Many questions and concerns have arisen with the new found plant breeding technology termed genetic modification or commonly referred to as GMO. Concerns and questions about long term effects and societal good have caused slowed acceptance and rigorous testing of this new technology. Although slowly being adapted, many benefits are already being realized by today’s society.
GMOs are protecting the environment.
Discoveries in biotechnology have allowed some crops to have their own protection against insects and disease and, therefore, can be grown using less crop protection chemicals. For example, cotton and corn now can resist some destructive insects on their own. This allows farmers to choose the best combination of tools to control harmful pests and diseases. Biotechnology is providing opportunities to decrease soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions through farming practices that protect the environment. Some of these new crops require less tilling, helping to preserve precious topsoil, use less fuel and reduce farm run-off into streams and rivers. They are also playing a part in feeding a growing population. According to statistics from the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world population will likely increase to approximately nine billion by 2050. The fact is that with more people, we will need to provide more food. At the same time, there is little remaining land for farming, without destroying valuable rainforest and wetland habitats. World hunger is a complex issue that biotechnology can play a part in helping. Thanks to continued improvements in agriculture and food production, and to developments in food biotechnology, we’ll be able to grow more food and better food on land already being farmed.
More nutritious foods are also becoming available as a result of GMOs. Now and in the near future biotechnology products provide potential food quality improvements. Some biotech foods may help to prevent heart disease and cancer by delivering more of vitamins C and E. Research is under way on “golden rice,” which would combat Vitamin A deficiency in developing nations by delivering more beta-carotene and iron. Other biotech foods under development, such as a potato that absorbs less oil, may help to prevent heart disease by cutting back on fatty acids. Biotechnology will improve nutrition in other ways, such as by producing allergy-free peanuts and rice. Researchers are even working on a banana that could deliver vaccines against Hepatitis B and other deadly diseases.
1. What are genetically-modified plants and foods? The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. Genetic modification covers such diverse activities as the use of yeast in brewing or bread making to advanced plant breeding techniques. New developments in biotechnology allow scientists to identify and transfer the specific gene that creates a desired trait in a plant, and offer a more precise way to produce plants with certain beneficial characteristics – such as greater nutrition.
2. How many plants are genetically modified? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are over 40 plant varieties that have completed all of the federal requirements for commercialization. Some examples of these plants include tomatoes and cantalopes that have modified ripening characteristics, soybeans, canola and sugarbeets that are resistant to herbicides, and corn and cotton plants with increased resistance to insect pests. The seven transgenic crops grown worldwide in 1999 were, in descending order of area, soybean, corn/maize, cotton, canola/rapeseed, potato, squash and papaya. Transgenic soybean and corn continued to be ranked first and second in 1999, accounting for 54 % and 28 % of global transgenic crop area, respectively. Cotton (9.1 million acres) and canola (8.4 million acres) shared third ranking position in 1999 each occupying approximately 9 % of global area. Potato, squash and papaya occupied less than 1% of the global area of transgenic crops in 1999.
3. Where are genetically-modified crops grown? Between 1996 and 1999, twelve countries, 8 industrial and 4 developing, have contributed to more than a twenty-fold increase in the global area of transgenic crops. Adoption rates for transgenic crops are unprecedented and are the highest for any new technologies by agricultural industry standards. In 1999, the global area of transgenic crops increased by 44 %, or 29.9 million acres, to 98.6 million acres, from 68.7 million acres in 1998 . Seven transgenic crops were grown commercially in twelve countries in 1999 three of which, Portugal, Rumania and Ukraine, grew transgenic crops for the first time. The countries listed in descending order of transgenic crop area on a global basis in 1999 are: USA, 70.9 million acres, or 72 % of the global area; Argentina with 16.6 million acres equivalent to 17 % of global area; Canada 9.9 million acres representing 10 %; China with approximately 0.7 million hectares equivalent to 1 %; Australia and South Africa each grew 0.2 million acres of transgenic crops in 1999. The balance of <1 % was grown in Mexico, Spain, France, Portugal, Rumania and Ukraine, each with < 0.2 million acres.
4. What percent of crops in the US are genetically-modified? In the U.S. approximately 57% of all soybeans cultivated in 1999 were genetically-modified, up from 42% in 1998 and only 7% in 1996. Bt corn and Bt cotton also experienced similar but less dramatic increases. Bt corn production increased to 30% of all corn grown in 1999, from 26% in 1998, and 1.5% in 1996. Bt cotton was 27% of the total crop in 1999, up from 23% in 1998, and 19% in 1996. As anticipated, pesticide and herbicide use on these GM varieties was slashed and, for the most part, yields were increased.
