My brother was in his mid-20s when he developed a food allergy. Through a process of elimination, he discovered that his unpleasant side effects occurred whenever he ate wheat or gluten. My sweet sister-in-law revamped her cooking to remove all wheat and gluten. It worked. A year later and his problems are gone. Unless, of course, he accidentally consumes the offending protein or grain.
But his story isn’t unique. More than 32 million Americans suffer from food allergies. And the CDC claims those numbers are increasing. For so many, just a bite of the wrong food can be deadly.
There’s good news: Science, using genetic engineering, might have an answer that could reduce or even eliminate the allergens found in so many foods. The bad news: Some well-funded activist groups are willing to dedicate significant resources to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Take the North Carolina food-tech company IngateyGen, named for the West-African Akan language word for “peanut.” Hortense Dodo founded the company to tackle the fatal consequences peanuts pose to those allergic to it. Mrs. Dodo, the chief scientist at the company, developed a hypoallergenic peanut that she says won’t inadvertently kill anyone by silencing the genes responsible for allergenic proteins. And farmers can grow these peanuts as easily as their allergen-producing counterparts. So Mrs. Dodo’s peanuts are safe for allergy sufferers right from the field. The hypoallergenic peanuts are currently waiting for approval by government regulators.
These technologies could even help provide much-needed nutrients to developing countries. In so many poor areas of the world, populations get most of their caloric needs from one or two food staples. Modern biotechnology could boost the vitamin and nutrient content of less-than-stellar crops. So Africans relying heavily on cassava could see more zinc and iron. And Asians surviving on rice could grow more nutrient-dense varieties.
But even as these technologies promise breakthrough solutions for those suffering from allergies and vitamin deficiencies, consumers are increasingly skeptical and uncertain about the safety of genetically modified foods. The attitude isn’t entirely surprising given the current proliferation of stigmatizing non-GMO labels.
These labels have popped up on all sorts of products, including those without genetically modified counterparts. The Non-GMO Project’s orange butterfly logo is the most common. The group’s marketing and social-media efforts paint a dire situation in our food supply: Untested and unsafe frankenfoods increasingly linked to illnesses and diseases. And the sentiments are shared by brands adopting other non-GMO labeling: Our food is safer and healthier than the other guy’s products.
But the reality doesn’t match the marketing. Decades of research has established the scientific consensus that genetically modified crops are just as safe and nutritious as any other food. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences concluded GMOs are just as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. They also come with other environmental and societal benefits: decreased use of pesticides, increases in farmers’ profits, adoption of climate-friendly production practices, and food-waste solutions.
And, now, the elimination or reduction of dangerous allergens.
Unfortunately, the activists voices are louder, their pockets are deeper and their followers are more passionate. So we continue to see a misleading campaign against the very technology that has the potential to solve so many modern ills.
For those suffering from food allergies, like my brother, I hope our society can start to recognize these marketing campaigns as propaganda. I hope that the FDA will start enforcing its own policies regarding misleading food labels. I hope we can trust and support researchers and scientists making these breakthroughs. And I hope that someday soon, the deadly risk of eating the wrong food can be eliminated.
• Amanda Zaluckyj is a lawyer and farmer’s daughter who shares her family’s story at The Farmer’s Daughter USA.