Bursting the Bubble

Is that a Strawberry?

21 November 2013 | by

The term ‘Genetically Modified’ often brings to mind negative images: a three eyed bird pecking at some corn; a grape whose juice is 100% chemicals; a strawberry version of the Hulk. With such radical images conjuring GMOs as unnatural, many people put GMOs into the ‘avoid at all costs’ category, and therefore it is not surprising that in most EU member states, the public perception of GMOs is low. While this may have to do with the frequent confusion between genetic modifications and chemical use, as I sit here enjoying a bowl of seedless grapes – I ponder on whether the public perception of GMOs is more a result of portrayal or preference than actual risk to consumers.

I do concede that a thumb sized strawberry grown in the backyard will always be tastier than a genetically modified strawberry as big as my fist, but if I am to be entirely honest, if either is served to me I will consume it. While this may be indicative of my studies of genetics at university, or my substantial exposure to GMOs growing up, I do wonder what the big hesitation about increasing crop yield, or eliminating the seeds in my grapes, is? I am not arguing that all GMOs are good, but that people need to look at the science behind GM food, specifically produce, to weigh out whether eating a strain of draught hardy corn is really a danger to your health.

After the 1990s food crises, the EU put forward a complex legal regulation for the production and distribution of GM food in the single market citing the objectives of public health, consumer protection, and an effective internal market (Article 6, 12, 26.2 TFEU). The most recent rules on GM food and animal feed are Regulations 1829/2003 and 1830/2003. While many have tried for a more centralised regulatory process to achieve the effective market objective, the risk assessment and management phases are controlled by the separate member states. Therefore, the contemplated second form of GM maize in early November would be only the third GM crop approved for cultivation in Europe (MON810 maize is most widely grown, with Amflora potatoes grown for industrial use). Some countries have specifically put forth laws against these approved crops, so you will not find these in all member states.

I must repeat that Genetically Modified produce does not mean that more chemicals are used in its production. We are all aware that eating produce with large amounts of chemicals is bad, and thankfully the EU has regulations in place to protect consumers as well as the environment from this. Genetically Modified produce is a modern tool for selective breeding. While farmers, years ago, found that they could selectively breed livestock so that pigs had extra ribs, cows were larger, or racing horses were faster, produce is a bit harder to selectively cultivate. Modern recombinant genetic technology is used to alter the genome of the produce strain so that it favours the expression of certain traits, like grapes being without seeds or strawberries being larger in size. The current GM maize strain approved in the EU is hardier concerning pests, increasing the farmers’ ability to have a sufficient crop yield and reduce the cost of corn at the stores.

Genetic technology is a very powerful tool for modern day food demands. People use modern genetic technology in medicine for genetic disorders (gene therapy), to screen embryos at fertility clinics, to create vaccines and to treat other serious disorders such as diabetes, pituitary gland failure, or hemophilia. Not to mention the use of this technology in pets which is becoming more common (hairless or glowing animals). Or for those of you receiving flowers: have you asked if the scentless flower or the blue rose is all natural? Does it need to be monitored and heavily regulated, of course it does. But much as I see the benefits of having the recombinant blood clotting protein factor VIIII as an option for those with hemophilia, there are benefits to re-examining the acceptance of GM food, specifically produce. European Academies Science Advisory Council thoroughly examined GMOs and concluded that the EU must reconsider its stance against GMOs, this was supported by EU chief scientist Anne Glover.

Many have said that GMOs are a way to solve world hunger, and with the ability to select strains which are resilient and have more crop yield, this is a logical step. The increased use of resilient yield GMOs around the world for domestic use strengthens the question of what is bad about GMOs? – is it the genetic selection or the assumption that there is also an increased use in chemicals? If the latter, it must be reiterated that genetic modification does not always involve chemicals.

Opponents object most strongly if there is a lack of traceability and identification of GMO produce. With the increased prevalence of imported produce from outside the EU, many of the strains may in fact have been genetically altered at one point, though now it may be forgotten due to the different systems of GMO tracking in other countries. Yet, if the produce still passes the health standards tests and requirements, does it really matter? The European Union and its member states have recently been reviewing policies concerning genetic modification of food. While I do believe that, when possible, consumers should be informed about a genetic modification so they can make an informed decision, if the produce meets all required health standards, the fact that it was selectively bred, using modern technology, should not keep it from the consumer. With the debate about allowing the second GM maize in Europe this month, the debate about GMOs will likely continue to be controversial in the European Union, particularly with the potential trade pact with the United States, where 80% of its most prevalent crop – corn – is genetically modified.

3 Comments

  1. You would be seriously interested in the work of Kevin Folta in debunking some of the crazy misperceptions about GMOs. He offered to help trace the Evil creations of GMOs using verifiable science and all they did was call him names / refuse to let him help. Great point about other uses of genetic technologies!

  2. I started looking into The Strawberry when recently I purchased some in my local supermarket and observed that they appeared to have a very different shape – an elongated rather than recognizable plump oval shape we all recognize as a strawberry. When I cut into it the interior was quite hollow. The bottom line for any and all strawberries, altered or not, should be taste and this one lacked the discernable juicy strawberry taste that we all enjoy. In reading the company label on the package it was titled ‘Strawberries Fraises’ – so I checked out another company label and found the same title which left me to wonder as to the origin of this particular name and if it is indeed a title for a GM strawberry – altered in some way to add to the shelf life at the cost of flavor.

  3. Fran – Usually it is quantity or size over quality, or more bang for the buck. Genetic modification is great considering the food shortages that are predicted around the world and it is scientifically no more harmful than regular strawberries, but in general the sweetest berries are the small ones in your back garden. Plus right now it is not typical strawberry season, so in general berries grown out of season will not be as tasty. Some GMs have learned over time to improve the taste as well as the size, but the first priority was making sure it was just as safe, and the it was bigger.
    The way I consider it is that I would rather – if quantity is being strived for – have GMs used though they may lower taste instead of all the chemicals sprayed in South America which will harm you.

What do you think?