GMO: Get Monsanto Out?

By Abby Volkmann '13 Staff Writer

This last week in Malott Dining Commons I overheard students absorbed in an impassioned discussion about the evils of genetically engineered food. Subsequently I considered my own perspective on the topic.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been scientifically engineered in order to solve issues in food production. For instance, “RoundUp Ready” crops are resistant to glyphosate, an active component of RoundUp weed killer, that inhibits a necessary enzyme in plants. This enzyme was chemically “swapped out” for a glyphosate-resistant one so farmers can treat their crops with glyphosate to kill the weeds without harming the crops.

Golden Rice was engineered to increase vitamin A levels in plain rice. This GMO was produced due to widespread vitamin A deficiency in Asian countries, where rice is a dietary staple. In this case, by substituting some enzymes in rice for more useful ones found in other plants, scientists were able to improve the food’s nutritional value.

A final example is Bt corn crops.  Scientists inserted the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into corn, which acts as a stomach poison by binding to cells in the intestinal lining of insect larva. The Bt gene causes the larva to stop eating and die. Bt crops have gotten a bad reputation as toxic, but scientific studies show it is harmless and safe to humans and most other organisms.  Insects are unique and rely on an alkaline digestive track—by contrast, humans have acidic digestive tracts—and the protein that Bt crops expresses activates only after being exposed to alkaline conditions.

According to the FDA, 94 percent of all cotton, 93 percent of soybeans, and 88 percent of corn crops planted in the United States in 2012 were genetically engineered.  This biotechnology may play an integral role in meeting the future demands of our growing global population, but apples that won’t turn brown, “enviropigs” who generate more environmentally friendly manure, and “fast-growing” salmon are a bit disturbing.

However, the pressing issue is not your stance on genetically engineered food. It’s transparency from the companies that engineer our crops.

There must be better regulations on the part of the government to ensure that we are able make informed decisions about the food we choose to eat.  On November 6th, Californians will have the opportunity to make this happen through Proposition 37, which could also influence the rest of America, much as California's vehicle emissions standard prompted the strengthening of the federal standard. The proposition would require the labeling of foods with genetic material and also prohibit the advertising of such foods as “natural”.

Proposition 37 seems to have support of California’s majority, with polls showing that roughly 65 percent of Californians support the measure. However, the food companies are on the other side. Major corporations such as Monsanto are spending exorbitant amounts of money on campaigns against Proposition 37.  The labeling will likely affect the companies’ sales in a major way, and since food companies aren’t likely to label GMO food products only in California, this change could possibly be seen nationally.

We deserve the information that allows us to make informed decisions about the food we buy. Hopefully we will see positive changes toward this in the foreseeable future with Proposition 37.