Since they were introduced 15 years ago, genetically modified foods have taken astonishing hold in North America. This time of year, the result is a Thanksgiving menu that may, on the surface, look much the same as the one your grandma cooked 20 years ago. But at the genetic level, it is very different, and it’s a far cry from the fabled feast shared by the pilgrims and American Indians in the 17th century. In celebration of Thanksgiving, the most food-focused day of the year, here’s a look at how biotechnology is changing the way we eat.
Before it reached the grocery store — even before it reached the farm — your turkey, turducken or tofurkey likely started out in a lab, with scientists in white coats peering at PCR data and tinkering with plant genomes to produce traits that nature never intended.
Let’s start with your morning coffee. Unless you buy organic, your milk and half-and-half most likely comes from cows that have been administered synthetic hormones. The hormones rBST and rBGH let cows grow bigger faster, and allow them to produce more milk. Do you use soy milk instead? It’s probably from GMO soybeans. How about sweetener? Fully 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet crop is genetically modified, and half the nation’s sugar supply comes from beets. What about high fructose corn syrup? Of course. About 85 percent of American corn is genetically modified. Even sugarcane is genetically altered.
Starting with breakfast and ending with dessert, if you live in North America, you most likely eat transgenic foods every day.
Despite opposition, the vast majority of North American row crops are now grown from genetically modified seeds.
Genetically modified crops usually contain genes from other plants to produce unique traits. In most cases, splices of bacterial genes are used to insert the new traits, like pest or disease resistance. Companies such as Monsanto and Bayer alter plants to resist their proprietary blends of weed killer, while other crops are modified to resist pests, fungi or bacteria; produce higher yields; or survive environmental conditions like drought or salty soil. GM food advocates say it’s essentially no different than selective breeding to obtain desirable qualities.
Consumer groups and natural-food advocates, on the other hand, say bacteria-enabled “Frankenfood” has no place in a healthy diet. They say genetically altered crops have not been sufficiently studied, and they worry that their effects on the environment and human health are unknown. Several court cases are progressing that seek to prevent future plantings of genetically modified crops, or at least subject them to stricter federal review.
Some groups maintain lists of non-GMO food sources; the Institute for Responsible Technology even has a non-GMO shopping guide iPhone app, or you can download the printable shopping list.
The easiest way to avoid genetically modified food is to buy organic — foods labeled organic cannot intentionally have biotech ingredients. But note the word intentionally. Seeds blow in the wind, so even fields used for organic farming may contain genetically altered crops. In a study this summer, GM canola was found growing in the wild throughout South Dakota.
Despite opposition, the vast majority of North American row crops are now grown from genetically modified seeds.
See our gallery of your fully engineered Thanksgiving meal, below.
Biscuits and Gravy
This year, your bread dishes are probably not genetically modified — consumer and food industry opposition has so far prevented any GM wheat from making it to your table. So your biscuits, thickened gravy and turkey stuffing are made with flour from traditionally bred wheat. But several seed companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and others, are working on transgenic wheat. U.S. Wheat Associates, an industry group, said in early 2010 that GM wheat is still several years away, but efforts are ongoing to improve its acceptance among international consumers. Monsanto Co., the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seed, backed off commercialization of “Roundup Ready” wheat several years ago, amid concerns it could hurt the U.S. wheat market. But earlier this month, the firm said it’s the “right time” to pursue development of drought-resistant and high-yielding wheat. The Swiss firm Syngenta said this summer it was working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to focus on developing stronger wheat. The firm has been exploring genetically modified traits in wheat for several years, though it has not yet been commercialized. Worldwide, wheat is the most-traded food crop and it is the single largest food import in developing countries. In some ways, it was the first widely modified crop. Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on increasing wheat yields in Mexico and developing nations.
