Thursday, December 3, 2009

Final Report: Genetically Modified Foods

The Science

David Booy

Recent developments in biotechnology have created the new categories of GM foods. The main application of this genetic engineering is to modify plant varieties. This has progressed farther than the genetic modification of animals because of the comparative success rate and simplicity of the process. We can now modify almost every major food crop consistently. Rice, possibly the most important food crop in the world is now genetically engineered routinely. These modified crops are starting to be used by industrialized farmers in the US, but smaller farms in poorer countries still have not adopted GM crops on a wide scale. The lack of access to this technology and doubts about the technology and benefits of these crops hinder their use.

One of the earliest consistent methods of gene modification in plants makes use of a natural system for altering the genome. The bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens is naturally present in soil and will infect a wounded plant. The bacterial cells are able to transfer a Ti plasmid into the plant cells. This plasmid integrates into the chromosome of the plant cell. This plasmid DNA causes the plant to produce food for the bacteria and stimulate cancerous growth in the plant. Scientists have taken the bacteria and altered the Ti plasmid by removing the bacterial food and cancer causing genes. These are then replaced by another gene of interest. These are usually genes that create herbicide resistance, bacteria/virus tolerance, or insect resistance in the plant.

Alternative methods have also been developed. Genetic engineers can now use a “gene-gun” to insert DNA into the plant genome. This gun “shoots” tiny gold bullets coated with DNA into cells. This technology has become more modernized and the propulsion system for the gold bullets now utilizes He gas.

One of the most commonly used genes in modern GM crops is the Bt gene for insect resistance. This is being studied and planned for commercial use in Chinese rice farms. It has already integrated into cotton with generally good results. An older example of a GM food is the Flavr Savr tomato. Produced by Calgene in 1992, this was the first genetically modified food to be approved for sale. The added antisense genes in these tomatoes prevent prevented the softening the fruit caused by polygalacturonase. New “Golden rice” has been modified to have high vitamin A content. Almost every major food crop has been or is being modified.

With this technology so advanced and widespread, GM foods are going to become increasingly common in coming years. In 2006, 252 million acres of transgenic crops were grown. This raises numerous ethical considerations that governments, environmentalists, farmers, and consumers will all have to take into account.

The Pros of GM Foods

David Booy

The growing consumption of GM foods is very appealing to many due to a wide range of potential benefits. One of the main benefits that has been discussed is an improved crop yield. Reduced ripening time, larger fruits, increased stress tolerance, and resistance to pests and disease all increase the amount of food a given amount of land could produce. This would increase farmer efficiency allowing for more people to migrate into other sectors of the economy, boosting national output.

Increased food supply will eventually be needed for our growing population and GM foods are the best way to do this without clearing more land for farmer use. By increasing land efficiency instead of land quantity, we will preserve the environment. This would benefit every person and future generations. More resistance to pests would also decrease some of the need for insecticides and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals contaminate our resources and damage natural ecosystems. They also have negative effect on the farmers who use them.

GM foods could increase health worldwide. Malnutrition is a very real problem in poor countries. GM crops would increase yields enough to allow these poor nations to feed themselves. It would promote independence and bolster economies as well. GM crops can also be altered so they possess more nutrients. All these factors could increase health worldwide.

Using biotechnology could create better products. Crops could be modified to be better tasting and better looking. Not only could we improve current crops, we might be able to create new products that could be used in a variety of different ways. Genetic modification of food sources is potentially beneficial now and it holds so much promise. These benefits have prompted many biotech companies and governments to sponsor and produce new GM crops at an increasing rate.

Cons of Genetically Modified Foods

Clay Del Prince

Health Risks

While genetically modified foods promise a host of positive benefits, they also potentially bring about a series of negative health impacts. Health risks that may be brought on by GM foods include rapid aging, alterations to the structure of major bodily organs, infertility, immune problems, gastrointestinal dysfunction, and disruption to proper insulin regulation. The science and technology used in GM foods that causes such problems includes the transfer of antibiotic resistance markers and the unintended transfer of trans-genes, most likely between species. Exchanging genes between species is an unintended result of GM foods that has people very worried, especially when they do not know that the food they are consuming has been genetically altered. One such effect could be the human intestinal tract acquiring a gene from a GM food that impairs its ability to manufacture necessary enzymes. Another concern with genetically modified foods is that their testing is often not sufficient. Many studies involving rats and small mammals have found negative physiological impacts of GM foods. Even if such studies on animals show no negative effects, we do not know whether humans will have adverse effects. Genetically modified foods have not been on the market for very long. The effects that GM foods have on the human body after 35-40 years of consumption are yet to be seen.

