Genetically modified organisms are very widespread. The few crops (and, as of just recently one animal) that are approved in the US have huge market share. This is simply because farmers like them. The GM qualities tend to improve yield and reduce cost. Plus, there is no evidence that eating GM crops causes any danger to anyone.
Still, there is a lot of uproar and label laws are relatively common. Some states have actually passed laws. Many of the laws have failed (and were not useful labeling laws anyway: here and here).
But what consumers haven’t seem to have picked up on and no laws have even been considered (that I’m aware of) is the use of genetically modified organisms to produce food enzymes.
Many proteins are enzymes. They act like a catalyst to speed up or slow down chemical reactions within our (and every other organism) bodies. These enzymes are what allows us to digest food and convert to fuel and nutrients in our bodies. An example used by people all over the world is rennet. This a collection of enzymes produced by cattle that curdles milk. In the stomach lining of calves, it makes milk more digestible.
We use it for making cheese. Traditionally, a cow had to be killed to get the rennet to make cheese. There are some alternate sources though. Vegetarians might approve of thistle or other planet-based enzymes that act as a curdling agent. There’s also a mold that can produce the enzymes. Apparently, mold-based rennet makes cheese bitter though.
By 2008, 80%-90% of the cheese made in both the US and UK are from a genetically modified microbial organism (GMMO). Current production is called fermentation-produced chymosin (that’s the enzyme). The genes from the cows are inserted into a fungus and commercial quantities of rennet are produced by the fungus.
At no point is the fungus itself involved in the cheese. The enzymes are made during fermentation. The fungus is killed and the chymosin is extracted. The chymosin is identical, in every way, as that made from a cow. It has several advantages. It can be made in commercial volumes. It can be made with a much higher concentration. The cheese manufacturing can be controlled better. And it’s purely vegetarian and kosher and non-fattening.
Except for the fact that the enzyme is made from a genetically engineered organism.
Which is interesting that the anti-GMO crowd isn’t freaking out about this. Of course, they also don’t freak out about bT when it’s sprayed on organic crops, just when the gene is put into the plant itself. Which is exactly the same thing that happens with rennet.
You will never see “rennet” and its source on the packaging of cheese. Both US and UK laws on food labeling make exceptions for “processing”. From the USDA, a processing substance is a
(a) substances that are added during the processing of a food but are removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form;
(b) substances that are added to a food during processing, are converted into constituents normally present in the food, and do not significantly increase the amount of the constituents naturally found in the food; or
(c) substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.
Here’s a partial list of enzymes that the FDA allows. But I specifically want to mention some that are from genetically modified microbial organisms.
α-Amylase is an enzyme that can be isolated from the fungus Aspergillus oryzae The enzyme is used to break down starches into sugars. In industrial food applications is is used in production of bread, maltose syrups, and fermentation of soya sauce, miso etc.
Ever drink that clear apple juice? Pectinesterase from GMMO fungi is used to extract more juice from the apply and improves fruit juice clarity.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin C are produced by GMMOs now instead of being made synthetically.
Invertase is used to break complex sugars down into simpler sugars (which taste sweeter). It is used in candy manufacturing (cordial cherries and fondant, for example). It’s produced by GMMO yeast in industrial quantities.
Even the textile industry uses enzymes from GMMOs (they also use GM cotton, which no one complains about either),
There are at least dozens of such enzymes. Perhaps even hundreds. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if the enzyme produced is made by a modified or non-modified organism.
GMOs are here and have been for decades. We have to accept it. Unless you grow and prepare all of your own food (and I mean milk, cheese, eggs, sugar, everything), it is not possible to avoid foods produced or processed with genetically modified materials.
Aside: In the research for this article, I came across research into a transgenic chicken that could not catch avain flu. Interesting stuff.