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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

The Uncertainties of Genetically Modified Foods

Naomi Lim

Food is not what it used to be. With progress in various types of technology, especially in genetic engineering, farmers and scientists have changed the way in which food is grown and made, raising questions about these methods and their possible risks and effects. What is clear is that there is not enough information on the consequences of genetically modified foods on human health as of yet. Furthermore no agreement among the scientific community has been reached on the risks or safety of this technology, although it seems to possess wide, uncertain and, potentially dangerous implications for human health, which are inextricably linked to moral/ethical concerns.

"Genetically modified foods" is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption, which have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits or improved nutritional content (12). Genetic engineering is the process of artificially modifying genes by cutting and splicing DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Genes, the blueprints of life, are made up of sequences of DNA, and they determine an organism's growth and size, as well as other characteristics (8). Genetic engineering is usually done in an effort to replicate characteristics in the organism receiving the gene transfer (8) and enables genetic engineers to transfer genes between species(6). According to the Monsanto Company, the DNA from different organisms is essentially the same - that is, it is made from the same materials(3). However, when considered in the context of food, many ethical and moral issues are raised in regards to the origin of the genes, especially when labeling has not yet been required. Furthermore, there are many health concerns associated with the genetic modification of foods.

Although farmers have used crossbreeding to improve crops and animals for thousands of years, the type of genetic engineering being used today is more complex than the interbreeding of the past, which occurred between two varieties of the same or similar species (8). One particularly salient issue seems to be the genetic engineering between two different species, specifically between animals and plants, which some perceive as breaking down "natural barriers...with...unpredictable results" (8). For example, genetic engineers have added genes from the flounder to tomatoes in an attempt to give tomatoes a longer shelf life(4). Such a transfer seems to be viewed by some as undesirable and unnatural, although it may have economical benefits. This kind of genetic engineering may cause the spread of diseases across species barriers(4), thereby creating problems that could never "naturally" exist. This particular type of genetic engineering is also a moral/ethical issue for vegetarians, vegans, and some religious groups, as the transfer of animal genes into plants goes against what they practice and believe. The lack of labeling also contributes to the controversy of this transfer between species, as many are unaware of what it is that they are consuming.

Today, an estimated two-thirds of all products in supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients, including tortilla chips, drink mixes, taco shells, veggie burgers, muffin mix, and baby formulas (9). However, only one-third of Americans are aware that their food contain genetically engineered ingredients (10), despite the findings of surveys that 85 to 90% of consumers want clear labeling of all genetically engineered foods (4). Because labeling is not yet required by government regulations, nor practiced by biotech companies, there is no way for consumers to know what it is that they are eating. The public has not been adequately educated of the presence of genetically modified ingredients in their diets and the possible risks that these foods may entail, and hence, they have been disempowered in their rights to make informed choices.

Furthermore, the inadequate efforts to educate the public on genetic engineering have been sketchy at best, as some genetic scientists have been presenting the complex process of genetic modification to the public as a simple operation. They have been erroneously giving the impression that " gene controls one character trait, and transferring the gene results in the transfer of the corresponding trait to the genetically modified organism, which can then pass it on indefinitely to future generations" (6). However, the process of genetic modification is random and can cause damage in normal genes when imperfections in the genetic code of one organism are unknowingly passed to the receiving organism (4). Such publications promoting "public understanding" also do not include relevant findings that show that genes function in an "...extremely complex, interconnected network, so that ultimately, the expression of each gene depends on that of every other" (6). The introduced gene may act differently when working within its new environment. For example, there are "position effects", which can lead to unpredictable changes in the pattern of gene expression and genetic function, such as production of potentially toxic products (4).

The credibility of these geneticists is also questionable because almost all established molecular geneticists have "...some industrial ties, thus limiting what they can research on, particularly with regard to safety" (6). The connections between big business and genetically modified foods is an issue in and of itself, as it seems that biotech companies have put economic gains before safety concerns. Because the current state of biotechnology is one of misinformation and lack of information, there are moral/ethical questions raised about the responsibility of these companies, as well as the government, to regulate these industries and protect the public.

