Campus News

Are Genetically Altered Foods Here to Stay?

Story posted December 01, 1999

Skittish about genetically altered food? Too late. One-half of all the soy produced in the United States is genetically altered, as is one-third of all the corn. And it’s hard to find a food product that doesn’t contain some corn or soy derivative.

Barry Logan, assistant professor of biology, presented an overview of genetically altered plants at the last faculty seminar of the fall semester. Logan is working on a study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to determine if genetically altered cotton actually performs better than its natural counterpart.

Genetically altered plants are ones that have had a foreign or native gene inserted into them in order to influence their physical characteristics.

The process recently caught the attention of the mainstream press in the United States because of the vehement opposition it has generated in Europe. Meanwhile, the production of genetically altered foods in the United States quietly increased nine-fold between 1996 and 1998, from about 7.5 million acres of farmland to about to 70 million acres. In fact, 75 percent of all the genetically altered food in the world is produced in the United States.

Because of recent concerns, the Food and Drug Administration held its first public hearing on the subject in November.

What are people’s concerns, and are they merited?

According to Logan, agriculture in general is a harmful practice that needs careful and open-minded consideration.

Logan said the practice of agriculture began about 10,000 years ago, and by definition altered the natural state of plants. It led to the unconscious and deliberate artificial selection of the plants deemed most desirable. When farmers became more sophisticated, they began hybridizing their plants. Scientists then learned cell culture techniques. Finally, genetic alteration allows scientists to cross species boundaries and insert the genes of animals and bacteria into plants.

This technique was useful first as a research tool. It then became profitable as a way to control production traits in plants.

Monsanto, for example, engineered a seed called "Roundup-Ready Soy," which is resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto. The theory is that the farmer can douse his fields with Roundup, kill all the weeds and not hurt the Roundup-Ready Soy planted there.

And New Leaf Potatoes were engineered to contain Bt toxin, a protein that kills certain pests, reducing the need for topical pesticides.

And on the horizon are genetically engineered plants in which the food quality, such as the level of protein or vitamins, has been increased. Another use is industrial, altering plants to clean up toxic waste in the soil.

These "advances" raise several concerns. Pollen from corn treated with the Bt toxin, when spread on milkweed plants, kills monarch butterflies, for example. The issue also raises several questions:

o Can these altered genes escape to weedy plant relatives, creating "superweeds" that are resistant to herbicides?

o Does this create a cycle of herbicide use and dependence?

o Are there carry-overs of allergenic qualities?

o Will pests develop a resistance to Bt? Perhaps more critically, are their more insidious side-effects

How should we proceed with this technology? And is more technology the solution to problems that technology creates?

Logan contends that the concern about feeding the world’s 6 billion people is legitimate, but that there is no biological reason why the world can’t support its population. The reasons for famine are, for the time being at least, social and economic.

One suggestion mentioned at the seminar was for the government to dedicate more research money to low-tech solutions, like organic farming, which gets about one-fiftieth as much funding as genetic engineering.

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