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Food Biotechnology

But, some consumer and environmental groups voice concern over the safety of genetically-modified foods. A recent public poll showed 50% of American women and 70% of men would eat these foods. But, only 18% felt "very informed" about benefits and risks of GM foods. More education is needed.

What are the potential benefits and risks of GM foods? Are they safe?

GM foods: According to Felicia Busch, MPH, RD, author of "The New Nutrition: From Antioxidants to Zucchini," J. Wiley & Sons, 2000: "Characteristics of plants and animals are determined by their genes (DNA). We can identify which genes are responsible for specific traits (e.g., resistance to pests), copy the genes from one organism, and transfer them to another. We can also block a gene (e.g., softens vegetables) to keep it from working. This process is called recombinant DNA (rDNA) or genetic modification."

Safety issues: According to the National Research Council (NRC), genetic modification may be safer, faster, cheaper, more precise and predictable than traditional cross-breeding. Only specific genes (not the entire genetic code) are transferred. Biotechnology poses risks no different from those of traditional plant breeding. GM foods are considered safe by several leading health, science and agriculture organizations, such as the World Health Organization, American Medical Assn., and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Dr. Joyce A. Nettleton, DSc, RD (Science Communications Consultant) agrees. "The system devised by the Food and Drug Admin. (FDA) to ensure safety of GM foods is based on risk and science – the evaluation of characteristics of the product, not the process by which it acquired its characteristics. Risk is never zero, but it is miniscule.

"New GM foods are thoroughly tested for nutrients, common allergens (e.g., wheat, milk, nuts), natural toxins and the impact (e.g., environmental) of cross-pollination (of plants)."

Busch adds: "Manufacturers spend about 10 years and $2-4 million for a 10-step safety review by the Food and Drug Admin., U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency."

Government regulation: "The story of the Brazil nut gene being added to soybeans (to increase protein) is a terrific example of how well the regulation process works," Busch continues. "The nut allergen was identified as a potential health risk, and the product was not marketed.

"In another case, Star Link corn was approved only for animal feed. But, some Star Link corn appeared in taco shells and tortilla chips. These foods were recalled, because they violated regulations requiring separation of corn for animals from other corn. Star Link corn did not pose a health risk for people. But, it's no longer being grown."

Food labeling: American Dietetic Assn. (ADA) spokesman Cindy Moore, MS, RD (Cleveland, OH) points out: "Food labels for GM foods are required by FDA only if a) nutrient content changes, b) food composition changes substantially, or c) food contains known (unexpected) allergens. New labeling laws for 'certified organic foods' prohibit use of GM products or ingredients."

Moore adds: "GM foods are as nutritious as conventional foods. And the level of phytochemicals (e.g., lycopene in tomatoes) and nutrients in GM foods may be higher."

Bt corn: GM plants have all the traits of the traditional crops plus new desirable characteristics. For example, Bt corn contains a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis). It triggers production of a natural toxin (pesticide) that kills insects (e.g., corn borer) harmful to corn. But it is harmless to humans, animals and beneficial insects.

The pros: Proponents claim GM foods offer cost, health and environmental benefits including:

Improved nutrition, food quality (e.g., color, size, texture), freshness and taste.

Resistance to drought, temperature changes, diseases and insects.

Increased crop yields and mineral content of soil.

Reduced labor costs and more efficient farming.

Less need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Reduced soil erosion and pollution.

Preservation of wildlife and natural resources.

The Cons: Critics charge GM foods raise environmental, ethical and safety issues including:

(1) Insects and other pests may evolve that are resistant to "natural" toxins (pesticides) produced by GM crops.

(2) GM crops like canola or squash could unintentionally create "super weeds" (resistant to herbicides) by cross-breeding with a "wild" relative of the plant.

(3) Uncommon allergens may be present, but are not identified on food labels.

(4) Ecosystems and food chains may be changed.

(5) Is it ethical to transfer genes between plants and animals?

For more information on food biotechnology, visit the FDA Web site at www.cfsan.fda.gov

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