Checkbiotech: Genetically modified foods can increase yields, but are they safe?
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Farmers today can raise corn with a built-in pesticide, soybeans that thrive
when sprayed with weed killer and squash that resist viruses. Some say
they're biotechnological wonders. Critics call them "Frankenfoods." Should
you worry if your food is swimming in the gene pool? January 2005 by
Opinions were mixed among a group of experts who spoke at a daylong
biotechnology conference for the Association of Food Journalists last
October in Puerto Rico. But most agreed that the products should be labeled
so the public can decide if they want to use them or not.
Current genetically modified crops in America appear safe to eat, and their
environmental risks are manageable, said Gregory Jaffe, who directs the
Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project. But the
products need better regulating, and future products need more safety
testing before going on the market.
The CSPI is a food/nutrition watchdog group that assailed movie theater
popcorn and the fake fat Olestra. So, it's a little surprising to hear the
group isn't necessarily against genetically engineered foods. But it's
obviously wary, considering that the group devotes part of its Web site to
the topic and monitors new developments.
What's genetic engineering?
Farmers and scientists have crossbred animals and developed plant hybrids
for hundreds of years. But agro-chemical companies, such as Monsanto and
Dow, made the genetic mix-and-match game more specific. A copy of a gene
from one organism is spliced into a different organism. The new gene becomes
integrated into every cell of the organism and is inherited by the crop's
These foods can be referred to as "genetically modified" ("GM" or "GMO") or
genetically engineered ("GE") foods.
GE crops include corn and cotton that contain genes from a soil bacterium
(Bacillus thuringiensis ? or Bt) engineered to kill insects like the corn
borer. That eliminates the need for chemical pesticides. Some soybeans,
corn, canola and cotton contain a bacterial gene that protects the crop from
weed killers, such as Monsanto's Roundup.
Have you eaten any GE foods?
That's hard to say because food manufacturers aren't required to label
whether their products contain genetically engineered ingredients.
In 2003, about 40 percent of all field corn (mostly used for cattle feed),
80 percent of all soybeans and 73 percent of all cotton grown in the United
States were genetically engineered, according to the CSPI. U.S. farmers also
grew small amounts of GE papayas, summer squash and sweet corn.
GE soybeans and field corn are mainly used as livestock feed. But some are
ingested by humans. As corn meal, field corn is used in muffins, corn chips
and tortillas. Field corn is also used to make high-fructose corn syrup that
sweetens soda pop and corn oil used for cooking or baking.
GE soybeans are processed into soybean oil and soy lecithin, an emulsifier
used in many foods. GE canola and cotton are processed into canola oil or
cotton-seed oil, both used in cooking. So many processed food products may
have small amounts of GE ingredients.
But according to the CSPI, the processing eliminates virtually all of the
engineered gene, so humans currently have limited exposure. However, a
Roundup Ready wheat ? which will likely be eaten more by humans ? is being
"Biotech products are so ubiquitous that the only way to really be sure
you're not getting a biotechnology-derived product is to buy organic food,"
said Teresa Gruber of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.
Concern over genetically modified foods is one factor in the success of the
Wild Oats supermarket chain, said Mary Mulry, Wild Oats senior director of
"Organic agriculture doesn't allow the use of genetically modified
ingredients, and there's a number of our core customers who are against the
use of these foods," she said in a telephone interview. The supermarket
chain insists that suppliers for Wild Oats' private-label products don't use
genetically modified ingredients.
"We can't speak for a number of our other suppliers, but we ask that with
products using commodity ingredients, a majority of the soy, corn and so on
are not genetically modified," she added. "Most of our best suppliers share
a similar policy."
What are the benefits?
Gruber pointed out with biotechnology, there's a potential for developing
food that's better quality, better flavored, has a better nutrition profile
or longer shelf life, greater yields in the field, a longer growing season
or is more drought tolerant.
In a CSPI-sponsored conference, Jerry Steiner, Monsanto's executive vice
president, said the company's Roundup Ready technology enhances the farmer's
productivity, reducing farm costs by $1.6 billion in 2001. It also reduces
the amount of herbicides that have to be used.
But so far, consumers haven't saved money because of GE foods, nor do these
foods taste better or have more nutrition than conventional foods, said
Jaffe. He pointed out that when you buy cornflakes for $3 a box, the actual
cost of the corn is pennies. The rest goes to processing, packaging,
advertising and transportation.
"But if you engineered something like raspberries to be more economical, say
$2 a pint instead of $4, consumers might see some benefit," he added.
Proponents say the technology can help feed the world's malnourished
populations ? rice with a higher nutrition content or crops that give better
yields for developing countries.
"Sound science has a rightful place in farming, because without it, our
yields are not enough to feed all the mouths in the world," Larry Lewis,
public information officer with the Utah Department of Agriculture, said in
a telephone interview.
But critics point out that so far, the technology hasn't been used much for
"So far, what's been commercialized are products that allow companies to
sell more seed and more herbicide," said Mulry. "If we put the research into
organics that we put into genetically modified foods, we would certainly
increase yields and decrease the use of pesticides."
