Consumer Opinion of Genetically Modified Foods

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The Neolithic Revolution was a result of the transition from foraging nomads to producers in more settled civilizations in 10,000 B.C. (Bocquet-Appel, 2011) where present day Iraq is located (Prakash, 2001). The change to a more sedentary lifestyle is speculated to be in part due to the use of farming that spurred the development of agriculture (Dyson, 1964). Per experts, agriculture denotes the ways in which crops and livestock sustain the global human population by providing food and other products (Harris & Fuller, 2014). It was through tasting some presumed thousands of flowering plants that Mesopotamian-day humans eventually settled on the almost thousand crops they domesticated; and through this process they involuntarily performed selective breeding, thus altering the genetic makeup of the crops they farmed (Prakash, 2001). Selective breeding is a Darwin-coined concept that entails the process of only choosing plants or animals with desirable traits to reproduce.

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The consequences of the Neolithic Revolution resulted in a progressively drastic change in the phenotypes (characteristics) of plants that reduced the survivability of them in the wild, so they were dependent on human intervention to thrive in their new condition (Prakash, 2001). This form of genetic modification would persist in early Islamic times from the eighth to the twelfth century where Arabs diffused new plants to what was then al-Andalus (a medieval Islamic territory in the Iberian Peninsula) and experienced an augmentation of knowledge that regarded agriculture (Watson, 1974).

Developments in agriculture as per earlier human civilizations have proven fruitful for sustaining the global human population’s food supply for millennia, but once the world’s population finally hit the billion mark in 1804, a staggering exponential growth in population began to occur as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. It was the industrialization of Great Britain that in turn spurred Ireland’s and that of the United States and made way for technology that supported the mass-production of goods. The ascension of developing countries into the industrial world is a gradual transition that is seeing rapid population growth while it is still primarily made up of economies that are heavily dependent on agricultural labor. Sustaining the world’s population that now grows an additional billion every twelve years (Population Connection) is a global issue that although does not have one definite solution, can be alleviated by methods of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Per the Neolithic Revolution and the agricultural breakthroughs that have proceeded it, genetically altering foodstuff is not a new concept, but there is a global hostility towards taking the practice of artificial selection (selective breeding) to the gene level. In 1946, scientists first discovered that DNA can be transferred between organisms (Bawa & Anilakumar, 2013) and by 1973, the first genetically engineered organism was produced (Rangel, 2016). Ten years later, the first genetically modified (GM) plant was engineered (Bawa & Anilakumar, 2013). By the early 1990s, China became the first country to commercialize GM crops and the United States followed in suit with the marketing of the ‘Flavour Saver tomato’ upon FDA[footnoteRef:1] approval in 1994 (Bawa & Anilakumar, 2013). Genetically modified organisms are any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology as defined by the Cartagena Protocol[footnoteRef:2] (Siebenhüner, 2006). Two years after the GM tomato was introduced into consumer markets marked the start of the United States commercializing its genetically modified subsidized[footnoteRef:3] crops; cotton, maize and soybean with the exclusion of wheat (Bawa & Anilakumar, 2013). Currently, the United States is the top producer as it produces 39 percent of the global supply of GM crops, 90 percent of which is from the aforementioned subsidized crops (Kamle et al., 2017). Only ten of the 120 varieties of GM crops that are available are permitted for food and commercial use (Genetic Literacy Project). [1: the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy and security of drugs, biological products and medical devices as well as that of the United States national food supply and other commercial products] [2: an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biodiversity] [3: having part of the cost of production paid in order to keep the selling price low]

The FDA categorizes GM foods as being generally safe seeing as they are exempt from pre-market approval, but to supplement this absence of testing, the EPA[footnoteRef:4] regulates biopesticides (pesticides derived from natural materials), including Bt toxins under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (Federation of American Scientists) that are seen in insect-resistant crops. For herbicide-resistant crops, APHIS[footnoteRef:5] is specifically required to evaluate whether GM crops are a plant pest to agricultural crops, other plants and plant products under the Plant Protection Act (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). [4: Environmental Protection Agency] [5: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service]

Regardless of the measures taken to ensure the safety and efficacy of GM foods by federal organizations, the commercialization of GM crops in the United States has caused controversy (prolonged public disagreement). Reports show that although almost half (48%) of Americans believe that there is no difference between GM and non-GM foods, two-fifths (39%) believe that GM foods are worse for health than non-GM foods (Pew Research Center). It is also reported that more than half (55%) of Americans believe that organic foods and vegetables are better for health, which within this population, 81% of the participants expressed a great deal of concern for the issue of GM foods (Pew Research Center). Despite studies disproving the idea that organic foods are healthier than their GM counterparts (Brake et al., 2005; Chen et al., 2003; Haryu et al., 2009), the belief still persists. The accountability of scientists on the matter is also in question on behalf of the public as about 42% of Americans only have some kind of trust in scientists while 21% do not trust scientists at all regardless of how concerned they are about GM foods, usually because they believe that scientific findings about GM foods are influenced by researchers wanting to help their industries (78%), advancing their own careers (78%) or their political leanings (69%); the trust in food industry leaders is far lower (~10%) (Pew Research Center).

The purpose of this research is to seek out the root of consumer opinion regarding the GM food issue so as to gain insight on what factors influence said opinion while evaluating consumer attitudes towards the consumption of GM food as the belief that GM foods are beneficial and being open to consuming them are not positively correlated.

