There is no denying that we are in the midst of a global food crisis, and that more than ever, there is a great disparity between the way classes of people are able to feed their families. Is this a natural evolution — an unavoidable result of humanity's occupation of the earth? Or is human kind actually pushing itself further into a food crisis with the technologies they claim will help it?
In Syfy's Helix, a cult is playing God with the global food supply, with potentially catastrophic effects. Although the show looks at a very specific instance of food supply manipulation, it makes one think — are the things humanity is already doing to control and change the food supply actually going to help us?
Whoever coined the phrase, "teach a man to fish" as a solution to hunger had no idea what food processes would look like in the 21st century. In the past twenty years, over 35 species of fish, some which may soon be approved for human consumption, have been genetically engineered to reproduce and grow at faster rates than natural. Meanwhile, there are people fighting global hunger who look to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to feed our growing global population and improve the lives of the poor. After all, GMOs have already been engineered to produce nutrient enriched foods, increase growing capabilities, and reduce allergens. Many are concerned, however, that the companies that produce them are simply "playing god" and putting our health, and the environment's, at stake.
In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen became the first to accomplish the process of artificial gene transplanting with living organisms, paving the way for GMOs as we know them today. Whether specific target genes were moved from like organisms (cigenesis) or from different organisms (transgenesis), if they were extracted and transplanted artificially, they would have produced a modified organism. The idea of 'Frankenfood' can be difficult to digest, but it's not such a stretch from methods as old as food cultivation itself.
Farmers have always utilized research, practice, and technology to manipulate crops for next generations. Where genetic engineering moves specific genes from one organism to another, selective crossbreeding has essentially moved thousands of genes back and forth. The results are the everyday fruits and vegetables we eat today. Think, tomato. Most tomatoes you'll find in a supermarket hardly resemble the misshapen fruits of all sizes and varied colors, which were once rumored to be poisonous. After hundreds of years of farmers cross breeding different varieties, the plump, sweet, and red tomato as we know it today, emerged.
Unfortunately, we know little about the consequences of this contemporary process, especially from transgenic foods, in which donor organisms are different from their recipients. Even more troubling is the lack of transparency from corporations that produce GMOs. Their fight against labeling has prodded critics of genetic engineering to dig into various ways in which they might be harmful to our bodies, and to the planet.
One of the main concerns with GMOs is the lack of information about their long-term impact on our health. We wonder will they kill us? The federal Food and Drug Administration claims all modified foods on the market have been thoroughly evaluated for their safety, toxicity, allergen levels, and longterm impact. Meanwhile, highly controversial studies show significant health deterioration in rats that have consumed GM foods for sustained periods. The contradictions within this debate are troubling, and lead to a myriad of other concerns not legitimately addressed by the GMO industry.
Another major issue posed by critics of GMOs are the threats to biodiversity that come with a reliance on GM seeds. If we wipe out all but engineered crops, we risk losing certain foods entirely, should those crops become susceptible to disease. This would increase dependency on imported GMOs for food aid, as opposed to support for local food economies worldwide, which might truly resolve hunger. This threat is made all the more real as big businesses continue to dominate in agriculture, and shut down small farms everywhere using non-GM seeds and growing different crop varieties.
In general, the gaze on modification tends to focus on its positive and negative global impacts (eradicating hunger, but also biodiversty). The resulting claims are about the potential hazards, or intended benefits. How would our relationship to GMOs shift if we imagined their production in terms of their localized problems and solutions?
For one, identifying GMOs on food labels would give consumers choosing power. While some may always prefer non-GMO foods, others might go for products that have reduced chemical spray usage because they've been designed to produce their own internal pesticide. Others will always support more local products, whether they've been engineered or not.
What's key is an investment into more comprehensive and accessible research about the engineering, growing practices, health and environmental impact of GMOs. As an option, these foods hold huge transformative power. But as big businesses increase our dependence on manufactured organisms, we risk catastrophic damages to our crop diversity, to our health, and sustainable solutions to hunger.
For a look at a potential future that will make you think harder about the technologies that are informing where you get your food, tune into all new episodes of Syfy's Helix, Fridays at 10/9c premiering January 16th.