Biotech Advances Are Making Foods Healthier

Published July 1, 2006

Most people know fish is one of the healthiest foods on the market. Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish and in little else, are proven to improve heart health, alleviate hypertension, ease arthritis, and lower cholesterol.

However, many people dislike the taste of fish; many more people are decidedly neutral about the taste of fish; and still more people skimp on eating fish because it generally does not lend itself to fast and easy cooking. Moreover, fish can be relatively expensive for people on a limited budget.

Soybeans with Omega-3

Science will soon provide a tastier, more convenient, and less-expensive way for people to get their omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers at the University of Maryland announced in April that they have discovered a way to genetically modify soybeans to produce omega-3 fatty acids.

Preliminary results show oils extracted from the omega-3-enriched soybeans have a pleasant taste and no fish taste. If the oil proves stable enough, the soybeans can be used to produce cooking oil that will carry the benefits of the omega-3-enhanced soybeans. Those cooking oils will be able to improve the health effects of a whole range of foods, including salad dressing, margarine, yogurt, and many processed foods.

“We have a lot of excitement about this,” said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, a leading biotechnology company. “We now can open the door to a whole new way of delivering omega-3s in the diet through food.”

Fewer Pesticides Needed

The good news about genetically improved crops does not end with their health benefits. The results of a two-year study published in the May 4 online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed genetically improved cotton successfully resisted the harmful pink bollworm while having no impact on ants, beetles, and other benign insects.

Through this use of genetic enhancement, farmers were able to protect their crops against harmful insects while avoiding many of the potential negative impacts pesticides can have on the environment. In addition, the genetically improved cotton produced higher yields than conventional cotton.

Success Stories Proliferating

These two recent developments are merely the tip of the iceberg of biotechnology success stories. Around the world, genetic enhancements are improving crop yields, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, and cutting the amount of land needed to be cleared to grow food.

Importantly, there has never been a documented case of a genetically improved crop causing any human or environmental harm. Actually, this stands to reason: Throughout history, crops have cross-pollinated and mutated in nature, with mere chance and happenstance determining what direction such changes will take. With today’s scientific advances, humans can take a more active role in shaping the future of crops, ensuring the plants and resultant food carry the most desirable traits without any negative complications.

Activists Thwarting Advances

Despite these advances, anti-technology activists have targeted genetically improved crops, seeking to ban them from the market. Holding to the dubious notion that anything “natural” or selected by natural variation is superior to anything that can be selected or improved by man, anti-technology extremists are seeking forcibly to impose their belief system on the rest of society.

Activists have launched a state-by-state campaign to ban the farming of genetically improved crops. When the campaign fails to gain traction at the state level, activists go county-by-county, hoping to pick off enough scattered counties to throw the state in chaos and slow down or stop the farming of genetically enhanced crops in the state.

Farmers unsure of which crops to plant may shy away from genetically enhanced crops if those crops may soon be illegal. Anti-biotech laws recently passed in Mendocino and Marin counties in California have forced the California Farm Bureau and numerous county farm bureaus to spend precious resources defending farmers’ rights to grow genetically enhanced crops, redirecting those resources away from other important programs.

Where efforts to impose an outright ban on genetically improved crops have failed, activists seek onerous labeling laws, giving consumers the misleading message that these crops are a health risk rather than a health benefit.

Another favorite activist tactic is to seek laws forcing farmers of genetically improved crops to pay damages to farmers not utilizing biotechnology if pollen from the genetically improved crops drifts onto farms not utilizing biotechnology. The irony of this is that the pollen-drift method of cross-pollination is exactly the form of natural selection ostensibly favored by the anti-technology extremists.

In some forward-thinking states, legislators have proposed laws requiring a uniform, statewide policy toward genetically enhanced crops. Such laws ensure that science is more likely to trump scare campaigns and deliberate misstatements of fact in the determination of what rules and regulations should apply to the growing of genetically improved crops.

Laws to this effect have been passed in more than 10 states, and many other state legislatures are currently considering such measures. Legislators know voters prefer healthier foods that can be grown with the least possible adverse impact on our environment.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

“Farm-scale evaluation of the impacts of transgenic cotton on biodiversity, pesticide use, and yield,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0508312103,

“PanAfrica: GM Cotton Cuts Pesticide Use, Says Study,”, May 12, 2006,