What You Should Know About Genetically Modified Foods!
What is Genetic Modification & Engineering?
Genetic engineering is a process whereby genes from one organism are moved into the genome of another organism. In the case of genetically engineered foods, genes from bacteria or other plants or organisms are moved into crop varieties with the assistance of a viral vector. This provides herbicide-tolerance and/or insect resistance to existing domesticated plant varieties. In many cases, biotechnology breaks down natural species boundaries. The genes inserted cannot be removed and thus become released into the environment during the pollination process.
Which Plants are being Genetically Modified?
Soybeans, Cotton, Corn, Rice, Sugar Beets, Canola, and Potatoes are the predominant crop plants being engineered. From 1996-2001 herbicide-tolerant plants (allowing them to withstand the overspray of herbicides) accounted for 77% of genetically modified acreage while the insect-resistant plants accounted for 15%. To date, the bulk of modifications have been performed to reduce labor costs while no plants have been engineered for enhanced nutrition.
How Widespread are Genetically Modified Plants?
There were nearly 170 million global acres planted with genetically engineered seed in 2004.
Approximately 89% of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, along with
80% of cotton and 61% of corn in 2006.
Nearly 70% of foods in the United States grocery stores contain byproducts of genetically engineered organisms. Nabisco®, Frito-Lay®, Proctor & Gamble, and Kraft® are just a few of the food processing companies who are using genetically engineered byproducts.
How are Genetically Modified Foods Regulated?
Genetically modified plants are being
by a patchwork of three agencies: the EPA, FDA, and the USDA. The FDA considers genetic bioengineering to be a mere extension of traditional agriculture. In 1992, the FDA determined that foods with genetically engineered byproducts were not significantly different than conventionally grown foods. Companies must consult with the FDA but there are no requirements to test the food's safety prior to full-scale marketing.
Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?
Unless a Life Science company calls the new genetic insertion a "food additive," genetically modified foods are not required to be submitted to pre-market safety testing for substantial equivalence. In 1999, the British Medical Association (BMA) published a
report on the impact of genetic modification.
The report states the BMA believes more research on issues around allergenicity and possible toxicity needs to be undertaken. In April of 2000, the National Academy of Sciences claimed new allergens may be introduced into foods via genetic engineering; new toxins may be introduced into foods; and existing toxins may reach new levels, or may move into the edible portion of plants. The FDA's own scientists have warned that caution should be taken with the introduction of genetically engineered foods. FDA scientist, Dr. Gerald Guest writes:
In response to your question on how the agency should regulate genetically modified food plants, I and other scientists at the Center for Veterinary Medicine have concluded that there is ample scientific justification to support a pre-market review of these products. As you state in the Notice, the new methods of genetic modification permit the introduction of genes from a wider range of sources than possible by traditional breeding. The FDA will be confronted with new plant constituents that could be of toxicological or environmental concern.
Do Genetically Modified Foods Hurt or Help the Environment?
Genetically modified plants are promoted in part by claiming reductions in the need for synthetic herbicides and pesticides while the plants will not harm the environment. There is some evidence that insecticide use is down, particularly for the cotton crop which is notorious for large amounts of insecticide use, while studies on herbicide use show that levels have remained the same and in some cases have risen.
Perhaps the most poignant risk from genetically modified plants occurs at the environmental level. Genetically modified seeds and plants could cause detrimental effects from "genetic pollution," which occurs when an engineered gene enters another species of crop or wild plant through cross-pollination. This contamination may pose public health threats, create "superweeds" which could require greater amounts of more toxic pesticides to manage, and threaten extinction for rare plants and their weedy relatives relied upon for crop and plant biodiversity. We need our weeds - they are the traditional relatives of our domesticated plants. They assist us in overcoming crop blight. It is critical that genetically modified crops are tracked and gene movement contained.
Do Genetically Modified Foods Solve the World Hunger Problem?
New varieties of genetically engineered crop plants have consistently shown reduced amounts produced per acre since their introduction.
- There should be an exit from a food supply laden with genetically engineered byproducts.
- Genetically engineered foods should be tested for safety
before being permitted to be sold to the public.
- Labels are important in lieu of thorough pre-market safety testing and for proper epidemiological tracking.
- The potential ecological and evolutionary disruptions should be fully monitored prior to further commercialization.
- A percentage of global acreage should be maintained using conventional and traditional varieties.
- We need to re-institute industry responsibility for conducting full environmental and public health reviews disclosing all outcomes.
- While we have the knowledge to create sophisticated technology, we need to instill wisdom with its use.
- Against the Grain (Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey: Common Courage Press, 1998)
- Engineering the Farm (Edited by Britt Bailey & Marc Lappé: Island Press, 2002)
- Stolen Harvest (Vandana Shiva: South End Press, 2000)
- Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology (Brewster Kneen: New Society Publishers, 1999)
- Genes in the Field: On Farm Conservation and Crop Diversity (Stephen Brush: Lewis Publishers, 1999)
- Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating (Jeffrey Smith: Chelsea Green, 2003)