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Sink your Teeth into Some Genetically Modified Food

022712-5 Think for a moment about what you ate for breakfast today. What do you know about that food? Where and how was it grown and under what conditions? What ingredients were used?  Was any of it genetically altered?

On February 19, 2012, scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands announced they have successfully used bovine stem cells to grow small pieces of muscular tissue and they expect to create the first edible lab-grown beef as early as October, 2012. Lab-grown meat has a ways to go before it reaches a grocery store near you; scientists predict that could take another decade or two to before it is commercially available.

You may have to wait to fire up the barbeque for that lab-grown hamburger, however, you likely have been eating genetically altered food with some regularity. Agricultural crops that have been modified to resist disease or insect damage, or to be more tolerant of herbicides are used often in the foods Americans eat. 85 percent of corn and 91 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically engineered. Approximately 70 percent of all processed foods at American supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients, most commonly corn syrup and ingredients derived from soybeans. Most Americans do not realize when foods contain genetically modified products; the USDA does not require companies to label genetically modified foods or ingredients. 

022712-1 Using biotechnology to genetically alter food is a contentious issue. At the heart is the question: Should we genetically alter food? This week you will research the issue. As you read, keep a list of arguments used by proponents and opponents.

What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?

What are GMOs and how do scientists genetically modify food? Begin your search for answers by examining the infographic, GMO? It explains what a GMO is and is not, and two common ways scientists manipulate plant DNA. The infographic will also help you answer the following questions: Why is it significant that no long-term studies of GMOs have been conducted? What GMO ingredient is most common in processed food? Which crops are most commonly modified? What are American consumers’ opinions about GMOs? What industries are likely not in favor of labeling foods that contain GMO ingredients and why? How does the United States policy on GMOs compare with that of other countries? 

022712-2 The infographic indicated that corn, cotton, and soybeans are the largest genetically modified crops. For a look at exactly how prevalent these crops have become, study the USDA chart, Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. Click on the links in the Data section for corn, cotton, and soybeans to see the data behind this chart. How does genetic engineering affect the number of varieties of each crop? To what extent have insect resistant, herbicide tolerant, and stacked (both insect and herbicide tolerant) crops been adopted?

The PBS programs, NOVA and Frontline featured a special report, Harvest of Fear, on genetically modified food. Visit the show’s website to deepen your understanding of both sides of the issue. For a taste of both sides of the debate, read the introduction. Then open the chapter on viewpoints and read five key questions: Is genetically modified food safe to eat? Just how radical is this new technology? What are the benefits? What are the risks?Are GM foods sufficiently regulated in the U.S.? Open each question and read opinions from both sides of the issue. If you are interested in conducting further researching on one or both sides, peruse the resource links. Engineer a crop of your own and experience the difference between selective breeding and transgenic manipulation by playing two games. 022712-3Peek into the future of genetically modified foods to see what new foods may be part of your dinner someday soon.

You may have noticed that some of those future dinner plates did not hold fruits or vegetables. A genetically altered ear of corn may not seem like something from a Twilight Zone episode, but how do you feel about a genetically altered animal? Scientists are working on altering animal DNA, including salmon. If you are able, download and watch the video, What about this Fish?

How Roundup Changed the Food Industry

Opponents of genetically modified food have launched an organized, and vocal campaign against the agricultural biotechnology industry. A prime target is Monsanto, producer of the herbicide Roundup. In The Future of Food, Deborah Koons Garcia examines how food has changed, and the role agricultural biotechnology has played in this alteration. Watch from the beginning to 5:54 for a brief history of food and farming. To learn more about how genetic engineering works, watch the segment from 22:18 to 30:38. For a more detailed examination of the politics and safety issues, watch from 30:38 to 45:30. This is not an unbiased view; how might Monsanto administrators and those who support genetically modified food respond? Finally, consider the future of food (1:15:30 to the end). What counterpoints do you anticipate? 

022712-4 What you eat is tremendously important to your personal health. As the websites you visited reveal, our food also impacts the environment, politics, trade, and economics. Explain what you think: should we genetically engineer our food?