Seeds Of Doubt Harmful Genetic Engineering Can Yield Healthier Foods

February 8, 2000
Columbus Dispatch

The recent world conference on regulating genetically modified crops put the spotlight on a matter of growing importance. Still, many people think it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. And when that "fooling'' is done with genetically engineered crops and food, concern grows.

Because there is a lack of understanding and some general mistrust, the considerable benefits of this research -- engineering nature -- are not being realized nearly as quickly as they might.

Before genetically engineered foods can be accepted widely there should be sensible regulations that the public understands and trusts. When consumers see there are significant benefits, there will be greater acceptance. But, if that trust is not developed, engineered foods may mirror nuclear power -- a technology that promised much but never gained society's confidence.

The success stories of bioengineering need to be more widely known. For instance, cotton has been developed with a gene that lets the plant make its own pesticide. In Switzerland, scientists have developed rice that contains vitamin A, which is crucial in preventing blindness.

There is no evidence so far that genetically altered foods have harmed anyone or been a threat to the environment. Still, some opponents have taken to using the epithet Frankenfoods.

But supporters of biotechnology point out that genes have long been manipulated through conventional plant and animal breeding, when certain traits are sought.

Most people aren't aware of how biotechnology could make food healthier, such as producing tomatoes with cancer-fighting substances and cooking oils with reduced fat. The developing world could benefit greatly by increased food production and vaccines incorporated into, say, bananas, doing away with the need for vaccinations.

Genetic engineering differs from cross-breeding that works only between plants or animals of the same species. But engineering can put bacterial genes in corn and fish genes in tomatoes. To make sure such engineering does not go astray, the Food and Drug Administration requires that all modified foods be screened for safety.

Because of the threat of consumer resistance, some large food producers have put off plans to introduce genetically modified food. And qualms about biotechnology already have forced farmers to segregate non- modified from modified grains.

There seems little doubt that an evolution is in store for the appropriate use of biotechnology to produce more and better food. But first the public has to be assured that fooling with Mother Nature is a good idea when it's done right.


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