Genetically-modified foods (GM foods) have made a big splash in the news lately. European environmental organizations and public interest groups have been actively protesting against GM foods for months, and recent controversial studies about the effects of genetically-modified corn pollen on monarch butterfly caterpillars1, 2 have brought the issue of genetic engineering to the forefront of the public consciousness in the U.S. In response to the upswelling of public concern, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held three open meetings in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California to solicit public opinions and begin the process of establishing a new regulatory procedure for government approval of GM foods3. I attended the FDA meeting held in November 1999 in Washington, D.C., and here I will attempt to summarize the issues involved and explain the U.S. government's present role in regulating GM food. What are genetically-modified foods?
The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant. The new genetically-modified plant will gain drought tolerance as well. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms also can be used. The best known example of this is the use of B.t. genes in corn and other crops. B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal to insect larvae. B.t. crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the European corn borer. For two informative overviews of some of the techniques involved in creating GM foods, visit Biotech Basics (sponsored by Monsanto) http://www.biotechknowledge.monsanto.com/biotech/bbasics.nsf/index or Techniques of Plant Biotechnology from the National Center for Biotechnology Education http://www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk/NCBE/GMFOOD/techniques.
What are some of the advantages
of GM foods?
The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways:
Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as B.t. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market4, 5. Herbicide tolerance
For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be...
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