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While some fear genetically engineered foods, others are convinced that
agricultural biotechnology can produce safe, beneficial crops, May 2005 by
Genetic engineering (GE) is a hot topic these days. It?s hard not to take
notice of the barrage of negative publicity flooding the media on GE foods.
Television news footage displays angry farmers dumping GE-contaminated
produce into bins marked ?biohazard.? The December 28, 2004, cable
television program Doomsday Tech on the History Channel depicted an
imaginary world in 2021 with 3 billion people suffering from severe wheat
allergies all due to genetic engineering, which then spins off into the
destruction of the world?s wheat supplies and global food shortages.
The Science Behind GE Foods
Perhaps the biggest source of fuel for the GE food debate is the difficulty
understanding the hefty slice of science behind the label. ?The public has a
difficult time understanding the science of biotechnology. Only 29% of
people understand what DNA is,? says Teresa Gruber, PhD, executive vice
president of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. The truth
is that genetic modification (GM) is not a shiny, new solution in a
high-tech world. It has been going on since the beginning of time, when
cavemen started saving seeds and began tending their crops.
Genetic modification is a broad term that includes traditional methods of
breeding plants, which farmers have relied upon for generations.
Genetic engineering is more specifically defined as a biotechnological
process in which traits or characteristics of an organism are changed by
transferring individual genes from one species to another or by modifying
genes within species. GE foods are also referred to as biotech,
bioengineered, and transgenic.
GE Popularity Polls
The public?s opinion on GE foods is split down the middle. In a Pew
Initiative on Food and Biotechnology survey released in November 2004, 30%
of Americans said GM foods are basically safe, while 27% say they are
basically unsafe. The level of awareness about GM foods remains low, with
only 32% of consumers reporting that they heard a great deal or some about
GM foods in 2004. Of 40% of Americans who reported hearing about regulations
of GM foods, 40% said there is too little. Eighty-five percent said the FDA
should approve the safety of GM foods before they come to market.
A survey by EuroBarometer published in March 2003 found that most Europeans
do not support GM foods or crops(2). The Union of Concerned Scientists
released a report in December 2004 on the dangers posed to the human food
supply from GE crops that contain pharmaceutical drugs and industrial
chemicals(3). Even Pope John Paul II hinted about his reservations about the
production of GM foods last October.
At the same time, government and industry stand staunchly behind GE foods.
President George W. Bush proclaimed on Biotechnology Week from the White
House on May 16, 2001, ?Genetic engineering will enable farmers to modify
crops so that they will grow on land that was previously considered
infertile. In addition, it will enable farmers to grow produce with enhanced
The American Dietetic Association?s ?Biotechnology and the Future of Food,?
written in 1995 and reaffirmed in 1998, specifies that biotechnology
techniques have the potential to be useful in enhancing the quality,
nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and
in increasing the efficiency of food production, food processing, food
distribution, and waste management.
?GE foods is a challenging area; it?s not a black-and-white issue,? says
Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, regional nutritional consultant for Iowa
Department of Public Health and incoming chair for the Hunger and
Environmental Nutrition (HEN) Dietetic Practice Group (DPG). ?In the past
two years, we have seen more dietitians interested in GE foods. The media
has a lot to do with that. The dietitians see the press and realize that
they don?t know about it.?
?People are not enthusiastic about biotechnology because food is special. We
eat to sustain ourselves with nutrients, but food is more than that. There
are historical and cultural issues. Food is a religious and cultural icon.
Through history people have been defined by what they can or can?t eat,?
says Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America?s
Food Policy Institute.
Of more public concern is the development of GE animals. Thus far, no GE
animals have been approved for human consumption, although plenty of
research is being devoted to this biotechnology. Fast-growing transgenic
salmon are being considered for commercial release at this moment.
