The significance of genetic engineering is expressed in the words of Suzanne Wuerthele, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist, who stated, “This is probably one of the most technologically powerful developments the world has ever seen. It’s the biological equivalent of splitting the atom.” Although humans have worked to improve plant breeding for thousands of years, genetic engineering, or genetic modification, is a new, even revolutionary, technology. Unlike conventional plant breeding, which involves the shifting of different forms of the same gene already present in a species’ gene pool, genetic engineering usually involves the transfer of foreign genes, genes not previously present in a species’ gene pool, into the organism. In genetic engineering, scientists transfer genetic information, or DNA, from one or more organisms across species boundaries into a host organism to create an entirely new genetically engineered organism. For example, the transfer of a gene from a bacterium into a corn plant can give the corn plant pesticide properties. In addition, other genes—genes responsible for promoting the correct functioning of the foreign gene and acting as markers or tags to identify the genetically engineered organism—are present alongside the gene for the desired characteristic. Genes for antibiotic resistance, for example, are commonly used as markers. Genetically engineered crops, therefore, are different from traditional plant varieties. While they do offer many benefits, they may also be more likely to have unpredictable physiological and biochemical effects.
Genetic engineering (GE) is the standard U.S. term for this new technology, also called recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. In Europe, genetically modified (GM) is more commonly used to describe the technology, because this term translates more easily between different languages. The organism that is created through genetic engineering is called a genetically modified organism (GMO). The terms used to describe the foods produced from genetic engineering include biotech foods, gene foods, bioengineered foods, gene-altered foods, and transgenic foods.
In the 1970s scientists exchanged DNA between different strains of bacteria, producing the first genetically engineered organisms. Since that time, scientists have moved into the more complex field of genetically engineered plants and animals. Genes have been transferred between animal species, between plant species, and from animal species to plant species. Some genes can make an animal or plant grow faster or larger, or both. Canadian scientists found that flounder produce a type of antifreeze, and they transplanted a gene for this trait into salmon so that salmon can be farmed in colder climates. Many species of fish are genetically engineered to speed growth, to alter flesh quality, and to increase cold and disease resistance. In farm animals such as cattle, genes can be inserted to reduce the amount of fat in meat, to increase milk production, and to increase superior cheese-making proteins in milk. In the area of plant crops, agricultural biotechnology can accelerate the process of transforming crops. Cotton, for example, was redesigned with a bacterial gene that allows the plant to produce its own pesticide, thus reducing the cost of spraying crops. Biotechnology has modified other plants to resist common diseases or to tolerate weed-killing herbicide sprays.
The development and advantages of GE foods
Foods produced using genetic modification arrived in U.S. markets in the mid-1990s, but a survey conducted in January 2001 by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that just 20 percent of U.S. consumers realized they had already eaten GE foods. According to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an estimated 70 percent of the foods on grocery store shelves in the year 2000 were made or manufactured using GE crops. A large percentage of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States were from GE crops, which were processed into common food ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup. This syrup is used in many products, including soft drinks and the vegetable oil that is used to fry food such as french fries. In the spring of 2001, GE crops were grown on 82 million acres of U.S. farmland (up 18 percent from 2000), and 68 percent of all soybeans, 69 percent of all cotton, and 26 percent of all corn were genetically modified.
Multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Novartis AG, Aventis SA, and DuPont have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on biotechnology research in the past two decades, mostly to modify staples like corn, soybeans, and cotton, and make them easier and cheaper to plant and grow—and therefore more profitable for agribusiness companies. As Americans became aware of GE foods, antibiotech sentiment emerged in the United States. As a result, in the spring of 2000, the top U.S. biotech companies, normally staunch competitors, formed the Council for Biotechnology Information to launch a $50-million-a-year public relations campaign. Proponents of genetic engineering claim that GE foods provide advantages to human health. In addition to enhanced nutritional value and increased yields from GE seeds, genetic modification can produce cooking oils with less saturated fat, soybean oil with high levels of vitamin E, and strawberries and tomatoes with a cancer-fighting chemical. Medical benefits from genetic engineering include edible vaccines such as bananas spliced with genes from a hepatitis B virus and “golden rice,” which contains a daffodil gene that provides vitamin K, essential in promoting healthier eyes in children. (Thousands of children suffer blindness every year because of a lack of vitamin K.) In Japan, genetic engineering has experimentally removed a protein from rice that provokes allergic reactions, and similar work is being done on peanuts, to which some people may have violent allergic reactions.
The safety of GE foods to human health
“The use of rDNA biotechnology in itself has no impact on the safety of foods derived using these techniques,” states an April 2001 report by the Institute of Food Technologists, a scientific society concerned with food science and technology. The report further states, “The appropriate federal agencies have reviewed all the rDNA biotechnologically-derived foods on the market to ensure their safety.” Nevertheless, many American consumers became aware of the market presence of GE foods in September 2000, when StarLink corn, a bioengineered corn that was not cleared for human consumption, was discovered in taco shells and other corn products. As a result, concerns arose in the United States about the safety of GE foods, and those concerns have persisted.
Some scientists believe that genetic engineering dangerously tampers with the most fundamental natural components of life and that genetic engineering is scientifically unsound. In addition, they believe that when scientists transfer genes into a new organism, the results could be unexpected and dangerous. No long-term studies have been done to determine what effects many of the commonly consumed GE foods might have on human health. Critics accuse GE supporters of assuming that, because the modified foods have been on the market for as long as they have with no apparent ill effects, they must be safe. However, some research and case studies suggest that GE foods may cause adverse health effects, including increased exposure to allergens, elevated cancer risks, and increased resistance to antibiotics as a result of the common practice of using antibioticresistant genes as marker genes in these foods. In 1999, a number of independent scientists, along with the British Medical Association, called for a moratorium on GE foods until further research is completed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists have warned that genetic engineering could result in undesirable changes in the level of nutrients because fresh-looking foods may actually be weeks old and therefore be nutritionally deficient. FDA scientist Edwin Mathews warned that the levels of toxins in GE foods could be higher than in normal foods and that GE foods might produce new toxic substances.
Controversy over regulations
The United States has no mandatory labeling of GE foods to inform consumers whether or not the foods they are buying have been genetically engineered. In addition, the United States has no regulations requiring human testing of GE crops. The only requirement is that producers report to the FDA the food’s nutritional properties and the source of the genes used to genetically alter the food. Biotech companies contend that the FDA should ensure food safety, but the FDA claims that ultimately it is the responsibility of biotech companies to ensure that their foods are safe.
In 1990, the Bush administration issued a set of regulatory principles aimed at smoothing the way for the speedy development of biotechnology products in the United States (and to help large biotech corporations in the world market). The first principle stated, “Federal government regulatory oversight should focus on the characteristics and risks of the biotechnology product—not the process by which it was created.” This meant that FDA, EPA, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists were not to single out GE foods for review simply because these foods had been developed using a new technology. The reason for this decision was the apparent absence of any information showing differences between the effects of genetic engineering and those of traditional animal and plant breeding. However, internal documents made public in 1999 revealed that many FDA scientists disagreed with this decision, including Louis Pribyl, who said, “There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering.” One major difference is that genetic engineering crosses the natural biological boundaries between animal and plant species, whereas conventional animal and plant breeding does not.
Although some researchers believe that genetically engineered foods will bring about beneficial changes for humankind, others question whether scientists, regulators, and consumers have enough information about GE foods to ensure their safety. At Issue: Genetically Engineered Foods provides different perspectives on this highly controversial technology.