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Essay: Genetically Engineered Food Products

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  • Published: 17 June 2012*
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Research Question: How does the increase in genetically engineered food products correlate and affect the increasing number of food allergies in the United States?

Going into this essay, I felt as if I had a more personal connection with my research question. This is because, I, myself am a severe sufferer of food allergies, just like 15 million other human beings in the United States alone. Being part of this select group has had its share of ups and downs in my life. It has hindered my ability to try new foods and eat ones that I used to love, but ultimately has shaped my vision of how I see the world today.

Do you know of any four year olds that are in the habit of reading the nutrition facts on the back of every box or bag of snacks before he can even get excited about the possibility of having a treat? At the ripe old age of four along with learning basic words such as cat and dog, I had to learn how to read and spell the words pineapple, shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts. Years ago I had specific lists of foods that I could eat without reading the ingredients because I had them memorized, and I knew that my body could ingest them without compromise. One day due to new packaging I was reading a box of one of my favorite snacks, and to my surprise I found an asterisk followed by a peanut allergy health alert. After a heartbreaking discussion with my parents, who by the way tasted the new snack mix, determined that the flavor and consistency had been altered. I had forgotten about this childhood incident until I began research for this essay. By using additives that mimicked the natural flavors allowed them to save money on the frontend and increase their profit margins on the backend. Some food manufacturers may consider this a trade off because they lose faithful diehard allergy stricken consumers, but gain legions of new unsuspecting ones.

The intent of this paper is to seek out the correlation (if any) between the rise in genetically engineered food products and the increasing number of food allergy sufferers in the United States. In order to do this I knew that I had to first find what exactly defines a food allergy, as well as what factors cause them. I’ve learned that a food allergy is the response your immune system has when it mistakenly targets a harmless food protein (more specifically an allergen) as a threat and then attacks it. This description seemed a little vague to begin with, so I took it upon myself to dig deeper and find what key components make up a food allergy, and what the immune system does to prevent illness or even death when it encounters such allergens. People with severe food allergies have a finite selection of foods that they can consume, and dependent on the product it can be more costly. The companies that make such products are able to charge more because they know that such products are in demand which in turn will increase their profit margins.

After looking to the Food and Allergy Research website, a clear explanation for what happens during an allergic reaction was found. The FARE describes an allergic reaction as your body encountering a foreign protein your immune system releases an antibody known as IgE (or Immunoglobulin E) to go after the protein and get rid of it.1 The IgE does this by releasing histamines or cytokines to let the body know that there is an allergy. With this in mind, to understand this description visually, think of the IgE as a tornado siren. Its job is to let the body know that there is an immediate danger at hand, almost like a tornado siren does when a tornado warning being issued. In both cases they give off an indicator letting one know that there is an impending danger. In the body’s case this could be shown through the body developing welts or hives, as well as getting a runny nose or itchy watery eyes. Either way this is just one of many ways that the body’s immune system helps to keep you alive and protected in this world of countless dangers.

Diagram of how the an IgE functions during an allergic reaction

Source: (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases(NIAID), May 22, 2013, http://www.niaid.nih .gov/topics/foodAllergy/{ages/default.aspx)

What are the causes?

With the astounding increase of food allergies in both children and adults across the United States within that last decade in a half, one has to wonder, how this change go long unseen and has been ignored by much of the United States population. Many Allergists and Immunologists worldwide have tried to pinpoint the cause of this rapid increase ranging from the impact on the environment from Global Warming to, all the way to the manner in which we eat and how we diet. Upon continued reading about these ‘theories’ based in the world of Immunology, I began to notice a common thread that even the most polished Immunologist and Allergists could agree on. The theory has come to be known widely as the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’, which is essentially the fact that we are too hygienically conscious with our food products.

