Genetically modified food debate muted in generally accepting science community

November 5, 2012 by Lisa M. Krieger

Food has been genetically modified on the farm for centuries. But now genes are swapped in labs, and the shift is fueling major changes in agriculture - and a political backlash.

Proposition 37 on the Nov. 6 ballot, would make California the first state to require labeling genetically engineered foods - that is, foods from a plant or animal whose DNA has been manipulated in a laboratory.

If the initiative passes, a majority of the foods on that come in a box, bag or can would have to be labeled.

Backers of Proposition 37 argue that consumers have a right to know how their food was created. The premise is that lab-designed food is significantly different from other food - for instance, that tweaked to resist , pesticides or herbicides are different from traditionally bred crops.

But that's an assumption much of the scientific community questions, including the U.S. National Research Council, an independent panel that informs government decision-makers.

Many scientists say there is no difference between a food created through modern molecular techniques and food created through conventional breeding.

"There is nothing new about introducing traits into , just the methods used to do it," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of strategic and at the University of California, Davis.

Both traditional and lab-based genetic crossings are safe, and they deserve equal weight in the marketplace, said Peggy G. Lemaux of UC Berkeley, who researches the use of genomic technologies to understand and improve .

There's a long history of human tinkering with agriculture. Today's corn bears little resemblance to its grasslike ancestor teosinte. Tasty tangelos are a genetic cross between tangerines and grapefruit. Our beefy black angus and milk-rich Holstein cattle descend from the fearsome and extinct auroch.

Like these examples of classic breeding techniques, genetic engineering alters the sequence and regulation of genes. But there are differences.

Traditional breeding techniques move tens of thousands of genes in an organism. In contrast, lab-based crosses change a few genes - maybe just one or two. Sometimes, the genes are simply tweaked to alter their behavior.

And although traditional breeding crosses closely related creatures, lab scientists can cross distantly related or unrelated species.

This can result in gene combinations not previously seen. Voila! Rabbits, mice, roundworms and bacteria that glow green under a black light, thanks to an inserted jellyfish gene. This discovery, which led to a 2008 Nobel Prize, helps researchers visualize the movement of key proteins.

Some lab-altered crops grow faster. Others are more resistant to disease. A few fend off drought.

But fear of the unknown can stop lab-based breeding from helping consumers, scientists say.

Take the special seed sleeping in a basement at UC Berkeley, awaiting its day in the sun. The genetically modified wheat seed was designed for people with wheat allergies.

Because of anti-genetic-engineering sentiment, food companies did not embrace it, Lemaux said. "No one is interested in moving it to the marketplace," said Lemaux, who designed the seed and now cares for it.

But scientists also warn that it is important to monitor risks. For instance, they caution about the environmental effect if an introduced gene jumps to other crops - or the risk to human health if the gene triggers allergies. And there is the potential of unintended effects - say, if an introduced trait unexpectedly alters plant metabolism.

Supporters of Proposition 37 say that lab-based breeding techniques have not been adequately studied and point out that the biotech industry paid for much of the research. And, the initiative's backers argue, no long-term studies have been done to prove that the new techniques aren't harmful to human health.

Indeed, the body of peer-reviewed research on genetically engineered foods is small, consisting mostly of a handful of studies done on mice. Some of those studies suggest links to immune-system impairment and other problems.

Scientists in France on Sept. 19 concluded that rats fed corn engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup developed tumors and trouble with their livers and kidneys, but geneticists sharply criticized the study for its small size, use of tumor-prone rats and other methodological problems.

The most thorough review yet - an analysis of 24 studies in animals of the short and long-term dietary effects of genetically modified corn, potato, soybean and rice, published this year by French and British scientists - found no evidence of health hazards.

Foods made from genetically engineered crops undergo safety testing by the companies or institutions that develop them. Then this data is reviewed by federal regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says that genetically modified foods are safe to eat and do not need labels. The American Medical Association has taken the same position.

"On balance, neither the weight of scientific research - nor the great majority of the scientific community - supports the view that organisms modified using the present-day biotechnology pose novel, or greater dangers, to human health than organisms developed by other means," Newell-McGloughlin said.

Human studies are tough to conduct because "people don't want to be guinea pigs," Lemaux said. But, she added, foods are a fixture in grocery stores, with no apparent untoward health effects.

Because the FDA is tasked with deciding how products are labeled, Lemaux predicted, it will likely challenge a state's attempt to trump its authority.

"In the end," he said, "it is not going to be decided by you and me."

Explore further: US initiative will test appetite for GMO food


Related Stories

US initiative will test appetite for GMO food

October 6, 2012

(AP)—Calories. Nutrients. Serving size. How about "produced with genetic engineering?" California voters will soon decide whether to require certain raw and processed foods to carry such a label.

Study cites abundance of genetically modified canola crops

August 14, 2010

Genetic engineering has been hailed as a tool to produce crops that are left unharmed by weed-killing pesticides and that are more productive than their forebears. But critics have worried that modified plants might take ...

US groups win challenge to gene-altered crops

October 23, 2012

(AP)—A U.S. judge sided on Tuesday with environmental groups that challenged the planting of genetically-modified crops on National Wildlife Refuges in the South.

Recommended for you

How Frankenstein saved humankind from probable extinction

October 28, 2016

Frankenstein as we know him, the grotesque monster that was created through a weird science experiment, is actually a nameless Creature created by scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, "Frankenstein." ...

Closer look reveals tubule structure of endoplasmic reticulum

October 28, 2016

(—A team of researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. has used high-resolution imaging techniques to get a closer look at the endoplasmic reticulum (ET), a cellular organelle, and in so doing, has found that its structure ...

Computer model is 'crystal ball' for E. coli bacteria

October 28, 2016

It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, and even more so when they involve the reactions of living cells—huge numbers of genes, proteins and enzymes, embedded in complex pathways and feedback loops. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.