The first time I heard about Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) was on a radio programme. The guest to the programme talked about the risk and dangers associated with genetically modified (GM) foods. I was not comfortable with what I heard. This led me to do my own research on GMO as well as GM foods. The more I learnt, the more I saw the urgency to educate the public about this threat to health and life called GMO.
Nigeria has already started approving GM foods and we have been consuming them. The majority of the public do not know they are consuming GM foods. In fact, many people just do not know what a GM food is and when I ask some if they have heard about GMO, the answer I get is “No.” It is therefore important that the public be educated about GMO so that they can make informed choices about GM foods.
Genetic engineering involves the permanent alteration of the genetic blueprint of a seed or an organism. Scientists hope that by modifying a seed’s hereditary makeup, a plant grown from the seeds and its descendants forever, will have certain traits. Genetically modified organisms or GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering. Genetically modified crops or GM crops are those engineered to introduce a new trait into the species.
There are different names for genetically engineered foods: “transgenic,” “genetically altered,” “genetically modified,” and “biotech” foods. All of these names mean the same thing. Preferring the term “biotech,” the corporations into genetic engineering have spent millions of dollars on marketing campaigns so that Americans and the rest of the world refer to the industry as “biotechnology.” They prefer “biotechnology” to “genetically modified organisms.”
According to John Robbins, the first genetically engineered food sold in the United States was the “FlavrSavr” tomato.
The Calgene Corporation (now a subsidiary of Monsanto) isolated the tomato gene that codes for a ripening enzyme, then found a way to alter the gene to block the expression of that enzyme. The company hoped thereby to produce a tomato that would have an extended shelf life; after it was picked, it would not continue to ripen but would instead remain firm.
The FlavrSavr tomato was announced with great fanfare in 1995, and the company planned to bring the variety to market as high-end gourmet product. But things didn’t work out as the people who created it had wanted. The tomato turned out to have reduced yields and disease resistance. And contrary to Calgene’s expectations, the tomatoes were so soft and bruised easily that they had no appeal at all as fresh produce.
At first, Calgene put labels on the tomatoes saying they were genetically engineered, hoping that the scientific aura of such a label would heighten demand for the tomatoes and allow them to be sold for a higher price. But when consumers responded warily to the labels, not only Calgene but the entire genetic industry learned a lesson it would not forget. Since that time, the industry has not labeled any genetically engineered foods. And it has gone further than that. With political allies, the industry has fought unceasingly against labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods.
Having been burned when it informed consumers that the FlavrSavr tomato was genetically altered, Calgene next tried marketing the very same genetically altered tomatoes under the friendly sounding “MacGregor” brand name. The new name was deliberately chosen to obscure the reality that the tomato had an altered genome. The company learned well the value of nondisclosure.1
Even though consumers did not know that MacGregor tomato was genetically modified, it failed. Calgene hoped that by altering a gene the tomato’s shelf life will be extended. The altered gene turned out to have many other effects besides the one they had planned. Concerns about the nutritional value and evidence that pathogenic bacteria in the intestines of people who ate the tomato could become resistant to antibiotic were two issues that arose.
In 1996, the MacGregor tomato was pulled from the market only a year after it was introduced. It was the same year that Monsanto purchased Calgene.
- John Robbins, The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life And Our World, 2011, Conari Press, San Francisco, pp. 244-245.