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Genetically Modified Foods
Q: What are Genetically Modified (GM) foods?
A: Genetically Modified foods are foods that have been altered using techniques that actually modify the plant's DNA, the genetic material of living things. Scientists insert a single gene or a series of genes into crops to create desired attributes. Once a food has undergone genetic engineering it becomes a new plant variety.

For example, in 1994, a "new" tomato (named FLAVR SAVR) was created through genetic modification so that it could naturally ripen on the vine and still be firm enough to withstand shipping once it was harvested. (By contrast, "regular" tomatoes are harvested while they are green and firm--and not fully flavorful--and then ripened later with ethylene gas.)

In other instances of genetic modification, foods have been programmed to be resistant to the herbicides used to control weeds. Or they've been modified to contain a protein that is toxic to certain insects, thus eliminating the need for pesticides.

*An aside: that first genetically modified tomato has since been removed from the shelves due to unsatisfactory taste, although the company that developed the variety claims that the tomato was not pulled from the shelves because it was a genetically modified food.

Q: What's the reasoning behind GM foods?
A: Genetic engineering was established to implement improvements that cannot be achieved through conventional agricultural farming practices or traditional cross-breeding and hybridization techniques. The basic concept behind GM foods is to increase the efficiency of food production, processing, and distribution. Scientists are attempting to create genetically modified crops to resist heat, disease, viruses, insects, drought, and other conditions that interfere with optimal plant growth.

As the world's population continues to rise, the need for food is increasing, and according to projections released by the International Food Policy Research Institute, within 20 years, the world's need for maize, wheat, and rice will increase by 40%. Supporters of GM foods contend that genetically modified crops may increase food supply and ease hunger and malnutrition in impoverished areas of the world. For example, a new variety of sweet potato, which was engineered to thrive amidst crop-destroying viruses, was introduced in an impoverished nation where the sweet potato is a dietary staple.

Genetic modification will also be used to eliminate allergy-causing proteins from foods and enhance nutritional value, flavor, taste, and appearance as well as prolong shelf-life of foods that ripen quickly, such as tomatoes and strawberries.

Q: What are the concerns expressed about GM foods?
A: The concerns are manifold and include health concerns, concerns about ecological imbalance, and the simple fear that we lack knowledge about any long-term consequences resulting from consuming foods whose make-up has been rearranged in the laboratory.

On the ecology front, there is the concern that GM foods may disrupt natural biodiversity as well as fear that pollen could drift from genetically modified crops to traditional crops, potentially creating plants whose attributes would be thoroughly unknown. Not too long ago, an infamous experimental crop of GM corn that was created to generate its own pesticide, accidentally poisoned monarch butterfly larvae, inciting intense outrage among environmental groups worldwide.

On the health front, there is concern that genetically engineered foods might contain unexpected allergens. For example, some biotechnology firms are creating extraordinary experimental models by combining genes from cold water fish with strawberries to create a new strawberry that can survive severe frost conditions. For people who are allergic to fish or who are vegetarians, this type of experimentation is problematic.

In another example, there was research underway to splice Brazil nut genes into a soybean. As there are people who have severe allergic reactions to the proteins in Brazil nuts, this could have been an unpleasant surprise. Fortunately, that particular GM soybean never left the laboratory. Watchdog groups and consumer advocates assert that this is just one of many examples of why GM foods should be labeled.

Q: What foods have been genetically modified?
A: Half of the soybeans and over a third of the corn produced in the U.S. are the result of genetic modification, and although they are mainly used for animal feed, some of these foods are on supermarket shelves. There are currently about 40 to 50 genetically modified food products, available in supermarkets, that have been deemed by the FDA to be safe and not require labeling. The probability is high that we have all consumed GM foods at some point without knowing it.

Soon to appear will be a new variety of rice that will be engineered to synthesize beta-carotene (provitamin A) to help prevent vitamin A deficiency, which is a major cause of blindness and death in developing countries. The goal was to prevent nutrition-related blindness in thousands of children (proving once again that the issue of GM foods is beset with irony and difficulty). The genetically modified rice will be required to carry a label because it is an entirely new food, different from what is on the market.

Q: Will GM foods be required to have labels?
A: Recently two bills have been set before Congress advocating mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods. The call for labeling has arisen from several concerns. One is that since no long-term studies have been conducted on the potential effects of GM foods, it's felt we should proceed with caution. Second are concerns regarding the potential of hidden allergens lurking in GM foods. And on both counts, it's felt the public should be allowed to make informed food choices, hence the need for adequate labeling.

When GM foods first appeared on supermarket shelves in the early Nineties, the Food and Drug Administration determined that these products did not differ nutritionally from their traditional counterparts and therefore required no labeling to identify them. However, if a GM food is significantly different--if its nutrient value has been changed or if it may cause allergies--the FDA would require it to bear a label. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released rules that prohibit the use of the label "organic" on a product that contains genetically modified foods.

With the two bills before Congress, there will undoubtedly be a lot of squaring off. Naturally, consumer advocate groups, environmentalists, and organic farmers are all firmly on the side of labeling. And on the other side of the fence is the food industry, which has expressed fear that labels will scare consumers off by automatically suggesting that genetically altered foods are unsafe.

Putting aside for a moment the argument over whether or not genetically modified foods should exist in the first place, it seems difficult to find a rationale for not having labeling. In this country we have come to expect full disclosure on what we are eating and this doesn't seem any different.

Author: Maureen Mulhern-White
Date Published: 05/01/2000
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