I’m unsure if any word conjures up a more spirited debate in the food industry than “GMO.” Genetically modified organisms have been a hot topic in the industry, with critics claiming they are unnatural and unhealthy, while proponents have noted how vital they are to improving food security around the world. Major chains, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, have even removed them from their menus entirely, potentially causing supply chain woes. And the movement appears to be spreading. These GMOs, however, are often limited entirely to crops and feed. Sourcing ingredients from gentically-modified livestock is not yet a concern for the world’s food supply, although scientists have successfully modified animals in the past. Some argue the use of this technology on animals represents a bold frontier that may be the key to the future of food security.
NPR’s Tania Lombrozo wrote a great piece regarding public perception when it comes to GMOs. One point worth highlighting is this: American consumers tend to favor cisgenic modification to transgenic modification when it comes to food sources. For reference, cisgenic modification regards the alteration of an animal’s genes within the natural scope (think changing a human eye color from blue to brown) while transgenic modification regards changes outside that natural scope (like splicing another animal’s genes into the human eye so that it can now register infared or ultraviolet light). This insight gives us a view into the American consumer when it comes to GMOs. Most Americans want natural food that is untouched, and if it has to be modified, they want it to remain within that elusive “natural” arena. It also begs another question: if the American consumer can barely stomach GMO fruits and vegetables as it is, is it hard to extrapolate that they are even less ready to accept GMO meats, poultry and fish on their dinner tables?
This consumer bias may lead many to steer clear from GMOs and those moves may restructure the supply chain, but some see GMO livestock as a potential game-changer in the food instry. Molecular geneticist Steve Kemp believes it is the key to Africa’s future in livestock. A quarter of the 800 million malnourished people on our planet live in sub-Saharan Africa, where tse-tse flies transmit trypanomiasis (a deadly wasting disease) to humans and cattle, preventing the widespread cultivation of livestock. Kemp is working to transmit a gene in baboons that protects them from the disease to cows. If successful, the cattle would be able to thrive in a barren region that currently constitutes a third of the African continent.
Clearly, the debate is far from over, but it does make me wonder: will future generations, while eating GMO livestock, fruits and vegetables, look back at the pioneering days of genetic engineering and wonder why their ancestors worried so much about improving their food sources from natural to modified?