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Checkbiotech: Professor answers questions about biotechnology
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp (IP Logged)
Date: September 10, 2005 09:15AM ; ;

Bruce M. Chassy, Professor of Food Microbiology and Nutrition At the
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took the time to answer some
questions regarding food safety and many concerns that the general public
often has with genetic engineering, September 2005 .

Q: Are biotech foods safe to eat?

A: Most scientific experts agree that foods produced through biotechnology
are as safe as, or safer than, any other food in the supermarket.
Genetically modified (GM) crops aren?t new.

For thousand of years plant breeders have worked to create genetically
modified crop varieties. None of the crops that we eat today resembles its
wild ancestor. Most ancestors were poisonous and low-yielding wild plants
before early humans domesticated them.

Today we can choose among hundreds of varieties of some crops, all so
genetically different that they differ in size, shape, and even color. And
varieties of the same grain, fruit, or vegetable can have different
compositions and nutrient contents as well. That is because they are all
extensively genetically modified - the ?traditional? way.

Q: Who regulates genetic modification of foods?

A: There is no regulatory oversight of traditional genetic modification.
This kind of plant breeding allows the introduction of thousands of new
varieties each year all over the world without any requirement for
pre-market safety review. We have learned from thousands of years of
experience that plant breeding is almost always safe.

By contrast, plants modified with modern biotechnology techniques are
subjected to careful pre-market safety evaluation and must be approved by
government regulatory agencies before reaching the market.

Q: Who says GM foods are safe?

A: In the face of contradictory statements about the safety of GM foods, the
consumer must decide whom to believe. There exists a broad scientific
consensus that foods produced through biotechnology are not only as safe as
foods produced through conventional plant-breeding technology. Probably they
are safer because of the more precise technology that is used to produce
them and the closer regulatory scrutiny they undergo.

That was the conclusion of European Union scientists who studied the safety
assessment process used for biotech foods. A similar conclusion was reached
in 2003 by United Kingdom scientists who were asked by their government to
evaluate the potential risks of GM foods.
A large number of scientific societies, expert panels, national academies of
sciences and international organizations have studied the safety of GM foods
and crops and reached the same conclusion: There is no reason to be
concerned about the safety of eating foods derived through biotechnology.

Q: Aren?t genetically modified foods fundamentally different?

A: Opponents of crops produced through biotechnology like to call them
?Frankenfoods.? In fact, rather than being drastically altered
monstrosities, most are crops into which a single new trait has been
inserted. Since one or two genes are inserted into a plant that has some
25,000 to 40,000 genes, it?s fair to say that not much has really been

Q: Why tinker with plant genes in the first place?

A: Most GM crops on the market today fall into three classes:

Plants that are resistant to insects by the introduction of a gene that
helps them defend themselves
Plants into which a gene has been introduced for an enzyme that makes them
tolerant to weed-control herbicides
Plants containing a gene for a viral protein that makes them resistant to

Composition analysis shows that these biotech crops have the same amounts of
protein, lipids, and carbohydrates as other varieties of the same crop. They
also have the same vitamin and mineral content. In fact, aside from the one
additional trait that is present in very small amounts in the plant, they
have the same composition.

Q: Am I eating GM foods?

A: We all have been eating ingredients derived from biotech crops for about
10 years in the United States. It has been estimated that more than 70
percent of the processed foods in the supermarket have one or more biotech
ingredients. Cornstarch and soybean oil are the two most common products
with biotech ingredients.

Q: Who?s minding the store?

A: Under the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology,
published in 1986, authority for regulation of biotech crops falls to three
lead government agencies: the USDA (United Stated Department of
Agriculture), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the FDA (Food and
Drug Administration).

In practice, it takes seven to 10 years for a new biotech variety to achieve
government permission to be grown commercially. In the process, hundreds of
scientific studies must be presented by the developer and evaluated by the
agencies and their scientific advisors.

Q: How does the regulatory process work to ensure safety?

