Biotech Food Is Safe, Widely Used

Published June 1, 2004

Anti-biotechnology activists claimed recently that “genetically modified” material, albeit in minuscule amounts, has moved into and thereby “contaminates” conventionally produced seed supplies.

As usual, they’re way off base. In fact, the “contamination” is more like finding Lexus parts in your Yugo.

It’s not surprising the activists’ claims are misleading. They’re intended to be. These findings–which have not been reported in any journal–come from the analysis of samples unscientifically selected by the same environmental extremists who for years have opposed products ranging from environment-friendly crop plants to improved rabies vaccines.

The latest claims are a continuation of activists’ efforts to disparage and discredit a superior, proven, safe technology that just doesn’t fit their view of “good” research and development.

Time-Tested Technology

Genetic modification is not new. Virtually all of the 200 major crops in the United States have been “genetically engineered,” or genetically improved, in some way. Plant breeders–not Mother Nature–gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), and fungus-resistant strawberries. In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game and berries may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion.

Even if “genetic engineering” is used to mean only gene-splicing, the most precise and predictable molecular techniques used for genetic improvement–which, inexplicably, is the only target of the activists–the movement of seeds or genes crafted with these techniques is incidental and hardly “contamination.”

Gene flow is ubiquitous. All crop plants have relatives somewhere, and some gene flow commonly occurs if the two populations are grown close together. Because gene transfer is an age-old concern for farmers, they have developed strategies for preventing pollen cross-contamination in the field–when and if it is necessary for commercial reasons.

A good example is canola, the genetically improved rapeseed developed by Canadian plant breeders a half-century ago. The original rapeseed oil was harmful when ingested because it contained high levels of erucic acid. After conventional plant breeding led to the development of rapeseed varieties with low concentrations of erucic acid, canola oil became the most commonly consumed oil in Canada.

But because high-erucic acid rapeseed oil is still used as a lubricant and plasticizer, the high- and low-erucic acid varieties of rapeseed plants must be carefully segregated in the field and thereafter, and the final products must meet certain tolerances.

These applications of conventional biotechnology, or genetic engineering, represent monumental scientific, technological, commercial, and humanitarian successes. Genetic engineering was responsible for the Green Revolution, whose highly productive dwarf wheat varieties have prevented widespread starvation and malnutrition in the developing world.


But the techniques employed then were relatively crude, and recently they have been supplemented by “the new biotechnology,” a set of enabling techniques that make possible genetic modification at the molecular level. The prototype of these techniques, gene-splicing, is a more precise, better understood, and more predictable method for altering genetic material than was possible previously.

An authoritative 1989 analysis of genetic technologies by the U.S. National Research Council summarized the scientific consensus about the new methods:

“With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the [traits] that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict [their traits].”

Since at least 1999, gene-spliced plants have been grown worldwide on more than 100 million acres annually, and the benefits include enhanced yields, decreased use of chemical pesticides, and reduced soil erosion.

More than two-thirds of processed foods in American supermarkets contain ingredients derived from gene-spliced organisms–mostly high-fructose corn syrup from gene-spliced corn and derivatives of gene-spliced soybeans.

That means Americans collectively have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods with gene-spliced ingredients–without a single mishap that resulted in injury to a single person or ecosystem.

Gene-splicing represents the state-of-the-art on the continuum of genetic improvement. Its use is cause for celebration, not condemnation.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

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