FAQs: about genetically modified foods

Americans have been generally unaware of GM technology, while Europeans have been highly critical.
By John Russo/Vicus.com

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 fight.

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 affordable food.

How much of our food supply today is GM?  In 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.  

John 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.

The curse of Frankenfood (European fears of genetically modified foods may be threat to trade with US). U.S. News & World Report. July 26, 1999 v127 i4 p38.Health risks of genetically modified foods. The Lancet. May 29, 1999 v353 i9167 p1811.The battle heats up between the U.S. and Europe over genetically engineered crops. Time. Sept 13, 1999 v154 i11 p42.Monsanto Braces for US Protest on Gene-Altered Food. Bloomberg L.P. San Francisco, Sept. 22 1999.