By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
I’m concerned about “organically” grown and “genetically modified” foods. Would you please give me your opinion on these two types of food?
Usually we try to give more than our opinion, as well as the most balanced answer in light of the evidence. Unfortunately, in this situation the evidence seems somewhat ambiguous, but we will attempt some answers.
First, let’s tackle the organically grown foods. When organic initially became a popular term, it could have been said that more “organic” food was sold than grown. The situation, though, has changed dramatically since then, with regulations in place that don’t permit foods to be labeled “organic” unless stringent rules are followed. The list includes the absence of pesticides and, in the case of dairy, hormonal stimulation, and so forth. These rules result in a product free of any “contamination” by herbicides, pesticides, artificial substances, and farming practices that push productivity as the final goal in agriculture. It’s such “factory” farming methods that have so repulsed those of us who have watched productions such as Food, Inc. that portray what amounts to the use of animals as mere tools in producing food. The methods employed by these factory farms would tend to desensitize people working them to the need of animals for compassionate care and, in some ways, dehumanize us, making for callous indifference. The argument that such methodologies are necessary in order to feed the world ring hollow when agricultural subsidies of the U.S. government have paid farmers not to farm some of their lands. Yet, with changing climatic conditions, it could be that within a few years we would face food shortages.
A vegetarian lifestyle utilizes far less energy and would provide many times more available nutrients than does the process of raising meat. This having been said, our digestive tract is, in reality, a demolition agency, breaking down ingested food to its basic components. Legislation limits the use and type of pesticides, for example, to comply with standards of minimal content. To date, though emotional arguments are made, there is no hard data that inorganically grown food is nutritionally inferior to organic, or vice versa—that organically grown food is nutritionally superior.
These are economically hard times, and to pay more for organic food with no measurable benefit may be irrational where children have to be fed and nurtured and money is tight.
When it comes to genetically engineered foods, we again face a dilemma. For centuries farmers have utilized what I call “genetic juggling.” The best seeds from the best crops have been selected for the next year’s crop. When wheat was found in a pharaoh’s tomb, it was vastly inferior to the wheat grown on a modern farm. The selection of productive strains over less-productive ones has gone on for a long, long time; what has us concerned is the cross-species transfer of genetic snippets. These have been utilized to make crops resistant to herbicide, to help the plant produce “natural” insecticide, or, for example, to have a shorter growing period.
Those who fear the nutritional alteration of food probably have little evidence to support an opinion against genetically modified food. We may say the strawberries don’t taste as good as the old-fashioned ones, or the tomatoes don’t have the glorious smell they used to have, but the genetically selected traits that stop spoilage and prolong the fruits’ viability are what allow us to eat them out of season or import them from southern climes. Of course, bottling, canning, and drying foods that are in season would permit year-round access to some 90 percent of the nutrients. When millions of acres are planted to monoculture crops, some ecologic concerns surface. Will whole tribes of insect life be wiped out? What if plants such as rape (canola) become invasive and we can’t kill them off?
I recently saw a genetically modified salmon, three to four times the size of its “natural” cousin. Sure, it provides more fish and looks and tastes the same as the other, but do the genes that promote such growth mean the balance of nature will be changed?
Many Adventists worry that genetic modification may alter the clean and unclean recommendations of the Bible if, for example, a “clean” fish is given genes of an “unclean” fish. We do not have answers to these previously unthinkable concepts. Each of us will have to reason our way through the issues.
For a vegetarian, it’s not as complicated. When we eat a red or orange bell pepper and realize its color comes from a tulip, it does not seem as problematic as eating salmon whose phenomenal growth came from an eellike fish.
There’s absolutely no nutritional evidence of danger relating to genetically modified foods, so it’s wise to remember that the focus is on the ecology and the balance of nature.
Send your questions to Ask the Doctors, Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904. Or e-mail them to [email protected]. Allan R. Handysides, M.B., CH.B., FRCPC, FRCSC, FACOG, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries department. Peter N. Landless, M.B., B.CH., M.MED., F.C.P. (SA), F.A.C.C., is ICPA executive director and an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. This article was published December 16, 2010.