As more genetically modified foods reach the U.S. marketplace, what does the future hold?
Penn State College of Agriculture, writer
Mention genetically modified or genetically engineered foods to your neighbor or coworker, and itís likely theyíll respond with something like, Oh, I think I remember reading something about that...wasnít there some controversy about taco shells a couple of years ago, or was it butterflies? Although researchers have been employing genetic engineering techniques in agricultural crops since the mid-1980s, and media coverage of these developments has increased sharply in the past few years, most people have little awareness of genetically modified (GM) foods and the controversies surrounding them. In a 2001 survey conducted by Penn State agricultural economists, 84 percent of those questioned said they either knew little or nothing about GM foods, or hadnít heard of them at all. Yet these techniques and products have already had an impact on our food system, from producer to consumer, and will continue to make their mark on the worldís food supply.
Genetic engineering (GE) is a tool of biotechnology, a broad term for any process that uses living organisms to accomplish a desired goal. Every living thing from the most simple to the most sophisticated carries a genetic code that determines exactly what traits it will have. Using genetic engineering, scientists can pinpoint beneficial traits in any organism, in terms of added nutrition, better flavor, or greater ability to fight pests or diseases, and incorporate them into other organisms. This is done by isolating a particular gene responsible for a trait in one organism, removing it, and then transferring it to another organism, where this same gene replicates itself, creating a stronger and more resilient strain of the same organism. If the goal is zucchini that can resist a certain virus, for example, scientists can identify the gene that controls virus resistance, transfer it to the zucchini, and end up with a disease-resistant zucchini plant that produces higher yields.
The idea of targeting desirable traits in plants is certainly not new. Traditional selective breeding has been used over the centuries to produce improved crops. As far back as 3000 B.C., Indians in Peru noticed that certain types of potatoes grew better at 14,000 feet than at 10,000 feet, says food scientist J. Lynne Brown. The Indians divided the potatoes into groups that grew better at different elevations. Thatís really a form of biotechnology, under its broad definition of using living tools.
||Food scientist Koushik Seetharaman points to
Teosinte, the native corn that existed hundreds of years ago in Central America, as another example of traditional selective breeding. Kernels of this original corn, dark brown and not much bigger than sunflower seeds, are a far cry from the plump, golden corn weíre familiar with today. People would walk through these fields of corn, and as the years went by, they started noticing kernels that were better in one way or another, Seetharaman says. Some of the kernels didnít fall off as quickly. Some were bigger than others. Those kernels were saved and planted, and through traditional breeding done over many centuries, those traits survived and evolved into the much-improved corn plant we have today.Though traditional breeding and genetic modification share some basic principles, there are key differences between the two methods, Seetharaman explains. Traditional breeding methods require several generations, or planting seasons, to produce a plant carrying the beneficial traits.
With genetic modification, in one generation a plant can be created that is the same in all respects except for the addition of the beneficial trait. Another difference is that traditional breeding transfers all of a plantís genes, not just the good ones, to the next generation. Genetic engineering is more precise, allowing the transfer of only the desirable genes: weed and pest resistance, enhanced nutrition, or longer shelf life, to name a few.
Genetically altered foods arrived on the commercial scene in the early 1990s, with the introduction of Flavr Savr, a delayed-ripening tomato. Soon after, genetically altered corn and Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton were commercially released. These modified crops are designed to resist pests, diseases, and herbicides. Other GM foods on the market today include varieties of squash, papaya, radicchio, sugar beets, and potatoes. Genetically engineered salmon is under review by FDA, and last year scientists announced the production of tomatoes genetically modified to grow in high-sodium soils. In the coming years, genetically altered foods will most likely become more and more prevalent in the United States and the Western world.
What does the presence of these GM foods mean to the average consumer? On a typical trip to the supermarket, consumers can probably expect to end up with GM foods in their shopping carts. Statistics say that more than 60 percent of the foods we purchase from the supermarket today have ingredients derived from genetically modified crops, although that number is misleading. Corn and soybeans are the base for many food ingredients, including starch, oils, proteins, and their derivatives, Seetharaman explains. Most of the GM foods youíll find on the market today are in that category because they contain ingredients from GM crops. So a food is considered genetically modified even if its ingredients contain only a trace of GM material.
Public opinion about GM foods is mixed. Lynne Brown, who has been involved in surveys of public attitudes toward GM foods, says that, generally, 25 percent of the American public thinks genetically engineered foods are fine, 25 percent is against them, and 50 percent is undecided. Thereís a big middle ground of people who have their doubts. They say, ĎI can see some benefit, but Iím not sure.í Many of the people surveyed are unsure about the governmentís ability to regulate these foods and about the motives of scientists who are working on GM products. Some felt that genetic engineering constitutes fiddling with the natural order, and they expressed anxiety about possible long-term effects. And some stated that they want the option of avoiding GM foods.
In the controversy over GM foods, I work hard to be a facilitator, Brown continues, to present the data thatís out there. Iím on the precautionary side, but I look at it case by case. We need to approach each case with caution, while remaining open to the potential benefits.
David Blandford, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, agrees that when it comes to genetic modification of crops, consumers need to balance risks with advantages. Some of the evidence weíve seen recently shows an increasing concern in the U.S. about genetically modified foods, he says. As consumers become more educated and more affluent, they are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of food products and issues associated with food production.
||Under the old model of agriculture, Blandford explains, a farmer produced a commodity, took it to market, sold it to a food processor or retailer, and the commodity entered the distribution system. Today, a farmer is more likely to operate on contract producing a particular commodity to precise specifications for a particular purchaser.Part of the purpose of contracting is to guarantee the safety and quality of the product
and to make sure that the food processor or retailer knows exactly where the product came from. The product can be traced back to the farmer who grew it, so if thereís a problem they know who to blame, says Blandford. Thatís how the industry protects itself.