GE Foods as Far as the Eye Can See
Many Americans may not understand that 70% to 75% of all processed foods
available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from GE plants. The
majority of foods contain GE products from corn and soybeans, which are
widely used as ingredients in foods. Add canola and cotton to this list and
you account for almost 100% of the GE ingredients in the American food
supply. More than 50 GE foods have been determined to be as safe as their
conventional counterparts. According to the USDA, 81% of the total soybean
crop, 40% of the total corn crop, and 73% of the total cotton crop is GE.
In most cases, we aren?t actually eating the genes in GE foods. Much of the
GE foods we consume are found in small amounts as food ingredients. By the
time a GE corn plant has been processed for corn oil or high-fructose corn
syrup, virtually none of the genes or proteins produced by the genes remain
in the food.
It?s hard to ignore that biotechnology can yield some measurable benefits in
agronomic characteristics of plants, such as tolerance to broad-spectrum
herbicides, resistance to pests, reduction in chemical pesticide use,
increase in potential yields, healthier foods, longer shelf life, and growth
of crops in inhospitable areas. One GE success story can be found in the
tale of the Hawaiian papaya that was facing decimation due to the papaya
ring spot virus (PRSV). Researchers turned to GE to develop a PRSV-resistant
papaya and voila?the tropical fruit was saved.
Are GE Foods Safe?
Plenty of scientists are concerned about the safety of GE foods. There is
always the risk that a GE food could produce an allerginicity, toxicity, or
unintended effect. ?There clearly needs to be more research of the
unintended effects of genetic engineering,? says Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD,
senior scientist for the Center for Food Safety, who notes that there are
dozens of well-documented cases of unintentional effects that have been
identified during the testing of GE plants. Scientists from Norway and
Denmark recently reported that only 10 studies have been published on GE
foods and that much more scientific investigation is necessary before GM
material is proven safe in the long run.
The FDA maintains that they possess no information that the use of
biotechnology creates a class of food that is different in quality, safety,
or any other attribute from food developed using conventional breeding
The National Academies? National Research Council and Institute of Medicine
recommended in a report last July that federal agencies should assess the
safety of genetically altered foods before their commercial release on a
case-by-case basis when warranted, with focus on composition rather than the
method used to create them. This report concluded that no adverse health
effects from GE have been documented in the human population, but the
technique is new and concerns about safety remain.
?Agricultural biotechnology has the potential to produce safe, beneficial
products. Current crops produced in the U.S. are safe to eat and have
benefits to the extent that they have risks that are manageable. As with any
technology, we need to have a strong regulatory system to protect consumers,
the public, and the environment,? says Gregory Jaffe, director of the
Biotechnology Project, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
?In the current FDA biotechnology food safety policy, the FDA focuses on the
food, not the process. They look at the final product, not how it was made.
There is a voluntary consultation process in which the companies can send
data for the FDA to review. The problem is that it is voluntary,? says
Jaffe. There have been numerous examples of companies not complying with
regulations. For example, Prodigene, a small biotech company, contaminated
soybeans intended for the food supply with an experimental corn that was
engineered to produce pharmaceuticals.10 ?Do the agencies have the will and
resources to oversee and punish the bad actors?? asks Jaffe. The CSPI
proposes an approval process at the FDA level that promotes a mandatory,
transparent process completed before marketing with specific data
requirements. Jaffe reports that the USDA is reevaluating the whole
regulatory system in the next year.
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin introduced the Genetically Engineered Foods Act
(S.2546), which would assign the FDA to regulate safety for consumers of
biotech crops and animals. There is also an outcry for food labeling of GE
food products. ?People are concerned that there are no labels on products.
You will never persuade the public that if you don?t label it, you?re not
trying to hide,? says Foreman. A CSPI 2001 survey indicates that 62% to 70%
of respondent?s desire labeling of GE food. But according to a 1999 Economic
Research Service study, there would be a 12% premium over the farm price for
corn and soybeans to segregate GE and non-GE varieties.
How Green Is Biotechnology?
