Considering the Nature and Issues of Food Biotechnology

Reprinted with permission from the North Carolina
Biotechnology Center,
Ever since humans began cultivating crops instead of hunting and gathering food, we have been
genetically modifying our food. Until recently, this meant simply breeding crops with the best
characteristics and saving those seeds to plant the next year.
As we've learned more about DNA - the molecule in every cell that gives the instructions for life - we
understand better why some corn tastes sweeter and squash and other plants resist viruses. These traits are
associated with genes, pieces of DNA that give a plant or animal specific traits.
Today we can insert into a plant cell a gene that carries a beneficial trait. That gene can come from the
same type of plant, from a different plant or even from an animal. For example, a gene from citrus fruit
may allow potatoes to grow in soil with high acid levels.
These advances carry a lot of potential benefits for farmers, food processors, consumers and the
environment. These advances also carry a lot of questions, from whether the technology creates new
problems to whether it's right to "mess with Mother Nature." This brochure addresses some of these
questions and illustrates the advantages that biotechnology brings to one of our most basic needs - food.
Overview of Food Biotechnology
Biotech food, also called genetically modified or genetically engineered, is grown from seeds that carry
specific genes to produce desired characteristics. The first biotech food on the market, in the early 1990s,
was a tomato that ripened on the vine and could be transported without bruising.
Today, the products of agricultural biotechnology include plants that are protected from insects or are
tolerant to herbicides. Biotech foods have now made their way onto our tables: more than a third of the
corn and more than half of the soybeans in the 1999 U.S. harvest were grown from seeds produced using
As biotechnology crops and foods have proliferated, so have questions and concerns. European
consumers - perhaps because of unrelated food scares about diseased beef and contaminated soda - are
arguing to label biotech food or keep it out of stores.
U.S. consumers are starting to pay more attention to these issues. Concerns range from food safety to
environmental impact. Ethical questions, including whether it is right to change the genetic makeup of a
plant, also frame the debate. However, some objections that activists raise also apply to conventional
crops grown with modern high-intensity agriculture.
Biotechnology is still the world's best hope for crops that are hardier, have a higher yield and are more
nutritious. Individuals, governments, corporations and public interest groups must weigh the benefits and
risks. The following facts provide a basis for further discussion.
Questions and Answers
Who benefits from biotech crops and food?
We all benefit from reduced food production costs. Farmers have reduced expenses, reaped higher crop
yields, and used less pesticide, which is good for the environment. Future biotech crops will allow farmers
to grow food in areas with poor soil or irrigation. New crops will also be more nutritious. Businesses that
have developed biotech seeds make a profit. Consumers may soon be able to buy oils with reduced
saturated fat, fruits with higher vitamin C and E levels, and rice with more protein and vitamin A to
prevent blindness.
Are biotech foods safe to eat?
Yes. Biotech foods have been a safe part of our nation's food supply for nearly a decade. The 40-plus
biotech foods reviewed so far by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have proven to be as safe as
conventional foods.
Are biotech foods different from traditional foods?
Biotech foods and crops look and taste the same as traditional foods and crops. The difference between
the two is usually one or two genes out of tens of thousands in the entire plant. These few genes yield
traits that are beneficial to the grower, the consumer or the environment, but they do not change the basic
nature of the plant. By analogy, if a Chrysler owner puts a Toyota carburetor on his car, the Chrysler is
still a Chrysler.
Are biotech foods labeled?
No. Some people favor labeling all biotech foods, but that policy would be difficult and costly to
implement. Traditional and biotech crops are mixed in the food distribution system. Simple tests often
can't distinguish between the two, so routine testing to determine if a food has been modified by
biotechnology would be expensive and time consuming. Labeling is required for biotech foods only if a
substance known to cause an allergic reaction is present or if a food's composition or nutritional content
has been substantially changed.
Can biotech food cause allergic reactions?
A very small percentage of foods, whether traditional or biotech, can potentially cause allergic reactions
in some people. The FDA screens for those effects. If a biotech food contains a gene from a food known
to cause reactions, the company must label the food, unless it proves the product does not cause a
reaction. Foods do not cause allergic reactions just because they are produced using biotechnology.
Will biotech foods create new allergies?
Biotechnology may actually help remove allergy-causing substances from food. Scientists are also
working to identify these substances by their structure, so problems can be caught before any reactions
occur. The FDA looks for these substances in any new food, whatever its origin. Using biotechnology to
alter food may be safer than traditional breeding methods, which could accidentally increase natural
toxins or allergens.
How does the government regulate biotech foods?
Three government agencies test and approve food regardless of the method used to breed the crops from
which it comes. The FDA looks for harmful substances in food and ensures foods are safe. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigate and monitor the
potential agricultural and environmental impacts of biotech food crops.
How are the environmental effects of biotech crops regulated?
Companies must conduct extensive field tests to prove their crops won't damage the surrounding soil,
water, animals or plants before they can sell biotech seeds to farmers. University and industry researchers
continue to study the effects of biotech crops on the surrounding environment. Farmers have planted these
crops commercially across the country for four years, including nearly 200 million acres in 1999, with no
reports of significant problems.
Will herbicide-tolerant crops and insect-resistant plants lead to more chemicals in the environment?
The most common pesticide made by biotech plants is Bt toxin, a natural substance produced by bacteria
found in soil and used by organic farmers for years. (See GM Corn sidebar.) Because the pesticide's
repeated application is not practical for large-scale farming, the gene to produce it was incorporated into
plants. U.S. farmers planting cotton modified to make Bt toxin used one million pounds less pesticide in
1998 than in previous years. Plants have also been modified to resist a weed-killing chemical that is much
less harmful to the environment than older herbicides. For some crops the amount of herbicide can be
Will these new crops create insects, weeds or viruses that aren't controlled by chemicals?
When humans develop ways to combat pests - bacteria, weeds or insects - then a few pests with resistance
to the treatment survive and reproduce. More than 100 weeds have already emerged that can survive the
herbicides used liberally around traditional crops since the 1950s. To slow the evolution of bugs resistant
to the Bt toxin pesticide, the EPA now requires farmers to plant a certain percentage of traditional crops
alongside the biotech variety. Researchers continue searching for new ways to manage pests.
Are biotech foods natural?
Our traditional staple crops, such as corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, have been bred for greater quantity
and quality for thousands of years. Today we continue this tradition of genetic modification using both
conventional breeding practices and biotechnology techniques to insert specific genes for crop
improvement. No food is completely natural except for wild berries, nuts, fish and game harvested from
the wild.
Looking to the Future
The world's population is rapidly increasing, while a lower percentage of people farm now than ever
before. We must ensure that the U.S. and the world have enough food, and biotechnology is one of several
tools we can use. The greatest beneficiaries will be farmers in the Third World, where crops can
potentially grow on less land, produce higher yields with less labor and thrive in places where they
haven't before. Nutritional levels in food will rise. Risks, which are closely regulated in the U.S., have
proven so far to be minimal, especially when measured against these compelling benefits.
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