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Are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods Dangerous? The Essentials on Both Sides of the Debate

BIO 2006, the annual international convention sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), has just wrapped up in Chicago. At the four-day conference, representatives from 24 countries gave presentations on biotechnology and its increasing role in diseases, bioterrorism, poverty, environmental sustainability and agriculture.

Genetically Modified Foods

Was that cracker made from GM wheat? In the United States, there's no way to tell.

What many Americans may not realize -- largely because, unlike in Europe and Japan, biotech foods are not required to be labeled as such -- is that biotech foods, or genetically modified (GM) foods, are already an integral part of our society. That 24+ countries are now meeting annually to discuss, among other aspects, how GM foods will impact the world is a sign of just how monumental these innovations have become.

But behind all of the fanfare, a growing number of voices are speaking out against genetically modified foods, and questioning whether their benefits may be too good to be true.

GM Foods Enjoy a 1,400-Percent Increase

For those who are new to the topic, genetically modified foods are grown from organisms that have had their DNA altered in a way that does not occur in nature. These genetically modified organisms (GMO) are used to grow GM plants, which in turn grow GM food crops. The technology is referred to as a number of things, including biotechnology, gene technology, recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering. All are referring to a similar overall process.

The first commercially available GM crops were those that could survive herbicides, insects and/or viruses, which offered farmers substantially increased protection for their crops at a lower cost to them.

In 1996, less than 5 percent of U.S. soybean acres were planted with these herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops. By 2002, this had risen to 75 percent -- a 1,400-percent increase in six years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Biotech Firms Confident in Genetically Modified Foods

"In the ten years since biotech crops have first been grown, the environment, farmers, and consumers worldwide have enjoyed many new benefits," said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO. "Biotech crops are widely accepted by farmers in 21 countries, and have had an enormous global economic impact. Few technologies have had the extraordinary acceptance and growth rate that biotech crops have enjoyed."

Among the most touted benefits of GM crops, outside of their ability to withstand insects and herbicides, is the notion that they could make foods more nutritious. One such food, for example, is golden rice, which contains beta-carotene; another, biotech pigs with increased omega-3 fats.

Other biotech products being developed include edible vaccines, reducing the spread of malaria from mosquitoes and crops that could reduce environmental waste. See the box below for some examples of GM products already on the market or being developed, according to the USDA's "Amber Waves." (Note: This is not a complete list of GM products on the market.)

  • Roundup Ready® alfalfa, lettuce, sugar beets, soybeans, canola, wheat and creeping bentgrass
  • Bt insect-protected apples
  • Disease-resistant bananas
  • Disease-resistant canola corn
  • Rootworm-resistant corn
  • YieldGard® corn
  • Glyphosate-tolerant corn
  • Insect-resistant corn
  • Insect-protected cotton
  • Next-generation Roundup Ready® cotton
  • Vegetative insecticidal protein cotton
  • LibertyLink® rice
  • Insect-protected soybeans
  • LibertyLink® soybeans
  • Fusarium-resistant wheat
  • Fruits and vegetables with longer shelf life
  • Golden rice
  • Phytase for animal feed (reduces phosphorus pollution from animal waste)
  • Increased-energy-availability corn
  • Improved drought-response corn
  • Corn amylase for enhanced ethanol production
  • Soybeans with improved protein functionality
  • Edible vaccines and antibiotics
  • Anticoagulants, blood substitutes, and hormones created from plants
  • Plants that are able to absorb and store toxic substances]

"Agricultural biotechnology has changed the way farmers grow crops, and raise and breed livestock and poultry. The next generation of biotech products will offer consumers increased nutrition and health benefits, such as cereals and corns with improved protein quality, and soybeans that produce healthier oils with reduced saturated fat and trans fats," Greenwood said.

Potential Dangers of GM Foods Have Critics on Guard

Genetically Modified Foods

Rats fed one type of GM corn, which was altered to produce a pesticide called Bt-toxin, developed kidney inflammation, altered blood cell counts and organ lesions.

There is no proof yet that genetically modified foods are dangerous, but enough suspicions have been raised that certain nations are putting things on hold. Switzerland, for instance, passed a five-year moratorium on planting GM crops, and 4,500 European jurisdictions and countries and regions in Africa, South America and Australia have passed bills for GM-free zones, according to Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception.

Meanwhile, Smith points out, in the United States legislation has been rushed through 14 states by biotech firms, and local governments did not have a chance to create such zones.

The three biggest potential concerns surrounding GM foods, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are as follows:

1. Allergenicity. The transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods could pose a problem for those already allergic. There is also a possibility of the creation of new allergies.

2. Gene transfer. Genes could potentially be transferred from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. This could have a negative effect on human health, such as the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes to humans.

3. Outcrossing. Genes from GM plants can contaminate conventional crops in the wild through natural pollination and other processes (like wind). Further, seeds from GM and conventional crops can inadvertently be mixed. This "outcrossing" represents a threat to the future safety and security of the food supply, and has already occurred. In the United States, for instance, a type of GM corn approved only for animal feed showed up in products meant for human consumption.

Studies on genetically modified foods have yielded conflicting results, but some have been concerning. Smith found numerous examples of such studies from 2005 alone, including:

  • A scientist from the Russian Academy of Sciences found that 55.6 percent of the offspring of rats fed GM soy died, compared to only 9 percent of the offspring of rats fed non-GM soy. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine asked that the study be immediately repeated.

  • A 10-year GM pea project, worth nearly $2 million, was stopped in Australia after it was found that the peas created immune responses in mice, which indicates they could cause serious allergic reactions in people. The results were found using advanced tests that had never been used to evaluate GM foods before.

  • Rats fed Monsanto's GM corn, which was altered to produce a pesticide called Bt-toxin, developed kidney inflammation, altered blood cell counts and organ lesions. A French expert who reviews GM safety assessments for the government said this, and other studies, indicates that Bt crops react similarly to chemical pesticides. Monsanto convinced regulators to overlook the findings, using a defense that was criticized by many as being unscientific.

The debate surrounding genetically modified foods is only going to grow as GM crops and other biotech products become increasingly popular. As it stands, GM foods in the United States are not labeled. Until (and if) labeling regulations change, your best bet to limit or eliminate GM foods from your diet is to choose organic foods whenever possible (by definition, they're not allowed to contain genetically modified organisms).

Recommended Reading

So Now What Exactly Does "Certified Organic" Mean? Is it Really Organic

Is Pasteurization More of a Health Risk or a Safety Benefit?


BIO 2006 to Highlight the Future of Plant and Animal Biotechnology Benefits

USDA's Amber Waves: Consumers and the Future of Biotech Foods in the United States

2005: A Scary Year for Genetically Engineered Crops

World Health Organization: Biotechnology (GM Foods)

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