As it turns out, even vitamin-rich fruits like bananas have the potential to be more nourishing. Scientists are working to enhance already nutritious foods as part of major global health initiatives, spurring discussion about the role of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in our diets.
Engineered food has long been a source of controversy and misconception, but the prospects for these modified products have scientists and humanitarians excited for the innovations to come.
Among the newest advances in GMO technology are beta-carotene-infused Golden Rice and "super" bananas. People who are malnourished could greatly benefit from the addition of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, to prevent childhood blindness and even death from vitamin deficiency. The bananas will soon be tested on human study subjects in the U.S.
Three food and nutrition experts sounded off on the risks and benefits of GMOs and the ethics of providing these foods to children in developing countries.
Are GMOs Safe?
GMOs might seem like a futuristic concept, but as many proponents stress, the practice of engineering food has been around for centuries. What we know as GMOs are built on human interaction with crops dating further back than even Gregor Mendel’s famous experiments with cross-breeding pea plants in the 1800s.
“Modern technology has refined what we’ve been doing for 10,000 years,” said Alan McHughen, Ph.D., a biotechnologist and geneticist in the department of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside. “Nothing we eat is the same as what Mother Nature made.”
But clearly, the technology has become far more advanced, raising questions about the safety profile of these foods. Even the experts don’t agree on the benefits of certain kinds of food engineering, especially to add nutrients.
Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj, Medical Director of the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute, is especially concerned with how these extra nutrients will interact with the collection of helpful bacteria in the human gut called the gut microbiome. Maharaj worries about the immune system’s reaction to these nutrient-enhanced foods.
“We don’t know ... how modifying the food would affect the microbiome,” Maharaj said. He believes that these GMOs could be superfluous when “the microbiome actually produces the nutrients that are needed for healthy living.”
What's the Best Way to Deliver Nutrients?
Rebecca Solomon, a certified dietitian and nutritionist and Director of Clinical Nutrition at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, advocates for untouched crops and conventional vitamin supplements.
“Good old-fashioned vitamin/mineral supplementation would be better and safer than genetic modification of crops, if the food sources of the nutrients themselves cannot be obtained,” which, she said, would be the best way to improve people's diets.
The fact that these GMO experiments are geared toward people in impoverished countries with limited access to nutrient-rich food raises its own set of questions about the ethics of engineered food experiments.
“Because we can’t possibly know about the long-term consequences and health risks of GM crops, using ‘poor countries’ as human subjects to study the efficacy of GMOs helping to reduce malnutrition is clearly an ethical problem,” Solomon said.
On the flip side, McHughen views not exploring the benefits of GMOs as the real moral failure, by giving up the opportunity to nourish people and to solve problems like vitamin A deficiency blindness. He also notes that the decision to eat GMOs is voluntary for participants in these studies. However, in one Chinese trial of Golden Rice, three officials were fired for failing to disclose that subjects were consuming genetically modified rice, highlighting the need for transparency in GMO studies.
GMOs aren’t to be feared, but rather, to be continuously researched. There is still dissent among food and nutrition experts, but one point they agree on is the need for consumers to educate themselves about the effects of GMOs, especially as these products make their way into local supermarkets.
“It disturbs me greatly that people are getting these misconceptions not only about GMOs, but food in general,” McHughen said. “If only our society knew more about how food was produced in the first place I think we would overcome those deficiencies.”