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Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Would you put biotechnology-derived foods on your plate?

Ilana Moyer

The food one eats, its origin and effect on the body rests on sensitive ground; when it comes to the care and fuel of the human body, paranoia strikes with the concept of biological modification. The most recent advance in genetic modification is biotechnology-derived food. The youth of the technology and its continual change and growth presents adverse and uneasy opinions if the health, production and environmental benefits balance out the instability of the food's safety and potential risks in human and animal health and environmental consequences (2). Safety of a food, whether it's conventional or genetically altered, reflects the individual characteristics of each organism and its unique genetic makeup. In comparison to their natural equivalent and to similarly engineered foods, the safety of a specific genetically engineered food varies in terms of benefits or adverse issues (1). . Foods differ on individual basis; in place of formulating generalizations on the safety of biotechnology-derived foods, assessments of specific effects should be made on a case-by-case basis. A discrepancy exists between the different foods types and the function and safety of their genetically modified characteristics created by different biotechnologies.

To understand the safety of biotechnology derived foods one must first understand biotechnology, the genetic make-up and modification of foods, and then precede to observe the physical components of the organism and the consumers' perception of the food. Consumer confidence is the only precarious component to biotechnology-derived foods, produced by a misunderstanding of the breeding method. Laws, regulations and government monitoring determine food safety qualifications for biotechnology-derived foods, high above policies for traditional food production. The purpose of this paper is to provide consumers with the appropriate platform to formulate educated decisions on the risks and benefits of biotechnology-derived foods.

Genetically altered food has been on our dinner table since Gregor Mendel discovered that characteristics of pea plants could be inherited in the 19th century. Mix-breeding to obtain the strongest, dominant characteristic in an organism enhances the excellence of plants and other organisms. Over time, technology and food quality has improved with age. The most recent advance in food quality, biotechnology-derived foods, has taken genetically altered foods to a new level.

Through the use of recombiant DNA (rDNA), scientists have been able to extract, rearrange, and add specific genes to create the ideal genetic make-up for particular plants and organisms, improving their physical strength, appearance and quality. This biotechnique, used in this process of genetic alteration, inserts a desired gene encoded for a particular trait into the DNA of the plant or microorganism. The DNA is rearranged and combined from two separate organisms, producing a single organism that reflects the single desired dominant trait (1). . Without putting other gene compositions in the organism at risk, the biotechnique of inserting a single gene to create a new characteristic allows single traits to be altered in a controlled environment. The new gene, once in the organism, directs the production of a specific protein, producing the new characteristic. The IFT on rDNA Biotechnology derived foods states "Most genes do not have characteristics unique to the specific organism in which they are found.... Furthermore, it is impossible to determine the organism from which a given gene arises by inspection of the DNA sequence alone. (1). " Therefore, since genes do not hold unique characteristics to their original form, they can be transplanted and accepted into a new DNA without conflict; creating a comfortable and precise process for genetic development.

Unlike conventional mix breeding, multiple characteristics of each parent organism are not altered in the biotechnology process. More control over characteristics given to a plant or microorganism, provides a fast and efficient method to make these genetic changes (6). The applications of biotechnology methods apply to plant and animal breeding, fermentation, enzyme purification. For example biotechniques help control enzymatic activity with detrimental effects on food, and increase valuable enzyme strength. Uses of these genetically enhanced characteristics are in medical applications, plant production, animal production, food processing, and storage; a different set of variables exist for each application in terms of purpose, composition and safety (3).

The application of biotechnology in animal food production resides in reproduction, animal health, feeding and nutrition, and growth and production (4). Experiments have been preformed with enzymes to increase nutrients and decrease anti-nutritional factors and toxins, as well as with protein hormones to improve milk and meat production. The technology used in the hormone experimentation, recombiant bovine somatotropin (bST), was isolated and inserted into bacteria cells to increase milk production (3). Controversy has arisen over the many technologies used to increase efficacy in animal food production because of the delicacy of working with living tissues (4).

Biotechnology is omnipresent in plant production. Plant food modifications improve "composition, functional characteristics, or oraganolptic properties" (3) from the application of biotechnology techniques. Biotechnology developments have helped to improve the eating value of many fruits, plants resistant to disease, environmental conditions for cultivation benefits, and the enhancement of plant nutritional values. Through genetic modifications of "delayed pectin degradation or altered responses to the plant hormone ethylene" fruit can now ripen faster, taste better, and have an extended shelf life (3). Beginning with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994 where an enzyme developed a stronger texture for food transportation ease, genetically engineered plant varieties have been approved for general public consumption by the FDA (6). Through tissue culture new improved varieties of plants are better adapted to a specific environment. Potential risk factors arise with the complex procedure of the modification an entire organism through its DNA. Unknown toxins and allergens are possible to arise, especially with stress from the environment (2).

