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What is genetically modified food?

Understanding the debate over genetically modified food

GM food is not the rare exception to the rule many of us assume it is. Last year roughly 75 to 80 percent of the soybeans and 30 to 35 percent of the corn grown in the United States was genetically modified. Proponents, particularly the few companies that have developed the biotech methods involved, argue for the agricultural benefits of modified plants, such as their higher crop yields and reduced need for pesticides and herbicides. Other advocates of biotech agriculture envision plants programmed to produce therapeutic drugs or vaccines. Already, so-called golden rice has been engineered to be a source of the vitamin A that is deficient in the diet of many of the world's underfed populations. Opponents argue that inserting foreign genes into plants -- a process "nature" never intended -- could disturb the environment in unpredictable ways, threaten biodiversity, or yield substances that could harm the health of humans or farm animals.

The roots of biotech agriculture

Slightly more than 20 years ago scientists discovered that the soil bacterium known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) secreted a protein that was toxic to many types of crop-eating insects. When Bt's gene for this protein was later isolated and transferred into the cells of a plant such as corn, the resulting plants produced the toxic protein, thus protecting themselves against pests and eliminating the need for pesticides. Likewise, when a gene that caused resistance to weed killers was introduced into a soybean crop, the transgenic soybeans survived exposure to certain herbicides. Other genes were found that promised similar immediate and dramatic effects in various crop types. A few biotechnology companies, most notably Monsanto, invested heavily in what became a race to produce and market the seeds for GM crops. In the late 1990s, with little fanfare, farmers in the United States and Canada began planting GM corn and soybeans. But a wave of opposition arose when it became known that dozens of processed foods on supermarket shelves contained GM corn and soy. Bioengineered foods were almost totally rejected by European, Asian, and African consumers, adversely affecting the U.S. agricultural export market. The intensity of feeling was so high that some African countries refused donations of GM foods even though major segments of their populations were starving.

Deciding the future of food

The global impact of biotechnology in agriculture is far-reaching, but the question persists: Are genetically modified foods good for us? An aim of this conference is to lead us to a better understanding of the pros and cons of biotechnology so that we, as informed citizens, can help shape intelligent public policy decisions.

 
 

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