But while these are the potential risks of GM foods, there have been very few, if any, cases of negative effects of GM foods in humans. Pro-biotech food groups and most scientists agree that the consumption of GM crops is safe, and contend that while there are risks of gene-transfer and the like, they are mild or are outweighed by the benefits. Genetically modified foods are a highly politicized issue at the center of an extremely polarized debate, so it is difficult to find an un-biased viewpoint.

Environmental Risks

Genetically Modified foods may also have adverse effects on the environment. Plants have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pests. While this is beneficial over the short-term, eventually this will cause the natural selection of pests that are resistant to the endotoxin-releasing plants. A benefit of GM plants that are resistant to pests is that they reduce the use of herbicides. If new “superpests” come along that are resistant to the endotoxins of the GM plants, it could lead to a whole new line of damaging herbicides. Also, gene transference between plants could lead to the extinction of certain wild type plants and animals or the destruction of niche organisms, reducing biodiversity. But for the most part, the possible negative effect GM crops are having on the environment right now remains unknown.

The Role of the FDA in GM Foods

The FDA regulates all of the food that American consumes, but its policy concerning GM foods raises debates. Part of the controversy is the fact that according to the FDA, a food that gains GRAS status (generally recognized as safe) is allowed to be commercialized without any additional testing. GM crops have GRAS status, even though whether or not they received the proper testing is still a topic for debate. This GRAS policy was decided by the FDA in 1992, and it still holds today. Proponents of GM foods state that GM foods have been proven to be as safe as the scientific method permits and that this is reflected by the International Council for Science. There have been many accusations against the FDA stating that GM food trials with negative results were deleted, due to the affiliation that the FDA has with the agricultural technology company Monsanto. Another large public concern involving the FDA is the fact that GM foods do not need to be separately labeled for consumers.

Personal Analysis/Opinion on the Cons and FDA

As it stands today, there is far too much that is not known about the human and environmental effects of GM foods. The benefits of GM foods are many, as are the risks to human health and the environment. More studies and trials need to be done to test the safety of consumer foods and the environmental impact of GM farming techniques; studies that can be proven to be performed without bias or conflicts of interest. The FDA needs to adopt a new policy with more oversight over the production of GM foods. Each GM food that is slated to go to market needs to be tested individually. For example, GM apples and GM oranges should both be tested, even if produced by the same technique. The FDA also needs to label genetically modified foods as such. This allows people that are wary of the negative health impacts of GM foods to be able to avoid such products.

GM Food Regulation in the U.S. and Obama’s Views

Andrew Doty

Genetically modified foods are currently regulated under existing laws for food regulation, with oversight from the FDA, USDA, and EPA. According to the Guide to U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Food and Agricultural Biotechnology, “the products of biotechnology are regulated under the some U.S. laws that govern the health, safety, efficacy, and environmental impacts of similar products derived by more traditional methods.” (i) In 1986, the federal government adopted the policy that new legislation was unnecessary. The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology posited that the process of genetic modification, itself, did not offer any unusual risk, and products of any origin should be analyzed for safety in their intended use. However, advancements in technology made the issue more complex, and regulations for certain biotechnologies arose, based upon the specifics of their modifications. A wide variety of laws control the use of genetically modified agricultural products both for their use as food, and for further uses if the organism or extractions from it in other products; “A plant could be altered to make proteins that could be extracted to make industrial chemicals. In such cases, both the genetically engineered organism and its products could be the subject of regulatory review” (ii).

Despite a few rumors of anti-biotechnology sentiments from the Obama administration, President Obama's statements and actions seem to favor genetically modified foods, and biotechnology in general; a former board member of MonsantoCo., Sharon Long, is an important scientific advisor to President Obama. When both 2008 candidates were sent a questionnaire by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Obama's statement on genetically engineered food was very positive, “Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods,” although, he also gave the caveat that these biotechnologies would be “abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.” He seems to advocate a future of genetically modified foods, albeit one with strict oversight.