5. Why genetically modified breeding verse traditional methods? The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant. The new genetically-modified plant will gain drought tolerance as well. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms also can be used. The best known example of this is the use of Bt genes in corn and other crops. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal to insect larvae. Bt crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the European corn borer.
6. What are some of the advantages of GM foods? The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to increase by 50% in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods hold promise to meet this need in a number of ways:
• Pest resistance
Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Growing GM foods such as BT corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.
• Herbicide tolerance
For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray herbicides to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to be not affected by their herbicide product Roundup ®. A farmer grows these soybeans which then only require one application of weed-killer instead of multiple applications, reducing production cost and limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off.
• Disease resistance
There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases. ? Cold tolerance Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings.
• Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance
As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.
Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished people rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. For example, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in third world countries. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of “golden” rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A). Since this rice was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a non-profit organization, the Institute hopes to offer the golden rice seed free to any third world country that requests it. Plans were underway to develop a golden rice that also has increased iron content. However, the grant that funded the creation of these two rice strains was not renewed, perhaps because of the vigorous anti-GM food protesting in Europe, and so this nutritionally-enhanced rice may not come to market at all.
Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.
Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.
7. What are some of the criticisms of GM foods?
Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.
• Unintended harm to other organisms
Last year a study was published in Nature showing that pollen from Bt corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not corn, but pollen from Bt corn was blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields where the caterpillars ate the pollen and many perished. Unfortunately, Bt toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately; it is not possible to design a Bt toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and remain harmless to all other insects. This study is being reexamined by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-government research groups, and preliminary data from new studies suggests that the original study may have been flawed.
• Reduced effectiveness of pesticides
Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to Bt or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
• Gene transfer to non-target species
Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These “superweeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to GM crops.
• Possible Solutions
Genes are exchanged between plants via pollen. Two ways to ensure that non-target species will not receive introduced genes from GM plants are to create GM plants that are male sterile (do not produce pollen) or to modify the GM plant so that the pollen does not contain the introduced gene. Cross-pollination would not occur, and if harmless insects such as monarch caterpillars were to eat pollen from GM plants, the caterpillars would survive.
Another possible solution is to create buffer zones around fields of GM crops. For example, non-GM corn would be planted to surround a field of Bt GM corn, and the non-GM corn would not be harvested. Beneficial or harmless insects would have a refuge in the non-GM corn, and insect pests could be allowed to destroy the non-GM corn and would not develop resistance to Bt pesticides. Gene transfer to weeds and other crops would not occur because the wind-blown pollen would not travel beyond the buffer zone. Estimates of the necessary width of buffer zones range from 6 meters to 30 meters or more. This planting method may not be feasible if too much acreage is required for the buffer zones.
Human health risks
Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen, or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals.
• Unknown effects on human health
There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. Critics say that this paper, like the monarch butterfly data, is flawed and does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Moreover, the gene introduced into the potatoes was a snowdrop flower lectin, a substance known to be toxic to mammals. The scientists who created this variety of potato chose to use the lectin gene simply to test the methodology, and these potatoes were never intended for human or animal consumption. On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.
• Economic concerns
Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations.
8. How are GM foods regulated and what is the government’s role in this process?
Governments are hard at work to establish a regulatory process to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. Yet depending on the political, social and economic climate within a region or country, different governments are responding in different ways.
Around the world
• In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has announced that health testing of GM foods will be mandatory as of April 2001. Currently, testing of GM foods is voluntary. Japanese supermarkets are offering both GM foods and unmodified foods, and customers are beginning to show a strong preference for unmodified fruits and vegetables.
• India’s government has not yet announced a policy on GM foods because no GM crops are grown in India and no products are commercially available in supermarkets yet. India is, however, very supportive of transgenic plant research. It is highly likely that India will decide that the benefits of GM foods outweigh the risks because Indian agriculture will need to adopt drastic new measures to counteract the country’s endemic poverty and feed its exploding population.
• Some states in Brazil have banned GM crops entirely, and the Brazilian Institute for the Defense of Consumers, in collaboration with Greenpeace, has filed suit to prevent the importation of GM crops. Brazilian farmers, however, have resorted to smuggling GM soybean seeds into the country because they fear economic harm if they are unable to compete in the global marketplace with other grain-exporting countries.
• In Europe, anti-GM food protestors have been especially active. In the last few years Europe has experienced two major foods scares: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Great Britain and dioxin-tainted foods originating from Belgium. These food scares have undermined consumer confidence about the European food supply, and citizens are disinclined to trust government information about GM foods. In response to the public outcry, Europe now requires mandatory food labeling of GM foods in stores, and the European Commission (EC) has established a 1% threshold for contamination of unmodified foods with GM food products. In the United States Biotech foods are extensively researched and reviewed.