Cornbread Stuffing and Sweet Corn
The sweet corn on your plate looks nothing like the Indian corn in your decorative centerpiece, and that’s by design. Centuries of selective breeding led to the yellow sweet corn we all eat today, and in the last 15 years, genetic modification changed things even more. Corn is the largest crop in the world in terms of tons produced, and second in the world, behind wheat, in acres harvested. American farmers grow 88 million acres of corn, more than any other crop. And about 85 percent of it is genetically modified. Transgenic corn is bred to resist popular weed killers, and new genes, some from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, have been transferred into the plant genome to confer toxins that kill a common corn pest. “Bt” corn, as it’s called, contains a poison that is toxic to the European corn borer. Even if you don’t enjoy roasted sweet corn (which would be hard to comprehend) corn is a major part of the average American’s diet. High-fructose corn syrup is an additive in everything from soft drinks to condiments, and chances are the corn used to make it had a GMO trait. Cornbread stuffing is, obviously, made with cornmeal, and you might want to use corn starch to thicken your gravy. Perhaps because of this ubiquity in the American diet, corn is also the most widely criticized of the GMO crops. A French study from January 2010 found three strains of transgenic corn — MON 810 and MON 863, which are resistant to pests, and NK 603, which is modified to withstand the weed killer Roundup — disrupted the blood chemistry of rats. Greenpeace and the Swedish Board of Agriculture obtained Monsanto’s own raw data and scientists at the University of Caen in France examined it. Monsanto rejected their claims, saying their own claims of Bt corn’s safety hold up under peer review. On the other hand, a study by University of Minnesota researchers published in October found Bt corn has helped farmers’ bottom lines — especially those who don’t even plant GMO seeds. The proliferation of Bt corn has killed so many corn borers that traditional agriculture has seen improvements, meaning greater financial rewards for those who did not plant the more expensive GMO seeds.
Vegetarians who object to eating hormone-enhanced meat products may want to check the origins of their favorite bean curd. In 2010, 93 percent of all commercially grown soybeans in the U.S. were genetically modified. In most cases, genes were inserted that enable the plant to resist herbicides. In this photo, GM soybean plants are shown growing in a petri dish. Even meat-eaters are familiar with soy — fermented soybeans make soy sauce; soybeans are used to make vegetable oil, used in kitchens worldwide; and anyone who eats fast food would recognize “partially hydrogenated soybean oil,” which is high in trans fats. Incidentally, genetic modification might make this common oil better for you. Monsanto, DuPont and others also sell soybean seeds that produce healthier oil, higher yield and herbicide tolerance. In June, DuPont was the first to obtain federal approval for its transgenic high-oleic soybeans, designed to reduce trans fats by eliminating the need for hydrogenation. Monsanto is making soybeans that have been modified to produce precursors to omega-3 fatty acids, high-value healthy fats that are normally only found in fish. Syngenta is working with a firm called Evogene to develop plants that can resist the soybean nematode, a parasite that causes up to $1 billion in annual crop losses in the U.S. Bayer CropScience is also studying soybean cultivation and protection. Higher yields are one of the main motivations for GM soybean research. At Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters, a potted Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean plant is proudly displayed next to a non-GMO plant. The modified plant boasts many more clusters of fuzzy bean pods, and there are more beans in each pod. The company is working with BASF to increase yield even more, offering potentially higher profits for soybean growers.
Making sauteed green beans this year? How about seared brussels sprouts? If you’re cooking with canola oil, it probably came from plants that were modified to resist weed killer. And now the canola itself has become a weed. Canola itself is cultivar of rapeseed, bred in Canada in the 1970s to contain lower levels of erucic acid, which can be toxic to humans at high levels, and glucosinates, a defense mechanism that plants evolved to resist being munched by herbivores. (Glucosinates are what make your brussels sprouts taste bitter, in case you were wondering). Technically, canola is not even a real name — it stands for “Canadian oil, low acid.” Today, canola is one of the continent’s biggest cash crops; in 2010, U.S. farmers harvested 1.4 million acres of the plant. About 90 percent of canola is genetically modified. Bayer CropScience and Monsanto are the largest providers of GM canola seeds. In August, transgenic canola earned the dubious distinction of being the first GMO crop to “escape” the farm field and grow in the wild. Researchers at North Dakota State University and the Environmental Protection Agency found transgenic canola growing along roadsides throughout North Dakota. The plants had genes conferring resistance to the weed killer Roundup, made by Monsanto, and LibertyLink, made by Bayer. Wild canola is not an uncommon sight in the west— in many roadside areas, it’s considered a weed. But what happens when the weeds are resistant to weed killer?