As stated, genetically modified food is regulated under the same standards as conventionally produced food, with various products of genetically modified organisms similarly regulated in the same manner as products not of genetically modified origin. The USDA oversees genetically modified meat whole foods; meat is regulated by the Meat Inspection Act (MIA), Poultry Product Inspection Act (PPIA), and Egg Product Inspection Act (EPIA). The FDA regulates genetically modified plant whole foods, as well as additives, animal feed and infant formula, dietary supplements, and medical foods. All of these except supplements fall under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). Supplements have the separate Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. The FDA regulates all genetically modified drugs, biologics, and medical devices, with the exception of animal-based biologics, which are regulated by the USDA and the Virus Serum Toxin Act (VSTA). The Public Health Service Act (PHSA) covers human biologics, while diagnostics, medical devices, and drugs for human or animal use are all governed by the FDCA, which also regulates cosmetics derived from genetically modified origins. Most other products that could be derived from transgenic organisms, such as fuels and detergents, are overseen by the EPA, mostly through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which generally only tests newly developed chemicals, and wouldn't regulate a chemical differently for transgenic products within it. Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act covers pesticides.

In general, the regulation of genetic modification of food, or products from genetically modified organisms, is complicated and at times confusing; animal-based biologicals are regulated not by the FDA, but by the USDA. Beneath this layer of bureaucracy, though, there is little regulation with regard to genetically modifying organisms; because bacillus thuringiensis is deemed safe for humans, it is deemed safe to be genetically added into corn that humans will eat. However, when genetically added, the bacteria is constantly active in all parts of the plant, as opposed to only being activated in insect stomachs, according to Clair Hope Cummings (Certain Peril, 14). The FDA tests food additives for safety, normally, however, if the substance added to a food has been “generally recognized as safe,” then it is not considered an additive and approval is not required. This holds true, as well, if the substance is added genetically. In light of this, it's difficult to see President Obama's call for “stronger regulatory oversight” as particularly anti-biotechnology. The oversight of genetically modified foods, now, is rather low; for the most part, genetically modified food is not tested any more, or in any different manner, than conventionally produced food is. He proposes a natural progression, where the regulation evolves with changing technology, and the emergence of new methods of producing genetically modified food, as well as expanded uses of the food and substances extracted from it. Genetic modification of “food” has a far broader scope, and far larger impact, than when most of the policies around it were created. He takes a political middle ground, arguing for the continuation of research into genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but also voices that he has taken the concerns of anti-GMO advocates to heart, by addressing the need for new regulations and better testing. The policy is hard to argue against; if there are no deleterious results in the new, more adequate tests, then it's hard to argue against further development, and if there are, it will appear on the tests and GMOs may be more regulated.

The future of GM foods

Stella Chung

Even though people all over the world are weighing the pros and cons of genetically modified foods, it is already certain that GM foods are here to stay. Corn, soybeans, and other major crops produced in the U.S. are being genetically modified. An additional 1.3 million farmers planted 10.7 million new hectares of biotech crops including three new countries in 2008, according to the ISAAA brief Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2008.[i] Many nations, including China, India, Brazil and Argentina are investing in GM rice, cotton, tobacco, and more. In India, Bt cotton led to a doubling of production between 2002-2007, resulting in great commercial gains.[ii] And according to the Joint Research Centre, in 5 years there will be over 120 GM traits in use, compared to today’s 30.[iii]

The European Union is one of the few regions that continue to resist GM foods, but this is becoming more difficult in today’s globalized world. Recently US soy shipments to European nations have been halted due to trace amounts of genetically modified crops in the dust of the shipments.[iv] The EU wants to avoid GM contamination, but cannot constantly deny food imports. Organic farmers are also encountering trouble in preventing GM crops from contaminating their own crops through pollen carried by the wind from other farms.[v] GM crops are everywhere now, an inevitable part of life.

But even if we do have the ability to separate organic from GM crops in the future, will it matter? The scientific community today is in a general consensus over the safety of the consumption of GM foods. There are some concerns over possible allergic reactions and long term effects, but as genetic engineering techniques and our understanding of DNA become more advanced there will probably be even less chance of adverse reactions to the foods. (New methods include using genetic fingerprinting techniques to identify plants with optimal traits, in order to speed traditional cross-breeding)[vi]. The environmental impact is less certain, and should be researched more extensively. After all, having the world’s farmers grow near identical crops is sure to be significant, even dangerous if something were to specifically harm a popular strain of GM crops. Some studies have indicated possible connections between monarch butterfly populations dwindling and Bt corn use rising, but the innumerable other environmental factors make it inconclusive.[vii] Further research into the influence of biotech crops on biodiversity is essential in order to safely expand the use of GM crops.

GM food will also most likely be an essential component in the next Green Revolution. By 2030 there will be about a 50 percent increase in the demand for food to satisfy the over 8 billion members of the world population.[viii] GM will not solely solve the food crisis, but it, among other initiatives, can help increase food security by increasing crop yields per acre and creating plants that can thrive in adverse climates. Biotech companies, most prominently Monsanto, are engineering crops that are more productive given less land, fertilizer, water, and salinity-free soil, which can greatly benefit poor farmers in third world countries without access to these resources.

