Genetically Engineered Foods: Should We Be Concerned?

By Joseph J. Wang
Health Law & Policy Institute

The latest recall of taco shells continues. Safeway announced that it would immediately remove its house-brand taco shells sold under the brand, Mission Foods, after a coalition of biotechnology food critics found in the shells genetically engineered (GE) corn not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption. Just last month, Kraft Foods announced a nationwide recall of the Taco Bell brand of shells after determining that the shells contained the same GE corn.

The genetically engineered corn called "StarLink" was developed by Aventis CropScience and has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use as animal feed. StarLink is a type of "bt" corn. It contains a gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and produces a bacterial protein known as Cry9C conferring resistance to common pests such as the European corn borer. Although other varieties of Bt corn have been approved by the FDA for human consumption, StarLink has not. Unlike proteins expressed from other Bt genes, Cry9C does not denature or break down during digestion and may become a potential food allergen. No evidence has established that consumption of Cry9C is harmful to human health but evidence of safety is also lacking.

The Europeans have made a big fuss over the use of GE foods for some time and detractors of these products often refer to them as "Frankenfoods." The 1996 introduction of GE foods into the American marketplace has been relatively quiet because federal regulators do not currently require labeling of such foods. Most Americans are unaware of the GE foods already on our dinner tables. Kraft Food's recall of Taco Bell brand shells highlights the fact that GE foods are part of the food supply and that many of us unknowingly consume them everyday.

Indeed, GE foods are becoming the rule, not the exception. Companies like Monsanto, Novartis, and DuPont are actively using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to breed new species of plants and create new GE seeds. It is estimated that 60-70% of processed foods on the market contain GE ingredients. In 1999, an estimated 57% of soybeans and 30% of corn were genetically engineered to resist herbicides or pests. GE foods also include varieties of potatoes, papaya, squash, tomatoes, and dairy products and others are on their way. Because of the prevalence of GE foods, chances are that almost everybody has consumed them either directly or indirectly. So should we be concerned?

Groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are calling for more testing and regulation of GE foods. The main worries about the production and consumption of GE foods are the possible adverse effects on human health and the potential negative impact on the environment. Concerns also focus around the lack of regulation of GE foods.

Although GE foods have been on the market for sometime with no known adverse effects on humans, the long-term effects of consumption are unknown. One study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that GE potatoes fed to rats resulted in inhibited growth rates and a suppressed immune system. However to date, the FDA and other federal regulators are not aware of information that would distinguish GE foods from their conventional counterparts and so have not required such products to be specially labeled. The voluntary Kraft recall, as well as other big food companies like Frito-Lay, Gerber, and McDonald=s recent self-imposed ban on GE ingredients are most likely a reaction to maintain consumer goodwill than to avoid liability for selling a harmful product. Farmers are planting less GE corn this year than in the past four, which also appears to be a response to potential consumer backlash to GE foods than a genuine concern over public health.

As for the environment, short-term concerns about harm to Monarch butterfly caterpillars as well as long-term concerns about releasing GE organisms into the environment without any natural predators to keep them in check fuel the debate about the use of rDNA technology in food production. GE plants with a gene for herbicide resistance may breed with unwanted weeds creating a super-weed resistant to chemical herbicides. Also, introduction of plant species with foreign genes may disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

Although these concerns have merit, they should not deter using rDNA technology as a means for improving food production. The use of rDNA technology can protect crops and increase crop yield, benefiting the farmer and manufacturers. Crops can not only resist herbicides and pest, but can resist diseases and rotting as well. GE seeds allow farmers to do "no-till" farming saving soil, fuel, and pesticides.

The potential benefits may run to consumers as well. Increased yields of GE foods could be used to feed the hungry in developing nations and provide the nutrients necessary to prevent diseases. For example, the so-called "Golden Rice" containing vitamin A could prevent millions of children from blindness. The benefits are not limited to consumers in developing nations. GE foods such as tomatoes and broccoli could contain anti-cancer compounds. Molecular farming promises to incorporate pharmaceuticals in plants that can be consumed as food. Future research may bring caffeine-free coffee beans, more naturally sweet strawberries, and other enhancement to food products.

GE crops may be environmentally safe as well. Bt corn and soybean currently in production allow farmers to decrease use of pesticides, killing fewer insects and minimizing runoff of toxic chemicals into the soil. Interestingly, researchers are working on GE feed to make pig excrement environmentally friendly.

GE foods hold great promise beyond food production. Use of such technology should lead to great progress in science, medicine, and technology. Testing to determine the long term effects of rDNA technology on human health and the environment is necessary; however, we must not let mere uncertainty and fear of biotechnology in the present interfere with progress and hope for the future.