Salad and Crudités
American firms are not the only ones working to confer new traits to various crops. In China, farmers grow small quantities of sweet peppers engineered to resist a virus, and until recently, farmers were planting delayed-softening tomatoes, which stayed tougher after harvest. But GM doesn’t always work — the hardened tomatoes were a commercial failure and were taken off the market. Along with biotechnology, seed companies are also engaging in some high-tech plant breeding to come up with desirable traits. Monsanto is using molecular breeding to come up with tomatoes that smell and taste sweeter and resist bacterial wilt. Bayer CropScience has developed tomatoes that don’t lose their juice when sliced. Ubertomatoes are a potentially lucrative market — tomatoes account for about 7 percent of global vegetable production, according to Bayer. And it’s not just tomatoes: Monsanto even has proprietary sweet onions, crunchy seedless watermelons, mildew-resistant cucumbers and raised-head broccoli, which is easier to harvest.
Savor the flavor of that whipped cream and pumpkin pie — this time next year, sugar could be a lot more expensive. Last week, federal agriculture officials released a plan to let farmers plant genetically modified sugar beets while a lawsuit over them is resolved. But future plantings have been banned since this summer, and farmers fear a partial lifting of a court-ordered ban will not come in time for next year’s crop. Farmers might decide to plant something else instead, forcing U.S. sugar processors to import sugar from other countries — and because of tariffs, that means sugar could get really pricey. Half the country’s sugar comes from sugar beets, which are sliced and boiled into a thick syrup that is then dried. Ninety-five percent of the beet crop is grown using Roundup Ready seed sold by Monsanto. The other half comes from sugar cane, and Monsanto is engineering that, too. The company’s sugarcane uses Bt, widely used in corn, to confer insect resistance. Monsanto added its Roundup Ready gene to the sugarcane, too. The whipped cream adorning your pie is also modified, although not with transgenes. Monsanto developed and commercialized a widely used rBST hormone treatment called Posilac that allows cows to produce more milk (the product line is now owned by Eli Lilly). Monsanto is even working on specially bred pumpkins. So far, the company has not inserted any transgenes, but a breeding program has yielded about a dozen varieties of Halloween pumpkin seeds that produce gourds ideally shaped for carving and decorating.
The Tablecloth, Napkins and Your Grandma’s Apron
That’s right, even your table linens have non-native genes. Many biotech firms are modifying cotton to resist problems like pests, herbicides and drought. So even if you cook all organic vegetables, your kitchen probably still has GM crops in it. But what about the main event? Turkeys and hams are not genetically modified — at least not yet — so is your main course untouched by genetically modified organisms? Probably not …
Even if you harvested your own heirloom vegetables, used stevia as a sugar substitute and cooked with peanut oil, odds are that your Thanksgiving meal was still genetically altered. Your turkey, turducken or ham most likely ate GM products during its life. Livestock have been fed genetically engineered crops since the crops were first introduced, according to a study by the University of California-Davis. Most commercial livestock animals are fed GM crops, notes John Anderson, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Turkeys eat a corn and soybean meal-based diet, and those feeds are for the most part from genetically modified crops,” he said. For livestock farmers, genetically modified crops can reduce feed and silage costs — GM seeds are more expensive, but they can enable farmers to use less pesticides, less soil tilling and less time pulling weeds. This year, an average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 costs $43.47, a slight increase of 1.3 percent over last year. Dairy prices and animal feed prices were up this year, but turkeys are cheaper, Anderson said. Along with bans on GM sugar beets, federal courts have delayed future plantings of GM animal feed, including Roundup-resistant alfalfa. But the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a key ruling this summer allowing Monsanto to keep selling Roundup Ready alfalfa while the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service studies it.
What’s Next? Thanksgiving in 2020
If the ubiquity of biotech crops is any indication, this futurey Thanksgiving is likely only the beginning. Any day now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the sale of genetically modified salmon — the first GM animal approved for human consumption — and it might not require a special label. Scientists are also working on genetically modifying cattle to feel no pain, and pigs are being engineered to excrete less phosphorus. Alongside high oleic acid and omega-3 soybeans, biotech firms are enhancing the nutritional value of staple crops like cassava and golden rice. By 2012, Syngenta is expected to release its vitamin A-enhanced “golden rice” to the world’s poorest farmers, though environmental advocacy groups argue it will not solve vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world. And sometime in 2012, Monsanto aims to introduce a new strain of corn altered to resist drought. All this work requires some pretty advanced technology, and biotech firms are always coming up with new automated procedures, planting devices and robots. In this photo, robots help Bayer scientists in Monheim, Germany, search for new active ingredients. Eventually, it may be impossible to distinguish between modified foods and those grown the way nature intended. No matter your opinion, genetic modification— enhancing crops with genetic traits that would be unlikely to evolve naturally — is the future of food.