VICUS.COM (15 March 2000) -- Since the first genetically modified (GM) crop, the Flavr-Savr tomato, showed up in
supermarkets six years ago, the market for GM food has steadily
increased, from $75 million in 1995 to $1.5 billion in 1998. Whether
the market will continue to grow may be determined more on political
grounds than on the advances of science.
Monsanto Inc., DuPont Co., Novartis AG and other companies that
produce genetically modified seeds are gearing up to defend their
products as safety concerns gain momentum among U.S. consumers. While
Americans have been generally unaware of the extent that GM technology
is contributing to their market basket, Europeans have been highly
critical, even to the point of threatening to embargo GM food products
from their ports.
In the end, closer regulatory scrutiny, more extensive testing
prior to marketing, and labeling of GM foods is likely to occur. What
follows is a concise overview of the major issues in the GM food
Why is it necessary to develop GM foods? Genetically
modifying crops can lead to greater resistance to pests, as well as to
larger crop yields. GM could be the solution to low food yields in
developing countries. However, profit is also a consideration in the
development of this technology. For example, Monsanto Inc. developed a
grain that yields an improved but sterile crop. This means that
instead of keeping back some seeds for the next year's sowing, farmers
must return to the supplier for more seed.
What are the advantages of GM foods? GM crops
help hold down the cost of food production by reducing farmers' need
for pesticides and herbicides. This leads to greater harvests. Farmers
enjoy increased incomes, while consumers get a wider variety of more
How much of our food supply today is GM?
1999, half of the U.S. soybean acres and 38% of corn acres were
planted with genetically altered seeds. About 60% of packaged foods
contain soy, a source of oil and protein, while corn, a source of
starch, oil and sweeteners, is found in about 13% of foods.
How do you know if you are eating GM foods? It
is impossible for Americans to avoid eating genetically modified
organisms, or GMOs, as they're often called.
Bioengineered corn and soybeans are used in a wide range of processed
food, from soft drinks and beer to breakfast cereal, and are also fed
to farm animals.
Do health food stores carry products that contain GMOs? Yes,
for example, tofu
and canola oil, often contain genetically modified ingredients.
What can we expect in the
future from GM crops? Further
research should yield more nutritious, flavorful, and productive
grains. It may also be possible to grow salt- and drought- tolerant
crops, and even plants that produce compounds ranging from industrial
oils and plastics to drugs and vaccines.
What do farmers think about
GM crops? These
plants are popular with farmers in the Untied States, because even a
slight increase in yield can result in increased profits.
Why are the Europeans so vocal in their criticism of GM? Recent
events such as the outbreak of madcow
disease in 1996, the appearance of dioxin-contaminated Belgian
chickens last spring, and the recall of contaminated cans of Coca-
Cola in France and the Benelux nations have made the Europeans
increasingly concerned about the consequences of bad food.
Politically, there is also a degree of protectionism for European
farmers coming into play.
What are the specific
concerns over GM crops? Concerns fall into two broad
categories. The first covers bad things GM foods might do to you:
toxicity, allergies, and the potential for inferior nutritional value
from GM foods. The second concern relates to the environment:
antibiotic resistance, loss of safe natural pesticides, and the spawning of superweeds.
Has anybody experienced side effects due to GM foods? Nothing
suggests that re-engineered plants have ever actually harmed anybody.
However, several years ago, a company developed a soybean with some
genetic threads borrowed from the Brazil nut in an attempt to boost
the bean's amino acid content. In addition to achieving the intended
results, the GM soybean manufactured chemicals that could trigger
allergies in nut- sensitive consumers. The company quickly scrapped
the product. In addition, a study published by Cornell University
showed that pollen from some strains of corn with built-in pesticides
can kill the larva of the Monarch butterfly.
Russo, Jr. PharmD, is senior vice president of medical
communications at Vicus.com. He is a pharmacist and medical writer
with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.