What are the environmental and health risks of genetically engineered foods

What are the environmental and health risks of genetically engineered foods, and do they outweigh the benefits such as reducing pesticide use and increasing crop yields?

Liz from California

Genetic engineering is a technology that manipulates the genes of organisms and transfers them between species. While genetically engineered (GE) foods such as corn and wheat appear identical to their natural counterparts, they differ in that they contain genes from bacteria, viruses, insects, nuts or animals.

Proponents of genetic engineering claim that the technology actually improves upon Mother Nature, as altered plants can be made resistant to weeds, insects or even cooler temperatures. As such, the technology has been touted as the future of agriculture and looked to as a solution for world hunger.

But many scientists believe that the reality of genetic engineering is quite different. According to UC Berkeley biologist Miguel Altieri, the replacement of a wide variety of crops with a few genetically modified monocultures (large groups of a single species of plant) threatens to undermine the very genetic diversity which helps crops avoid insect infestation and the spread of disease in the first place.

“Although biotechnology has the capacity to create a greater variety of commercial plants,” says Altieri, “the trend
is to create broad international markets for a single product, thus creating the conditions for genetic uniformity
” He adds that the potential transfer of genes from GE crops to wild or semi-domesticated relatives may help create “super weeds” resistant to any and all control efforts.

Additionally, some believe that GE foods can be hazardous to human health when ingested. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association says that GE foods have been linked to many health problems, including blood disorders and food allergies. For instance, a few years ago Pioneer Hi-Bred International, in order to boost the protein content of its products, developed a soybean using a gene from a Brazil nut. Independent tests on the GE soybean revealed that people allergic to Brazil nuts could have severe allergic reactions to the modified soybeans.

While many American lawmakers and farmers have embraced genetic engineering, governments in other parts of the world are not convinced that the known benefits of the technology outweigh the potential risks. According to Yale University researcher Kathleen McAfee, American advocacy for genetic engineering has strained foreign relations as European and African nations reject any such “modified” products for trade and food aid.

With more than 40 varieties of GE crops approved for marketing and use in the U.S., as much as 70 percent of the foods on American grocery shelves today already contain genetically modified components. Since the federal government does not require GE foods to be labeled as such, the best way for consumers to avoid them is by buying only products that have been certified organic.

CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association, (218) 226-4164, www.organicconsumers.org; The Ecological Impacts of Agricultural Biotechnology, www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/altieri.html; Yale Global Online, www.yaleglobal.yale.edu/environment.