By Lorrie Baumann
Genetically engineered crops pose no current danger to the American Food Supply, according to Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That’s not to say that genetic engineering poses no threat for the future, so CSPI is urging the federal Food and Drug Administration to require pre-approval before new genetically engineered crops are allowed to enter the nation’s food supply.
CSPI, often called “The Food Police,” is the non-profit consumer group that’s been very vocal over the past several years in campaigns urging less super-sizing of fast food menu items, less consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and more labeling of trans fat content in foods. The organization receives no money from the food industry, Jaffe said.
Genetically engineered foods are currently regulated under Food and Drug Administration rules for substances “Generally Recognized As Safe.” Under those rules, food manufacturers are not required to obtain prior approval from the FDA before including them in food products. According to the FDA, “any substance that is intentionally added to food is a food additive, that is subject to premarket review and approval by FDA, unless the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use, or unless the use of the substance is otherwise excluded from the definition of a food additive.” CSPI and other organizations are asking the FDA to exercise tighter control over GRAS designations and to require a safety assessment for any food ingredient produced with new science or technology before it is placed on the market.
There are only eight crops for which genetically engineered varieties are currently grown commercially: corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, papaya and squash, according to Jaffe. These genetically engineered crops are currently grown in 28 countries around the world by more than 18 million farmers. Japan and China each have more than 7 million farmers growing genetically engineered crops, he said. More than 90 percent of the corn, cotton, sugar beets and soybeans currently grown in the United States has been genetically engineered.
Although wheat is widely rumored to have been genetically modified, and that’s frequently proffered as an explanation for growing rates of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, that’s a myth. While wheat has been genetically engineered and field tested, the modified seed was never been sold to farmers for commercial crops, simply because farmers weren’t interested in growing it, so it was abandoned in 2004. There is currently no genetically modified wheat approved for release anywhere in the world. “There is no commercial variety of genetically engineered wheat,” Jaffe said. “There is no genetically engineered wheat on the market…. Gluten comes from wheat, so the information out there that gluten-intolerance is related to genetic engineering is not true.”
Genetic engineering works by moving beneficial traits from one organism to another in a very precise way. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt, is a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in soil and that’s routinely used by organic farmers as a natural insecticide. It works by infecting and killing particular insects, such as European corn borers, Colorado potato beetles and cotton bollworms. Each strain of the bacterium acts on specific insects but is harmless to other insects and to humans, other mammals, birds and fish.
Scientists have figured out how to extract from the bacterium’s DNA the gene that produces the protein that kills insects infected by Bt and insert that gene into plants. When those plants make seeds, the seeds carry the Bt gene, inheriting that in the same way they inherit other traits of their parent plants. Both corn and cotton have now been engineered to produce the Bt protein, which means that farmers who grow that seed don’t have to spray their fields with Bt to kill the targeted insects because the plants are able to produce the insect killing protein themselves. “It’s almost like vaccinating the crop,” Jaffe said.
When people eat those genetically engineered plants, the plants’ altered DNA doesn’t become part of the human bodies that ate it, just as humans who eat a salad don’t incorporate that DNA into their genes and turn into lettuces. “There is no harm from foods made from those crops. There’s international consensus that there is no harm,” Jaffe said. “We don’t know about future crops because we have to look at that on a case by case basis, but for now, there is no harm.”