Genetically modified (GM) foods or crops have become increasingly common in recent years—a development that has incited considerable controversy both within and beyond the scientific community. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for the average consumer to find out if what they’re eating, drinking, or wearing has undergone genetic modification. Following is a list of the most common foods (or crops) that tend to be genetically modified in some way:
As the world’s single largest cotton-producing country, China has been using genetic modification techniques on its cotton crops for over 15 years in order to fight the bollworm, a persistent pest that attacks the protective shell which houses the growing cotton ball (this shell is called the “boll”). The use of Bt cotton, which has been genetically engineered to carry a kind of natural pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis, has been important in helping cotton farmers to reduce pesticide spraying. Unfortunately, while the Bt pesticide may work for the bollworm, it has so far proven ineffective for other problematic pests such as the mirid bug.
The first GM food to be widely available in the US was a tomato: the Flavr Savr tomato, to be precise. As early as 1994, this tomato was engineered so as not to produce polygalacturonase, the enzyme which kicks off the decomposition process. Without this enzyme, Flavr Savr tomatoes could ripen fully on the vine and still enjoy a reasonable shelf life in stores, thus helping to reduce the practice of harvesting tomato crops early and artificially ripening them later on. However, after Flavr Savr’s inventor raised concerns about possible harmful side effects, the tomato and other GM foods were banned from major food chains. Today, no genetically modified tomatoes are being grown commercially or sold in Europe or North America. Nevertheless, it is important to note their role in the rise of genetically modified foods.
As is the case with most GM foods, the goal in engineering rice is to increase its resistance to pests, an important objective given that rice is a staple food crop for over half of the world’s population. Thus far, China has been leading the research into genetically engineered rice, and while early results suggest that farmers may not need to use any pesticides at all on the modified crops—a significant reduction from the current four per-year rate on the average rice farm—it is not yet known whether there could be any possible side effects to using these new strains. One strain of pest-resistant rice has received approval in the US, but it has so far it has not been used by farmers.
The US is the world’s largest corn producer, and the vegetable appears in one form or another in a wide range of food products, including beer, margarine, flour, and anything with corn syrup. Corn can also be found in fuel and industrial chemicals. In addition to being one of the most widespread crops in the United States, it is also one of the most heavily modified. As far back as 2000, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that 25% of US-grown corn crops contained GM corn. However, the question of whether or not we are actually eating genetically modified corn is a more challenging one to answer. While most GM corn is grown for purposes other than human consumption, the fact that corn is wind-pollinated means there is always a concern that fields of GM corn will unintentionally contaminate unmodified strains nearby.
Even more heavily modified than corn is soy. GM strains accounted for more than half of the world’s soy crops in 2007. This high percentage is likely due to the variety of purposes for which soy is modified, which include increased resistance to pests and fungus, as well as enriched vitamin, fat, or protein content to make it more suitable for animal feed. Soy is also a key ingredient in the creation of chemicals used in the pharmaceutical industry. Given such a high degree of modification, most food containing soy will likely contain some genetically modified material.
As 80% of Western Canada’s canola crops are transgenic, canola oil is one of the most widely used GM foods. Canola is modified to have a greater resistance to certain herbicides, resulting in lower pesticide use, easier weed control, and higher crop yields. However, unlike some other crops, GM canola comes with an unusual side effect: it produces one of the main pollens that is used in making honey. According to a study conducted by German scientists, as much as one-third of the pollen found in Canadian honey originated from GM canola. What this means is that unless it is otherwise labelled, any honey produced in Canada could potentially contain genetically modified material.