Genetically Engineered Foods

Nutrition Action Healthletter, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Genetically Engineered Foods


ARE THEY SAFE?

Do you take insulin? Have you been vaccinated against hepatitis? Has anyone you know had a heart attack and been saved by a clotbusting drug?

Genetic engineering has helped millions of people by turning gene-altered bacteria into microscopic factories that produce life-saving drugs. Nearly everyone welcomes those advances in medicine.

But corn flakes, salad dressing, and other foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients have gotten a decidedly cooler reception.

Using biotechnology to produce food has enormous potential: safer pesticides and less harm to wildlife, more nutritious foods, and greater yields to help feed the world's hungry nations. It's the risks of dicing and splicing Mother Nature that are harder to get a handle on.

This month, we interview Doug Gurian-Sherman and Gregory Jaffe, co-directors of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Q: What does it mean to "genetically engineer" something?

DGS: It means to remove genes from one organism--a plant, animal, or microbe--and transfer them to another. Most genes are simply codes, or blueprints, that tell a cell to make a protein.

So far, most genetically engineered food ingredients are made from plants. They're found in products like corn flakes made using genetically engineered corn, or salad dressing made with oil from genetically engineered soybeans. Gene-altered fish are in the works, while meat and poultry are years off.

Q: Why transfer genes from one plant or animal to another?

DGS: To give it some desirable trait. For example, a gene from a bacterium can enable corn and cotton plants to produce their own pesticide, one that's harmless to humans and to most insects that don't damage the crop. That allows farmers to use less--or less harmful--pesticides to get greater yields.

Q: How widespread are genetically engineered crops in the U.S.?

GJ: In 2001, over half of the cotton and soybean crops were genetically engineered. So was a quarter of our corn. Most of our corn and soybean crops are fed to animals, so the meat and poultry we eat is likely to come from animals raised on genetically engineered feed.

Q: Should we be nervous about eating food that contains genes from another organism?

GJ: No. In most cases, we aren't eating those genes. For instance, by the time a genetically engineered corn plant has been processed into corn oil or high fructose corn syrup, virtually none of the genes--or the proteins they produce--are left in the food.

But even if a food--like the cornmeal used to make many cereals--does contain new genes or proteins, that's not necessarily a problem. We eat foods with new genes and proteins all the time. The tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat we buy in the supermarket have been genetically altered by breeding them with wild relatives.

That kind of traditional cross-breeding, which we've been doing for decades, often produces foods that contain genes and proteins that people have never been exposed to before. And, like it or not, we're constantly eating the genes and proteins of harmless bacteria that inadvertently end up on our food.

Q: But a gene from an animal would never end up in a corn plant naturally, because the two organisms are too different to breed.

GJ: That's why we need to make sure that genetically engineered foods are safe before they reach the market. It's not inherently risky to mix genes from different organisms, but to play it safe, we should carefully test genetically engineered foods to ensure that they are safe.

IS IT SAFE TO EAT?

Q: What should genetically engineered foods be tested for?

DGS: Whenever you put a new gene into a food, either through traditional breeding or genetic engineering, there are at least two major concerns. …

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