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.
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
Potential Dangers of GM Foods Have Critics on Guard
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
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).
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