A: There are two very important principles to remember about the regulatory

Regulatory review does not seek to prove that all biotech crops or GM foods
are safe or not safe. Also, the process does not require that a food or crop
be proven to be absolutely safe.

Each new variety is different and each will have unique safety issues that
must be examined. If one GM crop is found to be safe, it does not mean that
all are safe; and if one biotech crop variety were found to be unacceptably
risky, it would not mean that all uses of biotechnology are unsafe. This is
called case-by-case evaluation.

No food or crop is absolutely safe; each poses at least some minimal risk.
The regulatory overview requires developers to demonstrate that their new
biotech variety is as safe as other varieties in the marketplace today.

Q: What safety evaluations are performed?

A: The EPA and FDA each have a role in assuring that biotech foods are safe
before they are introduced into the marketplace, and each new biotech crop
is examined according to published federal guidelines. Three principal
questions must be answered:

Is the newly introduced DNA itself safe to consume?
Is the product of the newly introduced gene safe to consume?
Have any unintended or unexpected changes occurred?

The safety assurance process actually begins with the design of the product
itself. Developers go to great lengths to avoid introducing traits they
believe might be hazardous to consumers. Many ideas fall by the wayside
before any developmental research is ever done on them.

While plant breeders try to introduce beneficial traits into a plant, they
also are expected to do that without changing the plant in any unintended
way. New varieties are expected to grow as fast, yield as much or more than
their predecessors, look the same, taste the same, and be resistant to the
same diseases and pests. If unintended genetic changes were introduced
during breeding, these could affect the way the plant grows and performs.
Many experimental plants fail to meet these criteria and are discarded.

Newly developed varieties are tested for equivalence in composition - to
prove they have the same composition as other varieties of the same kind of
crop. They should have the same nutritional value - proteins, lipids,
carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Compositional equivalence also
provides strong evidence that no unintended changes have taken place.

Producing changes in composition is sometimes the intent of the plant
breeder. High-lysine corn and high-oleic soybean oil are two examples of
such nutritionally altered crops from plant breeders. Biotechnology is a
powerful tool that plant breeders can use to improve the nutritional value
and health benefits of foods. Golden rice - a rice variety designed to fight
vitamin A deficiency - is one such example.

Q: Are GM foods tested first in animals?

A: New biotech varieties have been fed to a number of animal species to test
their performance as feeds. No differences have been observed between GM
crops and conventional crops when used as feeds. These feeding tests are not
intended, however, to prove that long-term consumption of these crops by
humans is absolutely safe. That is because there are no valid scientific
protocols available for proving that whole foods are safe.

It is virtually impossible to provide absolute assurance that food will be
safe to consume over a whole lifetime of 80 or more years. With foods that
are reasonably safe - like biotech crops - scientists and regulators rely
instead on the detailed analysis of composition, toxicity, and potential for
allergenicity. If no safety issues are detected during these studies and the
composition is unchanged, there is no reason to believe that there will be
any long-term safety issues with a biotech food.

Q: This is somewhat reassuring, but I still can?t decide. What?s the bottom

A: The pre-market safety assessment required for biotech foods is designed
to ensure that they are as safe as any other food. It is important that
consumers hear all the sides of a debate and that all the information be
made available to them. Most scientists believe that as consumers find out
more about biotechnology, their level of comfort with its value to the food
system and its safety will rise, so they welcome the dialogue.

Regrettably, the debate over GM foods diverts attention from more important
public health issues. In the United States and other developed countries,
obesity and poor diet choices are by far the food issues most likely to
affect our health and longevity. Our major focus should be on consuming an
appropriate amount of caloric energy to maintain a healthy weight, and on
making sure that we eat a healthful selection of nutrients.

Bruce M. Chassy
Professor of Food Microbiology
Professor of Nutrition
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

References and further reading

UK GM Science Report, 2003,

FAO WHO 2000 Report: Safety Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods of Plant
Origin, 2000, pp. 11?13,

IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods, 2000, pp. 16?17,

GM Foods: Safety Assessment of Genetically Modified Foods, 2005, Food
Standards Agency Australia New Zealand,


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