The current generation of GM crops has focused mostly on herbicide resistance and insect resistance, helping farmers lower overall costs and control insect pests and weeds with less environmental damage than by traditional farming methods.[ix] However, someday, GM food will also become more nutritious and help deliver cheap, mass-produced vaccines and other medication. Monsanto engineered a new soy bean containing omega-3 fatty acids, and is undergoing clinical trials. Scientists are hoping that genetically modified tomatoes can be used to cheaply produce vaccines for HIV and hepatitis B.

How soon such super crops will impact our daily lives is unclear. Monsanto’s soy bean has already been approved by the FDA, and may be commercially available soon. But in other cases, groups like the Royal Society say that it will take at least 8-16 years before crops resistant to drought, salinity, or disease appear, and even longer for ones that require less fertilizer. [x] Biotech companies, however state that it will take little time, as indicated by Monsanto’s pledge to” develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030 and would require 30 percent less water, land and energy to grow.”[xi] This is most likely an exaggerated statement though, and it will take much more time for biotech crops to have such an impact.

The only thing that is truly slowing down the progress of GM foods is lack of understanding. Opponents of GM foods have cultivated the image of “Franken-foods” that can cause harm to peoples’ health and the environment. It is time for honest discussion over GM food and its social, political, economic and environmental impact. GM organisms may have ended farming traditions, but in today’s rapidly changing world, with increased demands for more food at less environmental or monetary cost, different farming techniques are necessary. The loudest arguments against GM foods are not firmly based in science, but rooted in fear of this new technology.[xii] In order to allay these fears, the US government must educate the public, closely regulate and ensure that biotech companies are open and honest about their products. This means having the FDA, as well as third-party scientists, conduct thorough research on crop effectiveness and safety. Only then can GM foods be grown safely and used to their full potential.

In a few years we will start seeing a second-generation of GM foods with more consumer benefits. Even so, we will not see the many promises about GM foods come to fruition for most likely a few decades, and when we do they will not be a “cure-all” as advertised, but they will be helpful towards sustaining modern lifestyles everywhere.


The Science and Pros of Genetically-modified foods

Cons of GM Foods

Snow, Allison and Pedro Moran Palma. Commercialization of transgenic plants: potential ecological risks. BioScience. Vol. 47, Feb. 1997. Pp. 86-96.

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. May 2006.

Questions about Genetically Modified Organisms: An article by The Prince of Wales and Seeds of Disaster:

An article by The Prince of Wales

Safety of genetically modified food questioned: Interview with gene scientist, Dr Arpad Pusztai

Biotech Food Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation—A Response to False Activist Claims”AgBioWorld 21 June 2003.

GM Food Regulation in the U.S. and Obama’s Views

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. Guide to U.S. Regulation of Genetically Modified Food and Agricultural Biotechnology. September 3rd , 2001.

Cummings, Clair Hope. Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. Boston, MA: Becaon Press, 2008.

von Mogel, Karl Haro. “Obama will (probably) not label GM foods”. Biofortified. 2009. December 3rd 2009. .

Brasher, Phillip. “Obama: Friend of genetically engineered crops?”. Tuscon Citizen Online. 2008. Tuscon Citizen. December 3rd 2009.

The Future of GM foods: Endnotes

[i]“Crop Biotech Update” ISAA 2008.

[ii] Michael F. Jacobson, “Biotech: Scourge or Savior?”

[iii] Paul Voosen. “Trade Chaos Looms as GM Crops Proliferate” Greenwire, 2 Nov 2009.

[iv] Voosen,

[v] Paul Voosen, “Courts force U.S. reckoning with dominance of GM crops” Greenwire, 8 Oct 2009.

[vi] Frank Browing. “Dutch Cooperative Blurs Food Prejudices” NYTimes 16 Nov 2009.

[vii]Elisabeth Rosenthal. “Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn” NYTimes 26 Dec 2007.

[viii] “Government scientist and Royal Society in double push to promote GM” 20 Oct 2009. Times Online

[ix] “Biotech Food Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation -A Response to False Activist Claims” AgBioWorld June 21, 2003

[x]Charles Clover, “A wonder food to be taken with a pinch of salt” NYTimes.

[xi] Andrew Pollack, “Monsanto Seeks Big Increase in Crop Yields” NYTimes 5 June 2008.

[xii] Claudia Dreifuss “An Advocate for Science Diplomacy” NYTimes 18 Aug 2008.