"There's a little bit of evidence that some people who are growing Bt cotton
in places like India or China or South Africa are making a better living,"
acknowledged Jaffe. "But most GE products are grown in developed countries
like the United States for commercial use."
He said public research institutions are working on GE crops for developing
nations, such as cassava, sweet potatoes and cowpeas that aren't yet on the
What are the risks?
GE crops have been grown and used by Americans since 1996 with no apparent
ill effects. But Jaffe pointed out that since there's no labeling, adverse
effects, such as food allergies, could go undetected.
Allergies are typically caused by proteins, and since most GE crops produce
new proteins, it's possible that new allergens could be added. Jaffe said
several years ago an allergen was detected in some soybeans that were given
a gene from a Brazil nut with the purpose of improving the protein content.
Those soybeans were never commercialized.
Even in conventional cross-breeding, plants can develop toxins. Dr. Ann
Yaktine of the National Academy of Sciences cited the case of the lenape
potato, which was cross-bred to produce a better potato chip in the 1960s.
All potatoes produce a natural low-level toxin. But the two parent potatoes
produced a potato with a higher toxin level that had to be pulled from the
"Food in Utah and America is the most regulated and safest food in the
world, and if it was discovered there was something that shouldn't be in it,
it would be prohibited in Utah," said Lewis. "The system that regulates it
is a good one. We spend billions of dollars a year in protecting the food
supply ? in monitoring the kind of fertilizer that goes into the soil, how
the crops are picked, and their storage, handling and shipping to the
But the Starlink corn fiasco of 2000 shows how hard it is to separate GE
crops from regular ones. Starlink was a variety of GE corn that didn't pass
the allergen testing required by EPA, so the EPA said it could be used only
for animal feed. Tests done by an environmental group found that Starlink
corn had gotten into Taco Bell taco shells and other corn products. That led
to million-dollar product recalls. (Starlink corn is no longer grown.)
What about the environment?
"We all have to co-exist in the world, and these crops have a potential to
interfere with organic farming," said Mulry of Wild Oats.
Since seeds, plant pollen, insects, birds and bees can travel from one field
to another, there's the concern that GM crops could contaminate neighboring
fields. Environmental groups speculate that if the genes from
Roundup-tolerant soybeans mingled with weeds growing nearby, they could
create "superweeds" that resist any kind of weedkiller; or that Bt corn
might create insects that are immune to all pesticides.
"The companies who developed these products looked only at the farmers as
the market," Jaffe said. "They didn't look at the rest of the food chain and
how it would affect it."
So far the plant crops have been small ingredients in processed foods. But
transgenic animals raise even more issues, said Jaffe. Aqua Bounty Farms of
Massachusetts has inserted genes from other fish species into Atlantic
salmon so it grows to full size in half the time. The FDA will require a
food and environmental safety assessment, but it's not open to the public.
Growers and biotech companies don't always follow the rules designed to
protect neighboring crops from breeding with the GE crops, according to some
examples cited by the CSPI:
? USDA data in 2003 showed that 20 percent of farms in 10 states were
overplanting Bt corn. Farmers are required to plant a "refuge" of regular
corn alongside the GE corn to decrease the likelihood that insects would
gradually become resistant to the natural insecticide that Bt corn contains.
But the USDA data shows that 42 million acres of Bt corn were planted
without the required "refuge."
? In 2002, Mycogen Seeds (a unit of Dow AgroSciences) was cited by the EPA
for failing to isolate its insect-resistant corn with a border crop of
hybrid corn and failed to plant trees to act as windbreaks.
? Also in 2002, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont subsidiary, planted
its experimental corn crop at an unapproved location in Hawaii too close to
? The ProdiGene Co. was fined $225,000 for not fully containing two corn
crops genetically engineered to produce an animal vaccine. The company was
ordered to reimburse the government approximately $3 million to destroy
soybeans that became contaminated.
Do consumers want GE foods?
Generally, the Europeans have said no, and they are putting up roadblocks
for anyone wanting to farm them," said Jaffe. "Here in the United States,
the agriculture community has embraced them and the government has supported
But 81 percent of respondents in a recent national survey said the FDA
should approve the safety of GM foods before they come to market, even if it
meant a substantial delay. The survey was done by the Pew Initiative on Food
"If you want the public to accept it, you need to get the FDA behind it and
say it's safe," said Jaffe.
Currently, the FDA regulates GE crops through a voluntary notification
process, where the company submits its own food data to the FDA. The FDA
reviews the data and alerts the company if it has concerns.
A proposed Genetically Engineered Foods Act, presented by Sen. Richard
Durbin, D-Ill., would require food safety approval before a new product
could go on the market. The review process would be open to public comment.
Jaffe doesn't think the bill will pass, although support is growing.
"Food manufacturers have become less enamored with GE foods because they
realize they will get all the headaches if there's a problem," he said.
"They are coming around to the fact that a bill would give them some
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