The first study that sparked controversy about GM foods was one that published that GM potatoes had adverse health effects on rats (Ewen & Pusztai, 1999). Rats and mice are used as supplements for humans because their responses to drugs, food and chemicals can predict human response as their physiology is correspondent to that of humans (Iannaccone & Jacob, 2009). Both short-term (10 days) and long-term trials (110 days) were part of the three-year study that consisted of feeding groups of rats raw or cooked potatoes, and one of the controls was feeding rats potatoes that had a GNA[footnoteRef:6] lectin[footnoteRef:7] protein. Pusztai’s findings were that the GNA lectin had variable effects on the rat gastrointestinal tract such as it thickening, and that the transgene could have contributed to the overall biological effects of the GM potato. The issue with Pusztai’s research was both the fact that a protein toxic to epithelium (tissue) was used as the transgene and that the GM potato was not substantially equivalent[footnoteRef:8] as its amounts of protein, sugar and starch varied as much as 20% from its non-GM counterpart, which as Pusztai claims, was enough of a basis to want to discontinue his work because it created a flaw in the experiment (Tokar, 2001). [6: Galanthus nivalis agglutinin is a blood aggregator derived from the snowdrop bulb] [7: carbohydrate-binding proteins that are especially toxic to gut tissue] [8: a concept from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which states that any novel food must be assessed to ensure that it is as safe as its traditional counterpart]

In comparison, the National Institute of Toxicological Research (NITR) in South Korea found that when they mixed a small portion of GM or non-GM potato into rodent powder chow and fed it to rats as animal pellets for the 10-week period before mating, post-mortem assessments (histopathology) of the liver, kidney, spleen and reproductive organs showed no conclusive statistical significance (Rhee et al., 2005). Statistical significance is often regarded as a 5% discrepancy between variables (Sproull, 2002). The only statistical difference is that of the fertility index of the first generation of rats out of the five which reported a 72% (male) and 78.3% (female) fertility rate in the GM group as opposed to the 100% fertility rate of the non-GM group. Despite the difference in fertility rates, neither groups’ gestation period, delivery or litter size varied significantly. In fact, by the second generation, the fertility rates for the non-GM group dropped to 92% (male) and 95.8% (female) and increased by 16% and 13.3% in the respective sexes of the GM group. From the second generation onto the fifth, there was no statistical significance. Inversely, in a study where the consumption of both GM and non-GM sweet pepper and tomato was magnitudes over the daily human average for a 30-day period, post-assessments on accounts of toxicity, genetic mutations and stomach, liver, heart, kidney, spleen and reproductive organs of weanling rats also showed no statistical significance (Chen et al., 2003).

Much like the other multigenerational study (Rhee et al., 2005), researchers at South Dakota State University studied the health safety of Bt corn through the surgical removal of the testes of male mice at 8, 16, 26, 32, 63 and 87 days after birth for four generations (Brake et al., 2004). The testes were used to evaluate the percentage of germ cell populations by means of flow cytometry[footnoteRef:9] because mammalian testicular cell populations are highly susceptible to some toxic agents (Brake et al., 2004). The research concluded that there was no difference in the testicular cell population of the mice fed the Bt corn (GM) diet or the mice fed the conventional (non-GM) corn. The Bt corn also had no measurable or observable effects on the mice from the fetal to adult testicular development, meaning that it is innocuous to reproductive organs. Both Brake and Rhee report no statistically significant differences for long-term studies that examine the reproductive organs of rodents and in the short-term, Chen reports the same. Taking into consideration the correspondence between rodent and human reactions to food, these studies imply that GM foods do not have adverse health effects on human reproductive organs. [9: a technique used to detect and measure physical and chemical characteristics of a population of cells or particles]

Furthering Brake’s findings, an almost 153-week study in which five generations of mice were assessed on accounts of growth, mating, gestation, milking periods, reproduction and life span while consuming a 68% Bt corn or non-Bt corn diet reported no statistical significance (Haryu et al., 2009). The multigenerational studies as well as the short-term study (Brake et al., 2004; Chen et al., 2003; Haryu et al., 2009; Rhee et al., 2005) all concluded that GM foods do not differ from non-GM foods.

While Brake examined reproductive health, this controversial study examined toxicology (Séralini et al., 2012). The research was designed to examine the long-term toxicity of rats that consumed GM corn with the herbicide Roundup over the course of two years. The study concluded that in females, all treated groups died 2 to 3 times more than the controls, and more rapidly, while this difference was only visible in 3 of the treated male groups and that the results were hormone and sex dependent. Séralini emphasized the implication that the increase in mammary tumors as seen in the rats would be correspondent in humans, but the strain of rat used in the study, Rattis norvegicus domesticus, is prone to developing mostly benign tumors at a high rate during its lifetime. Comparable to the nature of Pusztai’s findings, Séralini’s were also flawed.

It is not the amount of coverage that dictates the weight of an environmental risk topic, instead it is timeliness and human interest (Sandman, 1994).

Works Cited

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  2. Brake, D. G., Thaler, R., & Evenson, D. P. (2004). Evaluation of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) Corn on Mouse Testicular Development by Dual Parameter Flow Cytometry. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 52(7), 2097-2102. doi:10.1021/jf0347362
  3. Bocquet-Appel, J. (2011). When the World’s Population Took Off: The Springboard of the Neolithic Demographic Transition. Science, 333(6042), 560-561. doi:10.1126/science.1208880
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