Unlike plant food, which undergoes complete organism alteration, only the design of microorganisms in processed and fermented foods is needed to improve the efficiency and nutritional value (3). The fermentation processes provide a way to preserve proteins and vitamins that are often lost in traditional food processing when the enzymes are destroyed. Toxic components can also be eliminated and additives can be produced with additional nutritional value and improved texture, flavor and other functional characteristics through biotechnology. Genetic manipulation of microorganisms is more advance in biotechnology food processing applications; the process of microorganisms is less complex than plant manipulation. Furthermore, the FAO poses: "It is therefore intriguing that research centers primarily on plant genetic engineering, where there are still many obstacles to overcome, while the chance to improve food processing is largely neglected." (4).

The nervous apprehension of consumers on food safety has resulted in countless scientific and government measures. Scientifically, biotechnology methods decrease microbial contamination of foods by making detection of food borne pathogens, toxins, and chemical contaminants faster and more sensitive. Food production and processing systems for quality control are monitored by "...enzymes, antibodies, and microorganisms produced using rDNA techniques" (3). Other genetic developments to improve the safety of food supply and monitor quality are also available.

Legally, what makes a genetically manipulated food safe has created trepidations among consumers. Possible health hazards of foods foreign to the public result in labeling and monitoring all genetically engineered foods. Many say that the controlled process of biotechnology makes the food safer than traditional breeding techniques. All foods contain natural toxins that are hazardous under certain exposures, many of which people are also allergenic. Biotechnology-derived foods have no more natural toxins and allergens than natural foods (1). . As new foods under constant observation by scientists, the government and the public, the media constantly publicizes the appearance of toxins in biotechnology-derived foods.

FDA and other government agencies have issued safety regulations and tests undergone by all biotechnology-derived foods. No new biotechnology-derived foods can be submitted for public consumption without passing these regulations. The uncertainty of the foods arises in the short history since their creation; little can be understood from their short history- the long-term effects will determine the "safety" of biotechnology-derived foods. According to the IFT, safety is determined by the length of history of food use, for any food. Biotechnology-derived foods are new to the public market and have a short history (1). . Government agencies and health organizations, such as the ADA, FDA, IFC, FAO, and WHO support biotechnology-derived foods on the understanding that the foods comply with the stringent safety standards with a science based evaluation system (2,1,3,6). Though regulatory questions do arise in the scientific evaluation for anti-nutrients, possible toxins and allergies, all agencies stress their support in the usefulness of biotechnology-supported foods and the potentials of their techniques. The benefits supersede the trepidations. Little expansion and explanation of safety definitions and procedures are made in the agency statements.

The IFT in its section on frequently asked questions clams that the safety of biotechnology-derived foods is impossible to prove; through many assessments and studies they can only concluded that rDNA biotechnology-derived foods are not just safe, but "...are more precise and predicable..." (1) . Though rDNA cross breeding techniques are thought to produce better quality plants, animal food and processed food, the accuracy and affect of the overall technology cannot be felt or determined until years after its creation. While they are in their infancy, conclusions on the efficacy of biotechnology-derived foods have been made before long terms effects and developments are felt as a result of the public's insecurities on the issue. The current apprehensions deem the food "safe" by government and scientific standards, and their benefits surpass the potential risks. Each application of biotechnology has a unique application and benefit in food production. They also vary in safety measures, efficiency, and technology. A person should know specific nutrition and environment information to understand the complex issues surrounding the food before making choices on genetic engineered food consumption.

WWW Sources

1) IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods , September 19, 2000. From the Institute of Food Technologists' website.

2) Food and Agriculture Organization website , Food and Agriculture Organization of the USA Statement on Biotechnology. March 2000

3) American Dietetic Association , Biotechnology and the Future of Food-Position of the ADA. Published in 2000.

4) From the FAO website , Biotechnology: The Impact on Food and Nutrition in Developing Countries. By G. Junne.

5) Are Bioengineered Foods Safe? , By Larry Thompson. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer. January- February 2000.

6) The FDA website, FDA's Policy for Foods Developed by Biotechnology. U.S Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. CFSAN Handout: 1995.

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