• In the United States, three government agencies – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as many individual state governments – work together to ensure that crops produced through biotechnology are safe.
Nine Chances to Say No Biosafety Committee
1. The first opportunity comes almost immediately after a scientist discovers a potentially marketable product concept. Following guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), developers of biotech products empanel an advisory group (Biosafety Committee) made up of employees and members of the general public. This panel reviews the environmental and health possibilities posed by developing the proposed idea. If the committee determines there is unacceptable risk, it will recommend that the concept not be developed. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
2. If the concept passes initial considerations, a review must be conducted to determine if existing research facilities are adequate to conduct the research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must review and approve facility plans, including greenhouses where the plants will be developed and tested.
3. The developer must seek USDA approval in order to conduct field trials.
4. USDA must also give authority for the developer to ship seeds from a greenhouse to a field trial site.
5. Another formal interface comes after the developer has generated a full package of data, submits it to USDA and requests a “determination of non-regulated status,” meaning the plant can be grown, tested or used for traditional crop breeding without further USDA action. During this formal review process, which normally takes 10 months, USDA publishes an invitation for public comment in the Federal Register and considers the comments it receives.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
If a plant is improved to express a protein with pest control properties, such as insect-protected or virus-protected crops, the Environmental Protection Agency has oversight during the development and commercialization phases ö a process that lasts many months. In the case of herbicide-tolerant crops, EPA determines whether applying herbicide over such crops poses risks to food or feed safety that would require label extensions, for which detailed residue data are submitted.
6. If a developer plans to plant more than 10 acres of a plant expressing a pesticidal protein in research or field trials, the EPA must grant an experimental use permit (EUP). Public comment is invited through publication in the Federal Register.
7. EPA reviews data on the human, animal and environmental safety of the pest control protein or pesticidal protein to determine whether limits (tolerances) should be set on the amount of protein in food derived from the improved plant. In instances where there is substantial data on the safety of the protein and a history of safe use, the developer may request an exemption from the requirement of a tolerance, which may or may not be granted. Public comments are invited through publication in the Federal Register.
8. The final EPA step is a formal review of the data generated through years of study. During this final review, which typically takes approximately 18 months, EPA considers whether or not to register the product for commercial use. Again, public notification is given and comments are requested.
9. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with responsibility for the safety of foods, including those derived from biotech plants and other novel foods. FDA has established a Food Advisory Committee comprised of scientific experts and consumer representatives to provide clear direction on the FDA approval process. FDA meets with a developer of a biotechnology product early in the process and provides guidance as to what studies FDA considers appropriate to ensure food and feed safety. The recommended studies vary, depending on each product and the product‚s proposed use and function. The interactive FDA involvement in pre-market review of a biotech food spans several years. At the end of this process, the FDA provides a letter to the developer confirming that they have no more questions regarding the food and feed safety of the product. Even after a product is on the market, FDA has authority, under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, to immediately remove from the market any food that the FDA deems unsafe. FDA‚s authority is immediate and final.
9. How are GM foods labeled?
The FDA’s current position on food labeling is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered „GRAS‰ – generally recognized as safe. The FDA contends that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, and therefore not subject to more stringent labeling. If all GM foods and food products are to be labeled, Congress must enact sweeping changes in the existing food labeling policy. In January 2000, an international trade agreement for labeling GM foods was established. More than 130 countries, including the US, the world’s largest producer of GM foods, signed the agreement. The policy states that exporters must be required to label all GM foods and that importing countries have the right to judge for themselves the potential risks and reject GM foods, if they so choose. This new agreement may spur the U.S. government to resolve the domestic food labeling dilemma more rapidly.
10. If biotech products are safe, why are biotechnology companies opposed to labeling them?
Companies are supportive of efforts to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make sound food decisions. The question of consumer product labeling is best addressed by the food industry working in cooperation with regulatory agencies. In the U.S. and Canada, this cooperative effort has resulted in a science-based system that requires labeling if the food differs in safety, composition, or nutritional quality compared to conventional food. No products developed using biotechnology that are currently on the market fall into this category.
11. What is in the future for genetically-modified crops?
High adoption rates reflect grower satisfaction with the products that offer significant benefitsranging from more convenient and flexible crop management, higher productivity or net returns/acre and a safer environment through decreased use of conventional pesticides, which collectively contribute to a more sustainable agriculture. As expansion of transgenic crops continues, a shift will occur from the current generation of “input” agronomic traits to the next generation of “output” quality traits, which will result in improved and specialized nutritional food and feed products that will satisfy a high-value-added market; this will significantly affect the value of the global transgenic crop market and also broaden the beneficiary profile from growers to consumers which could in turn have important implications for public acceptance. Genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world’s hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides. Yet there are many challenges ahead for governments, consumers, producers and industry.