Western consumerism is in the midst of an age of enlightenment, with a combination of endless Internet knowledge and more concerned customers combining to create a market that’s comfortable calling more manufacturers to task.
In the world of fruit – and produce in general – this has led to a rise in awareness of genetically modified plants and ingredients.
But it could actually be argued that every fruit on the market is “genetically modified,” the result of countless generations of farmers who have intentionally selected specific strains of the fruit to splice together, in hopes of creating an even better offspring.
So what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about genetically modified fruits? And is this process entirely bad?
You’ve likely heard of Darwin’s theory of evolution, with its harsh-but-effective “survival of the fittest” ethos.
The concept is called natural selection, and it doesn’t just exist in the animal kingdom.
Indeed, plants also undergo a certain amount of natural selection in the wild. It’s how we’ve come to have many different varieties of certain fruits, and even why we have certain hybrid pieces of produce, like grapefruits and tangerines.
Students of these natural mashups, farmers and gardeners on the more curious and industrious side have, for centuries, taken the process into their own hands, manually pollinating and cross-breeding certain strains of specific fruits in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Indeed, these methods are why we have so many varieties of certain fruits, like apples, which count their current number of cultivars in the thousands. (It’s also where the term “cultivar” itself comes from, a nod to the cultivated nature of specific fruit varieties.)
While the process might be prodded by man, the creation of the fruit itself is still handled by Mother Nature. And, despite the best efforts of even the most talented horticulturalists, results will vary. It’s simply the rule of the natural world.
Still, one could reasonably argue that this is a form of “genetic modification,” as man has selected certain specimens for reproducing, hoping to bring out and breed for particular genes.
But “genetically modified” actually has a specific definition – and it describes a very different process.
The phrase “genetically modified” has a bit of a sci-fi ring to it, and the reality of the word is equally as tech-forward.
A genetically modified plant or fruit is a piece of produce whose genetic material has actually been artificially manipulated in a lab. Typically, the GMO process targets the start of things, by tampering with the genetic material found inside a fruit’s seed.
Indeed, scientists have used GMO techniques to genetically engineer plants with a predisposition to grow bigger, stronger, and more resistant to disease than their natural relatives. Though, today, that market is continuing to adapt, with recent GMO projects examining such ideas as apples that are resistant to browning and other similarly qualitative traits.
Farmers using natural selection may be getting after the same thing, choosing, for example, a type of tomato that withstood a certain disease to breed with a certain type of tomato known to grow bigger or juicer than others.
But lab technicians take the extra invasive step of hand-selecting which genes wind up in the final mix. And with that type of power comes any number of biological possibilities.
In order to successfully reproduce in nature, a pair of parents must be able to combine all their genetic material – something that acts as a natural check on the types of plants or animals that can produce offspring to begin with. It’s why we couldn’t, for example, cross a watermelon with a grape, as delicious and strange as that grapermelon would be.
But with GMO seeds, scientists can take one gene from a particularly disease-resistant type of grape, and mash it into the genetic material of the watermelon. What results will still look like a watermelon – and, for all intents and purposes, will be – but it will still express certain genetics that were borrowed from its unnatural collaborator.
The difference between GMO and natural selection may seem huge, but it’s much harder to spot on an ingredients list.
In the United States, in particular, that process can be even more difficult, as it’s not required for manufacturers to call out any genetically modified products on their food labels. (A 2018 law will make it mandatory for some – but not all – products containing GMOs to be labeled by 2022.)
This lack of transparency can certainly be frustrating – especially in light of the fact that genetically modified plants and products have undergone relatively few long-term evaluations for safety. Still, there are a few ways to at least have a better idea of what went into the food that you’re buying.
First would be to look for a Certified Organic label. Genetic modification is not permitted in any certified organic food, and any resulting product – from fruits grown with GMO seeds to meat made from animals fed GMO crops – can not wear the official label.
Another great way to ensure your food is GMO free is to buy it from local farmers. While it’s true some smaller operations actually purchase genetically modified seeds from larger companies, many still rely on the tried-and-true efforts of natural selection to get the job done. And if you’re unsure whether your local farm does, it’s all the easier to call or visit the farm or farmer’s market booth to ask.
But perhaps the best way to know what goes into your food is to grow it yourself.
The endeavor surely isn’t easy, and most of us don’t have the time, space or knowhow to become completely self-sustained by our gardens. Still, every bit helps – not just our own health, but that of the world at large.
Keeping things as locally-sourced as possible helps the planet in innumerable ways – and it doesn’t get any more local than your own backyard.