Genetically engineered food
Genetically engineered foods are foods that are produced from genetically modified crops. Genetically modified crops are those that have had their genetic make up altered by a process called recombinant DNA technology. This involves inserting specific selected genes into the plant to be modified, to either give it certain desirable traits or to eliminate certain undesirable traits.
The first genetically engineering food product was a tomato - Flavor Savr - that could be shipped vine-riped without rapidly rotting. It was made by the California company Calgene.
Since then many fruits, vegetables and crops have been produced by genetic engineering techniques:
- Tangelos – combining tangerine and grapefruit
- Sugar beets
What are the benefits of genetically engineered foods?
More and more farmers around the world are turning to growing genetically engineered crops as these lead to faster, larger and better yields. It also helps that the genetically engineered crops are resistant to pests and diseases. In Hawaii, genetic engineering helped create a papaya resistant to the insect-borne papaya ring spot virus (PRSV).
Such resistant crops require fewer or no pesticides, which make them safer for consumers. Genetically engineered crops can withstand cold, drought, poor soil and many other adverse environmental conditions. One example is a strawberry that is not affected by frost.
Genetic engineering can lead to food with more nutrients and vitamins. The Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, have created a ‘golden rice’ that is high in Vitamin A. The idea is to cultivate this rice in Third World countries to address the problem of malnutrition in these regions. However, concerns by opponents of GM technology have currently put these plans on hold.
Genetic engineering has produced plants, fruits and vegetables that contain antibodies and vaccines to fight against many common diseases and health conditions. Peanuts, soybeans and wheat have been produced with no allergens or reduced amounts of allergens.
What are the risks of genetically engineered foods?
Unforeseen consequences of modified plants on the environment. For example, the Bt corn, which is pest-resistant - some believe it could crossbreed with regular and wild varieties of corn and negatively affect the ecosystem.
Genetic engineering of food crops might threaten biodiversity. Many native crops, vegetables and fruit could disappear as more land is used for GM crops.
As GM seeds are patented, many critics of genetically engineered crops are concerned that a handful of GM companies would have control over a large percentage of the world’s food production.
There have been no extensive field studies regarding the long term impact of GM crops on the environment. Some consumer organisations and lobby groups claim that not enough is known about the long term health effects of eating food made with genetically engineered crops.