of farming, and whether their usage has negative impacts on human health and the environment.
In order to comprehend the impact of GMO’s, it is crucial to understand how the genetically modified seed became so sought after. It all begins with Monsanto, the company that spearheaded the genetically modified seed in 1994. Owned by the Koch brothers, Monsanto aims at “Sustainable agriculture [that] focuses on empowering farmers- large and small- to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources” (Monsanto). In other words, the company seeks to provide enough food for the nation’s growing population by creating more resilient crops.
One of the main reasons that GMO’s have become so successful is because they take the guesswork out of crops; genetic modification leads to creating the “ideal” version of a plant or crop. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, “A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans” (IRT). This technology allows crops to become resistant to inclement weather conditions, and can even increase the nutrient value of a certain crop. As stated in Ashu Singh’s article, Golden Rice: Biofortification to Combat Malnutrition, Monsanto created Golden Rice to help combat vitamin deficiencies in Southeast Asian countries: “In 2009, researchers were able to demonstrate that Golden Rice was an effective source of vitamin A. This investigation was done with a group of healthy adult volunteers in the USA. The study showed that the β-carotene contained in Golden Rice was highly available and easily taken up into the bloodstream by the human digestive system” (Singh).
While GMO’s may have benefits in terms of crop resilience and the ability to feed the nation, there are concerns over methods of farming and health and impacts. As mentioned in the documentary Food, Inc., Monsanto sends spies to large farming areas and sues farmers for saving seeds. Many of these farmers settle their cases because they do not have the financial resources to go up against a big corporation like Monsanto. Farmers like Troy Roush often feel that they are growing what the market demands, regardless of whether it is healthy or ethical. After the release of the movie, Roush “…came out in support of California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate labeling genetically modified food, a move that could affect Roush’s business” (Antoniades). The debate of labeling GMO food has also become an issue, as many consumers feel that it is their right to know if a food product they purchased is genetically modified or not. Currently, there are no mandates on labeling GMO products; however, organizations like the Non-GMO project aim to label foods that contain no GMO’s.
Apart from concerns over informed consent, potential negative health impacts of genetic modification have consumers approaching GMO’s with some reserve. As the Institute of Responsible Technology stated, “Numerous health problems increased after the introduction of GMO’s in 1996.The percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses jumped from 7% to 13% in just 9 years; food allergies skyrocketed, and disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems and others are on the rise”(IRT). While GMO’s may not be the only cause of these health issues, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that they have played a role in the aforementioned ailments.
The whole point behind genetic modification is to develop resilient crops that are less prone to disease and insects, heartier, more adaptable to climate change, and more capable of a higher yield. Ultimately, farming is not the same practice as it was 150 years ago. Farmers now are concerned with feeding a massive population while carrying out the responsibilities that Monsanto dictates. 150 years ago, farmers made their own rules for planting and were concerned with feeding their families. Terms like “organic” or “genetic modification” had no place in farming, let alone the vocabulary of the populus. Back then, crops were grown as nature intended; they were not tampered with to increase their vitamin content or adapted to grow in a different climate. Monsanto has successfully created the science to bring bigger, brighter, and questionably better produce to supermarket shelves. But in doing so, have farmers lost their individual voice in the world of agriculture? Are GMO’s putting the health of consumers at risk? Genetic modification harnesses the power of nature and allows man to take the best qualities of one crop and insert them into another. This notion of “frankenfood” shows how science has allowed us to engineer food into whatever we want it to be, rather than what nature intended.