Because the sale of genetically modified foods has been allowed without proper assessment of the risks to health (7), these potentially associated risks have become an issue of increasing concern. Of special interest is the possibility that such foods may involve the transfer of new and unidentified proteins from one food into another, with the potential of setting off allergic reactions (11). The creation of new allergens or toxins is one of many possible negative impacts that have been addressed currently. For example, scientists have discovered that Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that has been spliced into millions of acres of corn, potatoes and cotton, may produce allergies in people (11).

Another health concern deals with the antibiotic "marker gene", which is commonly used to trace gene transfers and is found in all genetically engineered products(6). After the genetically modified food is absorbed into the human digestive tract, these antibiotic genes could potentially be absorbed into the blood stream or into the bacteria in the intestines(5). This could alter the "beneficial symbiosis between people and the bacteria that inhabit our intestines" (5).

In addition to these, genetically engineered foods may cause the removal of important food elements. For example, genetic engineers may intentionally remove or inactivate a substance they consider undesirable in a food, which may have unknown but crucial qualities, such as cancer-inhibiting abilities (1). Examples such as this are perhaps especially frightening because of the potential to find cures to some of the illnesses and diseases that have already laid claim to many lives. Failure to do further research in this case would be a shame, as it could lead to an elimination of possible breakthroughs in medicine and health.

There is no way of knowing the overall, long-term effects of genetically engineered foods on human health. This unpredictability appears to be causing the most controversy over genetically modified foods, as there is insufficient evidence and need for further research. Moreover, the current claims for genetic engineering are misleading, and there appears to be much ignorance and/or corruption at the top with the biotech corporations, as well as the government, which seem to be more interested in short-term economic gains than in properly informing and protecting the people. What is certain is the uncertainty of this technology and it effects:

"The technique for inserting a DNA fragment is sloppy, unpredictable and imprecise. The effect of the insertion on the biochemistry of the host organism is unknown. The effect of the genetically engineered organism on the environment is unknown. The effect of eating genetically engineered foods is unknown. There is no basis for meaningful risk assessment. There is no recovery plan in case of disaster. It is not even clear, who, if anyone will be legally liable for the negative consequences. There is no consensus among scientists on the safety or on the risks associated with genetic engineering in agriculture. The international community is deeply divided on the issue. The claim to safety is a marketing slogan. It has no scientific basis" (2).

The current state of biotechnology must be remedied because every living organism is affected by it because everything is composed of genes. If the food being consumed contains products of genetic modification, the public is at risk to the unpredictable effects on their own physiology and biochemistry-effects that may not be reversible. Not only could this cause problems in their own lives presently, but it could also affect future generations, in ways that are unforeseen yet preventable. Moreover there is not enough understanding of the principles of genetic engineering to categorize those genetic modifications that may pose a risk and those that may not because genes appear to react in diverse ways when spliced with other genes. Genes are a part of an extremely complex and interconnected network and are constantly reacting to their environment. Further research must be enacted, and biotech companies and the government must do their moral/ethical duty to inform the public, so that ultimately they are the ones making the decisions.

WWW Sources

(1) Biotech corporations: Big promises, but can they deliver? , on the Campaign web site

2) Claims and Facts , on the Netlink web site

3) Why Biotechnology Matters , on the Biotech Basics web site

4) Genetically Engineered Food-A Serious Health Risk , on the Netlink web site

5)Assessing the Safety and Nutritional Quality of Genetically Engineered Foods , on the Netlink web site

5) Perils Amid Promises of Genetically Modified Foods , on the Greenpeace web site

7) The Benefits of Biotechnology , on the Biotech Basics web site

8) The simple ABC's of genetic engineering , on the Campaign web site

9) Meteoric growth: GE foods now are almost everywhere you look , on the Campaign web site

10) Why labeling?, on the Campaign web site

11) Allergic reactions and other possible health risks , on the Campaign web site

12) Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful??, on the CSA web site

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