Many safety concerns for GE foods go beyond the realm of human food
consumption. Some scientists say the environment will pay the largest price
for biotechnology. The Ecological Society of America is concerned that while
GE organisms may have a positive role to play in sustainable agriculture,
the release of GE organisms into the environment could have negative
ecological impact, such as creating new or more vigorous pests, exacerbating
the effects of existing pests through hybridization, harm to nontarget
species (such as birds and wildlife), disruption of biotic communities, and
irreparable loss or change in genetic diversity(12). In Mexico, it was
discovered that GM corn had been planted by peasants, thus threatening the
cultural heritage of maize that dates back 10,000 years(13). Another
ecological argument is that newly acquired genes might be transferred via
pollination to wild relatives, possibly endowing them with a ?fitness? gene
that could turn them into ?superweeds.? And recent data shows that overall
GM crops have led to an increase in pesticide use.
Life on the Farm
Farmers worry about more than safety. Contamination of non-GE crops by GE
plants is reason for concern. What?s happening to Hawaiian papaya these
days? Nearly 20,000 non-GE papaya seeds across the Big Island, 80% of which
came from organic farms and backyard gardens or wild trees, showed a
contamination level of 50%(15). This comes at a time when a study was
published showing that GE grass found its way into conventionally grown
grass approximately 12 miles away in Oregon?s Willamette Valley(16). Organic
farmers promise their customers that their products are GE-free and
customers in Japan and Europe demand their crops are grown conventionally.
It?s not surprising that Trinity County, Calif., recently became the second
county in the nation to ban the growth of GE crops and animals.
As companies patent GE seeds, they continue to gain control over the world?s
food supply. Newspaper headlines have reported that in faraway places such
as Kenya, farmers complain about the high costs of company-produced seeds
and the fear that indigenous varieties will be destroyed due to
Traditional breeding methods have been coming up with some positive results
lately, such as non-GE hybrid sunflower oil free of trans fats(19). After
three years of field trials and $6 million, GM sweet potatoes modified to
resist a virus intended for African farms were no less vulnerable than
ordinary varieties. In Uganda, conventional breeding developed a
high-yielding resistant variety of sweet potatoes more quickly and
cheaply(20). Three hundred Catholic nuns in 11 Manila convents worked with
international researchers led by a Philipino scientist in experiments that
produced a conventionally bred rice variety high in iron and zinc(21).
?There are instances that conventional breeding may be a better fit,? adds
The Future for Biotechnology
If you look into GE?s crystal ball, you may see a world of high-tech
?pharms,? which use plants as mini factories for pharmaceuticals such as
vaccines. Plants may be grown to boost nutrients such as pro-vitamin A,
ferritin, lycopene, and protein. Scientists are worried about fallible
humans allowing these pharmaceutical crops to accidentally get into our food
supply. ?You don?t want to read about cornflakes with GE spermicide,? says
Dietitians Weigh in On GE
?I don?t think dietitians have a good grasp on the GE foods issue,? says
Tagtow, who adds that even for professionals interested in the topic, it?s
very difficult to stay on top of the latest information. But Tagtow also
reports an increase in HEN membership and inquiries regarding GE foods,
indicating that dietitians are starting to realize that GE foods is an
important issue they need to be informed about.
Wading through the science and emotion is essential to communicating a
message to your community regarding GE foods. Jaffe suggests that dietitians
turn to reputable sources of information such as the CSPI Web site, the FDA
Web site, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, and the National
Academies of Sciences Report. Barbara Hartman, MS, RD, LD, HEN DPG chair,
suggests that dietitians may find that HEN offers networking opportunities
with many dietitians of varying opinions on GE foods.
Dietitians are finding themselves in the thick of the battle on GE foods.
Look at the 15 dietitians of San Luis Obispo County, Calif., who signed
their support of Measure Q in September 23, 2004, stating that ?registered
dietitians in the county feel that it is premature and unwise to introduce
these GE organisms into our open environment when there is no proven health
benefit to do so. Conversely, they will most certainly bring us many
potential health risks.?
