There have recently been protests against biotechnology firms and products. Many signs people were shown waving in the protests were perplexing to say the least. Demonstrations of this nature raise the question as to what foods could be constituted as genetically modified.
In Canada, it has been estimated that GM food and food ingredients are detectable in 11 percent of food consumed, and might be present (but often not detectable) in up to 75 percent of the processed food sold in stores.
Examples include cheeses that contain GM enzymes and gum that uses sweeteners derived from GM corn.
The use of GM ingredients in food processing is predominantly for minor additives that make up a small fraction of the total content of the food product.
In terms of whole food products that we might consume, there are two GM products that could be included in our diet. GM papaya and GM sweet corn are both currently produced for human consumption.
An estimated 85 percent of papaya produced in Hawaii is from GM varieties. In the early 1990s, the Hawaiian papaya industry was facing a devastating virus that was rapidly reducing production to the point of it no longer being economically feasible.
Virus resistance was bred into the GM varieties, resulting in a current strong and healthy industry. In December 2011, the Japanese government approved the importation of GM papaya after a 13 year assessment process.
GM sweet corn is estimated to account for about 40 percent of sweet corn production in the United States, based on seed sales. Prior to GM sweet corn, the only way for producers to minimize the presence of insects in their fields was to spray insecticides, and to do this often.
In the U.S., sweet corn accounts for less than one percent of total corn acres, but accounts for 40 percent of insecticide applications.
Some estimates suggest that producers are able to reduce their insecticide use by 85 percent.
Two other GM whole foods have appeared on the market, but were subsequently withdrawn. GM tomatoes were produced in the U.S., but the cost of production was substantially higher than the benefits of a longer shelf life.
GM potatoes that required fewer insecticides were also briefly available, until the fast food industry rejected using them due to pressures from environmental non-governmental organizations.
The ironic thing was that producers had reported that prior to using GM potatoes, heavy rains would wash the insecticides from the fields to the waterways, killing fish. With less insecticide use on the GM potatoes, fish kills noticeably declined. A logical person would see the decline in fish kills as an environmental benefit.
None of the other whole foods that we consume as part of our daily diet are GM. GM varieties of canola and soybeans exist, but are not consumed as whole foods, but are rather used as ingredients in animal feed. In terms of an average human’s annual diet, the consumption of whole GM foods would account for a fraction.
Food production has always been based on the premise of “producing more with less.” GM sweet corn is a good example of this as the use of insecticides is substantially de-creased. The same could be said of the short life of GM potatoes.
As the global population continues its surge toward nine billion, the consumption of GM foods will need to increase. Protesting the production of GM foods is a luxury afforded to affluent societies.
As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has indicated, to meet growing demands, the production of agricultural products will need to increase by an estimated 70 percent worldwide, and by almost 100 percent in developing countries.
That long-held staple of agriculture, “produce more with less” supports the increased production of GM foods.