Genetic Engineering and the Food Supply




Kennedy, W. Russ


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As food sources high in the trees became inadequate, our predecessors climbed to the ground and through centuries of adaptation learned to stand upright and cultivate plants. Plant cultivation has been practiced for more than ten thousand years with continuous improvements made to crop plants to meet the growing food needs of human domesticated animal populations. Biotechnology has been practiced for thousands of years with fermentations of fruits and grains to make wine and beer and the use of yeast in baking. More recently, advances in molecular biology allow the analysis and manipulation of genetic material to achieve desired changes in the organism. Transgenics or genetic engineering is the process of identifying specific genetic defects or desirable traits and altering an organism’s DNA by addition or deletion of specific DNA sequences. Nearly 100 million acres (40 million hectares) were planted in transgenic crops in 1999. The largest acreages of more than 40 different transgenic crops grown were in cotton, corn, soybean and rapeseed. Fifty-five percent of all cotton, 50% of soybeans, and 33% of corn grown in the U.S. in 1999 were transgenic varieties. The large plantings stem from fairly straightforward manipulations of single genes, such as the transferring to corn and cotton genetic material from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces an insecticidal toxin or transferring to the soybean, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola a gene with resistance to herbicides, such as glyphosate. The American farmer is perceived to be the beneficiary of lowered production costs primarily through better weed and pest control and a reduction in pesticide use with accompanying environmental improvement. Agro-chemical companies, who for the most part have spearheaded research and development of these crops, became involved because they foresaw a declining market for pesticides. Another area of promise widely discussed in the scientific and popular press is the improvement of food quality and composition resulting from genetic engineering. Because plants and plant products provide much of the world’s food supply, it is only fitting that early applications of this technology be in this area. Recent estimates suggest that the market for transgenic seed has already reached several hundred million dollars per year and that more than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) were grown in the U.S. in 1998. Concerns of food risk to the food supply and environment that using transgenic methods present, although not always science based, have some merit and require careful scientific scrutiny.