?When it comes to GE foods, the more I read, the more questions I have. Are
there any longitudinal effects from consuming GE foods? Are there
nutritional differences between conventional and organic products? How do GE
grown foods affect agriculture?? comments Tagtow.
Dietitians need to be able to answer tough questions when the community
cries out, ?Should we be eating GE foods??
?First, we need to educate ourselves about potential benefits and dangers
and learn more about decision making under the precautionary principles,?
says Barbara Scott, MPH, RD, School of Medicine at University of Nevada,
Reno. ?After we educate ourselves and know why we believe what we believe
and understand where gray areas are, then we can communicate this to our
patients so they can make an informed decision for themselves.?
Special thanks to Christine McCullum, PhD, RD, for guidance with this
1. McCullum C. Taking a closer look at biotechnology and genetically
engineered foods. Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Newsletter. Winter
2003. Available at:
2. Genetically modified wheat is still a market risk. Western Organization
of Resource Councils, USA. November 16, 2004. Available at:
3. A growing concern: Protecting the food supply in an era of pharmaceutical
and industrial crops. Union of Concerned Scientists. December 15, 2004.
Available at: [www.ucsusa.org
4. Pope hints at thumbs-down for GM food. Catholic News. October 18, 2004.
Available at: [cathnews.com
5. Americans? opinions about genetically modified foods remain divided, but
majority want a strong regulatory system. The Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology. November 24, 2004. Available at:
6. GE foods in the market. Cornell Cooperative Extension. November 2003.
Available at: [www.geo-pie.cornell.edu
7. Bren L. Genetic engineering: The future of foods? FDA Consumer.
November-December 2003. Available at:
8. Study shows lack of research into GM health effects. Medical News Today.
June 24, 2004. Available at:
9. Composition of altered food products, not method used to create them,
should be basis for federal safety assessment. The National Academies. July
27, 2004. Available at:
10. Leahy S. Crop testing rules menace food supply, say critics. IPS News
Agency. November 25, 2004. Available at:
11. National Opinion Poll on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods.
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). April 2001. Available at:
12. Snow AA, Andow DA, Gets P, et al. Genetically engineered organisms and
the environment: Current status and recommendations. Ecological Society of
America. 2004. Available at:
13. Marrero C. Biodiversity in danger: The genetic contamination of Mexican
maize. Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center. June 2004.
14. Benbrook C. Genetically engineered crops and pesticide use in the United
States: The first nine years. Northwest Science and Environmental Policy
Center, Sandpoint, Idaho. October 25, 2004. Available at:
15. New research reveals widespread GMO contamination and threats to local
agriculture from the worlds? first commercially planted genetically
engineered tree, Organic Consumers Association. September 9, 2004. Available
16. Polis J. GE grass threat to land and economy. The Portland Alliance.
2004. Available at: [www.theportlandalliance.org
17. Trinity County board of supervisors votes to ban genetically engineered
crops and animals. Organic Consumers Association. August 3, 2004. Available
18. Farmers reject GM food crops. The Kenya Times. August 25, 2004.
Available at: [www.kentimes.com
19. Blaney B. Hybrid sunflower oil free of trans fats. The Associated Press,
September 7, 2004. Available at: [msnbc.msn.com
20. A showcase project to develop a genetically modified crop for Africa has
failed. New Scientist. 2004;181(2433):7. Available at:
21. Viewpoint: ?Mom killers? and convents. Inquirer News Service,
Philippines. October 25, 2004. Available at:
22. Registered dietitians support for Measure Q. San Luis Obispo County.
September 23, 2004.
GE Foods on the Supermarket Shelves
More than 50 biotech food products have been evaluated by the FDA and found
to be as safe as conventional foods, including the following:
? Canola oil;
? Cottonseed oil;
? Sugar beets;
? Sweet corn; and
*For a complete list of GE foods that have completed FDA consultation, go to
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
The Center for Science in the Public Interest
The Council for Biotechnology Information
Rural Advancement Foundation International
ADA, Position on Biotechnology and the Future of Foods
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