This hypothesis is constructed upon the thought that our ‘Westernization’ of our society which has led to our advances hygienically, in other words we are too clean for our own well-being, is in fact allowing for the increase in food allergies and other allergy related disorders. Dr. David P. Strachan (MD, PhD, of St. George’s University of London) was one of the first people to approve and use this theory in his studies, more specifically in his article published in the British Medical Journal in 1989. Dr.Strachan alluded to the fact that individuals whose immune systems were more exposed to all aspects of the environment, cope better when introduced to different allergens. (Shown in Figure 1 below)

(UCLA Food & Drug Allergy Care Center. Retrieved May 24, 2013, from http://fooddrugallergy.ucla.edu/body.cfm)

After reading through Strachan’s article, in its entirety I could relate his findings to my own personal allergic history, its correlation with his hygiene hypothesis.9 Regarding Strachan’s hypothesis, I would have to say that I agree with it due to how my life has evolved through the change of scenery by moving to geographically different places (from Connecticut to North Carolina); this all happening in an instrumental time during which my immune system was still developing. Also my decreased exposure and consumption of shellfish and peanuts since my family’s relocation has lowered my immunities to these foods, thus possibly causing my allergenicity to these items.

What is a GMO?

Whether the hygiene hypothesis is a valid answer to the sudden increase in food allergies in the past 15 years or not, it still alludes to a bigger factor that is a coinciding result to our increased Westernization in the United States of America. The factor that I am referring to is the implementation of genetically engineered food products into our agricultural system.

Over the past 20 years, we as a society have grown to embrace the production of genetically modified food products, such as wheat alongside our technological advances; the use of genetic engineering of foods has flourished in our agricultural market. The reason for this increase is to allow us as consumers to gain access to more readily available crops at a faster pace, instead of waiting for nature to run its course. Whether it is to rid our crops of pests, or just to create crops that are disease resistant, we need to realize that messing with genetics is not always the answer. The risk of tampering with human health has plagued many efforts for further investment in genetically modified foods mainly because of the risk of creating new allergens which would lead to more food allergy sufferers and possibly deaths as well.

Genetically Modified Organisms were developed to quicken the natural process of food development for financial gain, but for what cost? Monetarily it is a win-win for farmers because they are able to harvest their crops more rapidly, which in turn means faster monetary reward.
There is much to be said about letting nature take its course when it comes to harvesting and food processing. The upsurge of technological advances and hybrid crops, as well as other compromised food sources i.e; synthetic animal feed and soil enhancement has more than likely assisted the United States’ GDP(Gross Domestic Product) bottomline, and has makes us competitive with other foreign markets.8

While researching as to when the United States officially adopted the commercial use of genetically engineered foods, I found that there was only a three year window in which the genetic engineering of food started and when the spike in food allergy sufferers occurred. When genetic engineering of food began in 1994 with the tomato, food manufactures stumbled upon a narrow window of time in which they could actually start to produce products such as soybeans and corn.

The focus groups that I was looking at during this process were from the years of 1997 to 2008 because in those years there was the largest increase in food allergies. Seen below in Figure 2(produced by the CDC in 2008)3 there was nearly 18 percent increase in food allergies from 1997 to 2008. Coincidentally, genetic engineering of food started in 1994, I knew that this would make a great question to expand upon and answer due to the short time span between the two.

‘The Big 8’

While analyzing the effects of genetic engineering of foods, I sought out to find which foods were most influential in the rise of food allergies in the United States. What I found was that the three most influential food allergies were traced back to peanuts, soy, and wheat along with others such as shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fish, and milk making up the rest of the allergies. In my younger years I belonged to two of these allergen groups, so and milk. Realizing that I now belonged to three of the six top food allergy groups, (shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts), I became interested in what specific food groups were affected most by the use of genetic engineering. What I found was that products that included soy, peanuts, and wheat were most affected by genetic engineering. Peanut allergy (the allergy I’m most familiar with) is arguably the most lethal allergy out there due to its incorporation in many snacks and delicacies in the United States. Because of this fact, the risk of allergic reactions is much higher currently than in the past. Going along with this point soy and wheat based products have also weaved their way into this conversation due to the rise in food allergies because those two food groups are have been subjected to genetic engineering the most during the past 15 years.

It has become evident to me that the genetic engineering of foods has manifested itself into our food supply more than it should, and a prime example of this would be the ‘crop’ we have grown to know as wheat. The reason that I placed the word crop in quotation marks is because wheat is not even classified as a crop any longer by the USDA. However, it is now considered to be a GMO or a genetically modified organism. This comes to show how much reach, the industry of genetic engineering has on the agricultural environment, both politically and financially in the U.S.

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