Blandford, who is from Great Britain and whose research interest is world trade issues, points out that consumers in Western Europe demonstrate even greater caution about GM foods than Americans do. In the U.S., our approach is to base the decision on what food products should be available on the best scientific evidence we have. If evidence from product testing shows thereís little or no risk, we approve a new product. The Europeans, on the other hand, say, ĎNo, we shouldnít really do that. We should apply the precautionary principle if there is any risk we should avoid it, and since we donít know whether thereís a health hazard, thatís a risk that we should avoid.í Itís a completely different attitude.
Because I hail from England, I can understand both views. What is clear is that on both sides of the Atlantic we need a food system thatís as safe and as efficient as it possibly can be. For GM foods to succeed, consumers need to be convinced that these foods are both safe and beneficial to them. Initially, what did we do with GM? We developed technologies that reduced disease and pest risks on the farm. Most of the benefits of the new products, such as Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn, went to the companies that generated the technology, at least initially, through sales of their products and the profit that thisgenerated. Consumers say, ĎWhereís the benefit for me?í But if you had a Bt product for which you could tell consumers, ĎThis is going to lower your blood cholesterol and make you live 10 years longer,í people would be lining up to buy it. Using GM to produce commodities that provide real benefits for consumers thatís what will make the breakthrough in attitudes, both in the U.S. and in Western Europe.
But that breakthrough is by no means imminent. When we consider biotechnology as a tool for alleviating world hunger, the issues become even more complex. With the world population expected to continue increasing, many scientists look to biotechnology as a way to increase world food production.
Itís been estimated that the supply of food required to adequately meet human nutritional needs over the next 40 years is equal to the amount of food previously produced throughout the entire history of humankind, says Terry Etherton, head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science. Obviously, this poses a daunting challenge. Destruction of tropical rainforest or wildlife habitat isnít a viable option for environmental considerations. Consequently, we need to use biotechnology techniques that enhance food production efficiency. In the field of dairy and animal production, this means increasing the amount of milk produced or, in the case of meat animals, increasing lean tissue gain per unit of feed consumed.
Developing new products and technologies takes years of research, followed by more time spent seeking and gaining regulatory approval from the FDA. Itís a formidable process that involves a sizeable investment of time and money, Etherton says. A lot of good ideas end up not being practical for commercial application on the farm. But conducting this type of discovery research is essential. We canít wait until problems arise with the food supply and then expect a quick fix. If we continue to invest in research, it is likely we will be better positioned to feed the world in the future.
Feeding the world, though, is not simply a matter of producing more food. Right now, thereís enough food in the world to feed everyone, says Koushik Seetharaman. But availability is not the same as accessibility. Just because grain is sitting in a silo somewhere, that doesnít mean a hungry person can get it. When weíre talking about GM foods, we need to consider all sorts of factors political, economic, even cultural. For example, not long ago, researchers came up with golden rice, which was genetically modified for increased vitamin A content. This rice was touted as being able to help alleviate hunger in India. But in India, white rice is considered a status symbol. They donít even eat brown rice, even though itís nutritionally superior to white rice. Who is going to convince them to eat yellow rice?
Genetic engineering techniques, though not a panacea, certainly hold promise for helping to alleviate hunger. Deanna Behring, the collegeís director of international programs, looks at biotechnology as something we should keep in the toolbox.
Here in the United States, weíre having this debate about genetically modified foods, and the same debate is going on in most of the developed world, she says. But if you look at the rest of the world map and at some of the poorest of the developing countries many African nations, for example all of a sudden you realize itís a luxury to even have the debate. Approximately 40,000 people die each day because of illnesses related to malnutrition, and half of those people are children. Some 800 million people go to bed hungry each day, and itís not because thereís not enough food itís because of politics and distribution issues.
There is one economic development theory, Behring continues, that articulates how biotechnology can help meet the food distribution challenge. If a farmer in a poor country could be given access to crops that can withstand drought and pests, and be able to produce that crop locally, then that farmer no longer has transportation and accessibility problems because he can meet demands of the local market. This, in turn, can boost the farmerís income, and as farmers get more income they are better able to participate in the global economy.
Biotechnology can be a valuable tool in making the most of the tremendous variety of crops that already exist in developing nations. Many countries around the world are home to valuable genetic material that could increase both variety and nutritional content in the worldís food supply. College research efforts include work in China to grow soybeans in low-phosphorus soils, modifying staple crops in India to be more disease-resistant, and genetic research on cocoa in South America. Many poor farmers depend on cocoa crops for income, and about 40 percent of the crop is lost each year to disease. Agricultural biotechnology techniques to improve disease resistance could help boost cocoa yields.
The introduction of genetically engineered food presents unquestionable opportunities for increased yields, higher quality crops, better nutrition, enhanced variety of foods, and an improved quality of life for developing countries. But along with those opportunities come potential health risks as well as logistical and marketing challenges. Bigger questions for society arise as well: What will be biotechnologyís long-term effects on the environment? By altering nature through genetic engineering, are we coming dangerously close to playing God? While these larger debates will likely never be resolved, further research and testing may reveal whether the health advantages of biotechnology outweigh its risks. One thing is certain: Biotechnology has made its imprint on the food system and will continue to play a critical role in world food production in the years to come.
Faculty and staff referenced in this article include Deanna Behring, director of international programs; David Blandford, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology; J. Lynne Brown, associate professor of food science; Terry Etherton, Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science; and Koushik Seetharaman, assistant professor of food science.