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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

What Are We Eating?

There is a surge of new information on the World Wide Web regarding the genetic alteration and engineering of food producing plants that are grown for human consumption. This information is somewhat controversial because it is just coming into the public's eye (and most recently with the recall of Kraft's Taco Bell products) and because of the fact that many grassroots organizations have formed to push the U.S. Government to begin to label genetically engineered food products before they get to the shelves in the grocery store. Many people find this a pressing cause because of the dangers to humans and the environment that genetically engineering foods can result in.

All of modern agriculture involves some form of genetic modification. Jim Maryanski from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, had the following to say in an interview published on the FDA's website. "There are hundreds of new plant varieties introduced every year in the United States, and all have been genetically modified through traditional plant breeding techniques--such as cross-fertilization of selected plants--to produce desired traits." (2)

Scientists have since developed the technology to engineer plants through a process of actually reconstructing the DNA of the plant. This is done by cutting and pasting new enzymes into the DNA of a plant organism, or by using vectors which are other strands of DNA that can infect a cell and incorporate themselves into the organism's DNA structure. In so many respects, this kind of technology is perfect for today's society. It would help agriculturalists overcome all headaches associated with growing large crops, and basically tailor the food growth industry to mass consumption by the general population. The famous frost-resistant tomato example is perfect in illustrating this point. With a tomato that resists frost, the season for growing them would be longer and therefore a farmer would be able to produce more tomatoes in one year than they were able to do in the past. (1)

For all that this new biotechnology is so revolutionary and helpful to many aspects of our society, there are some dangers involved with genetically engineering potential food products. The dangers lie mostly in what we do not know and understand at this point in time about the nature of DNA and how exactly it works in all living organisms. An example of probable effects that activist groups are concerned with, is the possibility of presences of allergens in the newly engineered foods. This is a problem that brings about the issue of label genetically engineered foods which I will address later on. Other effects of this type of biotechnology include effects on the environment; other animals; other plants that might cross-fertilize with the genetically altered ones; toxins in plants due to mutations that have not had time to developed yet; and the list goes on. (1)

One of the major issues that many activist groups have brought to the attention of government organizations such as the FDA, is the importance of labeling food products made from genetically engineered plants. This is especially important when it comes to people who might be allergic to certain allergens present in the altered food product. "Since most genetically engineered foods will be indistinguishable in appearance from nonengineered foods, consumers will generally not know what they are buying. FDA ignores consumers' right to know by ignoring longstanding regulations that require in most circumstances that manufacturers label foods to disclose their ingredients." (3) As a result, this has evolved into battle between consumer groups and government organizations. Several non-profit organizations have sprung up on the Internet urging all consumers to educate themselves and take some form of political action to change the legislation regarding the labeling of these genetically engineered foods. One organization, Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology, is "...demanding the withdrawal of all genetically engineered...foods from the market unless they have undergone rigorous safety assessment. [However,] In practice this means that all foods on the market should be withdraw." (4) This is a very frightening thought, and when considering the list of plants that are genetically engineered - a long list which includes potatoes, corn, soybeans, and cotton - one cannot help but think they might have already fallen prey to the potential effects of these new products. (5)

With the development of new science and technology, there are always drawbacks. Scientists are also more often than not, extremely eager to begin to utilize newly developed technology as soon as possible, and frequently without waiting to see what long term effects may exist with a new technology. And when it comes to something like the food we eat, science crosses the line of social policy and activists inevitably come out of hiding to butt heads with the new technology. There are pros and cons to each side, and most of what is being done now is a lot of discussions back and forth between different interest groups. But the real question is, will a solution come around before more serious effects settle in?

WWW Sources

1)"Mothers for Natural Law of the Natural Law Party", Consumer activist organization.

2) Food and Drug Administration website , interview with FDA representative about genetically engineered foods.

3) Environmental Defense Fund website , Fact Sheet on Genetically Engineered Foods

3) Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology website , activist group against genetically engineered foods

3) The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods , consumer activist group.

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