Genetically Engineered Foods: Good or Bad? (Part 2)
Are genetically engineered foods safe?
Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part Q&A on genetically engineered foods. Click here to read Part 1: What are genetically engineered foods?
(Published 3/21/00) As far as we know, the genetically engineered foods in our markets are safe. Foods such as tomatoes, soy, and corn have been altered at the genetic level to make them taste better, more nutritious, or easier to produce. So far, these products haven't been linked to any problems or illnesses, but many critics believe it's too early to tell. They feel genetically engineered foods present serious environmental and health risks.
For example, in order to reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture, some biotechnology companies are breeding plants to contain a natural pesticide that comes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). Organic farmers already use this pest control method to protect their crops, but widespread use could stimulate insect resistance to the bacteria. I'm also concerned about efforts to develop plants which are resistant to herbicides and make it easier for farmers to spray their fields. I'd like to see the agriculture industry move away from using toxic chemicals -- instead of creating plants which tolerate them better.
More troubling are concerns that genetically engineered foods might cause new health problems, such as food allergies. Some experts worry that transferring genes from an allergenic plant (peanuts, for example) to another plant could have dangerous repercussions. Could someone with a peanut allergy suffer an attack after eating a genetically modified tomato? The possibility is small, but not nonexistent. The Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of genetically engineered foods -- so people with allergies have no way of knowing about potential risks.
People are also concerned about scientists using antibiotic-resistance marker genes in the bioengineering process. They worry that eating these genetically engineered foods might make antibiotics less effective when we get sick. One European study suggests that foods which are bioengineered with antibotic-resistant genes could affect the bacteria in the human intestinal tract -- possibly creating "superbugs" capable of resisting even the strongest antibiotics.
And at a FDA hearing on genetically engineered foods last November, Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., director of the Center for Science in the Public interest, expressed concern that levels of naturally occurring toxins, such as solanine (found in the green areas of potatoes), might increase in the bioengineering process. Results of another European study indicate that rats fed genetically modified potatoes suffered stunted growth. The list of concerns goes on.
At this time, most of the research in this area is preliminary. No one knows for sure what harm (if any) genetically engineered foods pose. Like you, I'll be keeping a close eye on this subject. Meanwhile, I think we as consumers must demand more information on our food labels -- while we continue to educate ourselves about the foods we eat.