Quinn on Nutrition: Genetically altered foods

April 17, 2017

My editor forwarded this voicemail to me: "Good morning. This is Mrs. Mary Margaret Graham ... like the crackers … from Carmel. I’d like you to do an article on genetically altered foods. I was at a ladies club this past week and all we could talk about was food and how it affects us. We are starting to suffer from overpopulation and if we don’t have food we’re out of luck! So we’d like to get an article on this genetically altered food. Thank you very much for your efforts on behalf of some of us older ladies, so we know what’s good for us and what we should avoid."

Glad to, as you bring up the concerns of all of us who eat for a living, including farmers and food producers. And timely, too, as I just attended an update on this very topic sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) — the world’s largest organization of nutrition professionals — in collaboration with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) — food scientists from more than 90 countries whose goal (according to their website) is to provide "every person on the planet with a safe, nutritious and sustainable food supply." 

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living thing that has had its genetic material altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetic engineering (GE) is the term for the technology scientists use to transfer individual genes from one living thing to the other. 

Red flag? Consider what genes are and what they do. Genes determine individual characteristics of living things — yours or mine or those of a turnip. Genes are not the characteristics themselves, however. They are the instructions that cells follow to make proteins that control our genetic destiny. Think of your genetic code (or that of a turnip) as a recipe book. Cells follow these recipes to make proteins that determine our unique attributes. 

Genes are what make an orange different from spinach, for example. But what if an orange tree was being attacked by a bug that spread a bacteria that killed the tree and its fruit? And what if farmers were not able to eradicate this bug, even with pesticides and other strategies? And what if researchers discovered in the genetic code book for spinach a recipe (gene) for a protein that renders spinach immune to the a bacteria that is now destroying orange trees? 

That’s exactly what is happening in Florida where a reported 80 percent of that state’s citrus trees are being destroyed by a bacteria that causes a condition called "citrus greening." Plant pathologist Erik Mirkov from Texas A&M University discovered that spinach contains a protein that resists this bacteria. And when he inserted this particular recipe into orange plants, he was able to grow orange trees that produced proteins that protected orange trees from this bad bug.

Would you drink orange juice from a tree that was "genetically modified" in this way? Many orange farmers are afraid you would not. And so the debate continues.

For the record, study after study has determined that genetically altered food is exactly the same chemically and nutritionally as non-GMO foods. That’s one reason why the US Food and Drug Administration has not mandated labeling of foods produced with biotechnology. Food producers can voluntarily provide that information, however. 

Still, the issue of which foods we choose to eat (and why) remains a personal one. Sometimes it helps to understand what we are really talking about, however. Thanks for your question, Mary Margaret.




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