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Genetically Engineered Foods: Good or Bad? (Part 1)

Q. What exactly are genetically engineered foods? The term sounds spooky, but I must confess, I'm really not sure what it means.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part Q&A on genetically engineered foods. Click here to read Part 2: Are genetically engineered foods safe?

(Published 3/20/00) Genetically engineered foods -- sometimes called genetically modified, bioengineered, or Frankenstein foods -- are basically plants or animals which have been altered at the genetic level to make them in some way "better." A plant, for instance, can be hardier, may take longer to spoil, or become more resistant to pests, or even become more nutritious. Genetically engineered foods were introduced to the U.S. market in 1994 with the "Flavr Savr" tomato. This tomato was genetically altered to ripen slowly -- so it wouldn't spoil by the time it got to markets.

In a sense, farmers have been using a low-tech type of genetic engineering for ages. Cross breeding and selection lead to plant hybrids of all types, from tastier corn to more glorious roses. The tangelo was derived from crossing a tangerine and a grapefruit. Of course, these modifications developed gradually -- it could take many generations of a plant to attain the sought-after improvements. Now researchers can isolate a gene bearing a particularly desirable trait and insert it into the DNA of the plant they want to improve. The result? An "instant" hybrid.

You may have heard about these genetically engineered foods:
Soybean crops which are resistant to an herbicide that is used to control weeds.
Corn and potatoes which produce a bacterial toxin that kills certain caterpillars and other insects -- eliminating the need for certain pesticides.
Squash and papaya which are resistant to certain viruses.
Vegetable oils with modified fatty acid profiles (laurate canola and high oleic soybean oil).
Genetically engineered foods have a great potential for doing good. For example, "golden rice" is produced with a special beta carotene gene. Millions of children in developing countries don't get enough vitamin A in their diets. This rice could protect them from blindness. However, the impact of these foods on our health and on the environment are still unknown. My gut feeling is that this technology is advancing too fast.

The subject of genetically engineered foods is far more controversial in Europe than in the United States. So far, genetically engineered foods in the U.S. aren't even labeled (they are in Europe). A number of organizations have been calling for both labeling and the Food and Drug Administration to review all genetically engineered foods before they are marketed. Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the FDA that foods containing significant amounts of biotech ingredients should disclose that fact on their labels, and that "any significant reductions in nutritional value or significant changes in sensory characteristics should be indicated on labels." The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed new rules which would prohibit genetically engineered foods from being labeled "organic." I absolutely agree.

Tomorrow, I'll continue this discussion on genetically engineered foods by talking about whether or not these foods are safe to eat. The foods on the market today appear to be safe, but I want to address your questions about genetically engineered foods reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics, causing new food allergies, and their impact on the environment. Please come back for that Q&A.


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