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 How safe is what you eat?  Genetically modified food
 is everywhere.

by Louise Goldberg

It’s hard to miss hearing the term ‘genetically modified food’ today. It continues to be a controversial topic almost 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration first approved their use on the commercial market.

Today, approximately 70 percent of processed foods   are made with one or more genetically engineered ingredients.

Originally developed with the intention to protect crops and provide food security to sustain an expanding world population, the entire concept is now viewed with suspicion by a growing number of people.

The World Health Organization defines genetically modified organisms (GMO) as “those in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” Agriculture scientists transfer one or more genes for a specific trait from an organism into another organism’s genetic material.  The goal is to end up with desired traits all in one plant.

The idea of manipulating and selecting plant DNA for desired genetic traits is not new. However, prior to genetic engineering, only similar species were able to mix.  Scientists were also able to use a variety of techniques, such as radiation and chemicals, to cause alterations in a species’ genetic composition to change its characteristics.  The plants that produced the preferred traits (e.g. sweeter, larger, fewer seeds, etc.) were selected and reproduced, but it took a great deal of time and was not always consistent.

When genetically engineered organisms are created, scientists splice and combine genes between unrelated organisms.  For example, combining the DNA from corn and an insect-killing bacteria found in soil can make future corn crops insect-resistant.  This modification is not ‘natural,’ of course and could not occur on its own, but it was done with beneficial goals in mind.
 

Benefits and risks

In theory, the benefits of genetically modified foods are meaningful and far-reaching.  Plants that are resistant to herbicides or pesticides have been created, allowing farmers to use more of these chemicals to eliminate weeds and bugs, leading to less crop destruction and bigger yields.

In areas of the world with little rainfall, drought-tolerant plants are being created, which could mean a plentiful food supply for populations that might otherwise suffer hunger.

Some plant genes have been modified to increase their nutritional value, such as “golden” rice, which contains beta-carotene.  Golden rice, “could substantially reduce the prevalence and severity of Vitamin A deficiency, and prevent at least hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and cases of blindness every year,” Dr. Alfred Sommer believes.            Sommer, a professor and dean emeritus of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, made his comments on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website.  The Gates Foundation supports efforts by the International Rice Research Institute to use golden rice to help improve the health of millions of children and adults across the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Nothing comes without a price and there is no question the intended goals for creating genetically modified foods are noble and a true testament to advances in science; however, concerns have been raised about their safety to both humans and the environment.

For example:  will these mixed-breed foods lead to a further increase in food allergies?  Will pesticide-resistant plants lead to the evolution of ‘super’ bugs?  Will the increased use of pesticide on our produce have a toxic effect on our bodies after we consume them?

 

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