Genetically modified (GM) foods and food irradiation are common terms in news reports and more often than not, these subjects come with a debate. Scientists are either for or against them, and the sea of information in various magazines and online sources, can confuse the general public. What exactly is food irradiation and is it necessary? How exactly are GM foods produced? What are the safety concerns and long term effects? In order to separate the truth from the hype we need to take a look at what the latest scientific research has to say about all these ‘trends’ and mutant foods within the food industry.
The process of food irradiation is a popular debate, in fact just the word irradiation can have a negative impact and more often than not consumers avoid such products or even protest against them. Their production is banned in the UK and the legislation is very strict in terms of import and labelling of such products.
But what exactly is irradiation and what does it involve? It is simply a processing technique that exposes food to electron beams, X-rays or gamma rays. The process produces a similar effect to pasteurisation, cooking or other forms of heat treatment, but with less effect on look and texture. Irradiated food has been exposed to radioactivity but does not become radioactive itself. However, food absorbs energy when it is exposed to ionising radiation. The amount of energy absorbed is called ‘absorbed dose’, and is measured in units called grays (Gy) or kilograys (kGy). The energy absorbed by the food causes the formation of short-lived molecules called free radicals, which delay fruit ripening and help stop vegetables, such as potatoes from sprouting and also kill bacteria that cause food poisoning. Therefore, the potential benefits of irradiation for the global food industry could be immense.
However, the main concern of scientists and consumers is of course the safety of such products. Decades of research worldwide have shown that irradiation of food is a safe and effective way to kill bacteria in foods and extend its shelf life. Food irradiation has been examined thoroughly by numerous committees and organisations including the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and by a House of Lords committee. In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (FSA) reviewed the evidence and reasserted the opinion that food irradiation is safe.
So why do consumers still avoid irradiated products? Mainly, it is the fear that products will become radioactive which would pose a serious risk to health. However, scientists have shown that this is not the case. In fact, all food preservation techniques cause chemical changes in food; that is how they work. The changes caused by food irradiation (for example the production of free radicals) are similar in nature and extent to those caused by other preservation techniques, such as canning, pasteurisation and cooking. There may be some vitamin loss but this would occur with any other preservation technique or even just long-term storage. There is no evidence that any of the changes caused by food irradiation pose a risk to the health of consumers.
The European Commission has agreed a list of irradiated foods that can be freely traded across the European Union (EU). However, the Food Irradiation (England) Regulations of 2009 set out the requirements for producing, importing and selling irradiated food in the UK. There are seven categories of food which may be irradiated: fruit, vegetables, cereals, dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings, poultry, fish and shellfish, bulbs and tubes. For each category the ‘maximum overall average dose’ that can be used is specified in units of kilograys (kGy) and is considered safe.
Genetically Modified (GM) Foods
With all of the controversy around genetically modified (GM) foods, it can be quite difficult to make sense of the huge volumes of information. There are many questions and concerns about GM foods and their effects on consumers’ health and the environment. Of course, there are different advantages and disadvantages regarding such products, although to what extent they can help or harm humans and the environment is debatable.
Genetic modification is the process of altering the genes of a plant, animal or micro-organism, or inserting a gene from another organism. Genes, which are made up of DNA, carry the instructions for all the characteristics that an organism inherits. In more detail, genetic modification is achieved by altering DNA, or by introducing genetic material from one organism into another; either from a different variety of the same species or a different species altogether. For example, genes can be introduced from one plant to another plant, from a plant to an animal, or from a micro-organism to a plant. This allows the production of plants and animals with specific qualities more accurately and efficiently than through traditional methods. It also allows genes to be transferred from one species to another to develop characteristics that would be very difficult or even impossible to achieve through traditional breeding.
But why would anyone involve genetics with food products? Well, GM foods can be engineered to have a high content of a specific nutrient that is lacking in the diet of a local population group. For example, the vitamin A rich ‘golden rice’ has been engineered to have high levels of a nutrient and was successfully used to reduce vitamin A deficiency, the main cause of child blindness in the developing world. Maybe this technology could be the answer to food insecurity in developing countries, but this remains to be seen.
Genes can also be ‘switched’ on or off to change the way a plant or animal develops. For example, the gene for softening a fruit could be switched off so that although the fruit ripens in the normal way, it will not soften as quickly. Moreover, a gene with a particular characteristic, such as resistance to a specific herbicide, can be introduced into a crop plant. When that herbicide is sprayed on the field to kill the weeds, it will not affect the growth of the crops. In a similar way, genetic modification can be used to reduce the amount of pesticide that is used by altering a plant’s DNA so that it can resist particular insect pests. In addition, it can give crops immunity to plant viruses. In animals bred for food production, genetic modification could potentially increase how fast they grow and to what size. As a result, the beneficial aspects of this process could be great for the future of the food industry.
The rest of the world does not share Europe’s concerns about GM technology. GM crops account for more than 10% of the world’s crops. However, only a small amount of such products are imported in the UK and legislation states they need to be clearly labelled. The main issues with this technology are the ability of a GM food to trigger an allergy in humans, and also the fear that new diseases may emerge due to the use of bacteria and viruses for the DNA modification of certain products. Also, from an ethical point of view, people are against practices which may harm the ecosystem and genetic alteration of crops is definitely the prime example. These are some of the main reasons the majority of consumers avoid GM products and may oppose to their production and import.
In conclusion, it is a fact that farming technology could provide answers and may offer solutions to future food issues. At the moment we are facing a food crisis. Most estimates suggest we need to double the amount of food we produce in the next 50 years. Manufacturing processes like genetic technology and irradiation could be incredibly powerful tools if used properly by scientists and seen and without prejudice from consumers. On the other hand, at the end of the day food production should be carried out according to the principles each individual believes in. The main take home message is to be open-minded about new technologies. Equip yourself with an overview of the existing knowledge and make an informed decision about how this technology may affect your life. ‘Mutant’ foods are definitely food for thought…
By Kleio Bathrellou