Historically, crops have been genetically tweaked to be herbicide-resistant or insect-resistant, but scientists are stacking traits (where more than one gene has been transferred) to address both pest and weed problems, and are looking at ways to improve the nutritional values of many staple crops. Here’s a closer look at several of the hundred or so genetically engineered foods that have made it, or are about to make it, onto the dinner plate.
Backstory: In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato became the first genetically engineered crop approved for human consumption. Modified to slow the softening process that occurs during ripening, it was intended to extend the harvest window, allowing the tomato to spend more days on the vine while still being firm enough for shipping.
The Latest News: Despite its name, the tomato was not particularly tasty or easy to ship and it was expensive to produce. In 1998, it was removed from the market.
Backstory: Approved in 1994, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean was designed to resist Monsanto’s popular glyphosate herbicide, Roundup. Approved in 2010, Pioneer Hi-Bred International’s genetically modified soybean has been engineered to be high in oleic acid (a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid, also found in olive oil). Oleic acid is thought to raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
The Latest News: The first glyphosate-resistant weed was found in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Known commonly as “superweeds,” they now number 10 species, including horseweed, pigweed and giant ragweed, and have spread to 22 states. In October 2010, Monsanto announced it would be offering herbicide rebates to farmers using their Roundup Ready soybeans.
Backstory: Introduced in 1995, Syngenta’s Bt176 was developed originally to be resistant to the European corn borer and later, root worm. (The corn contains a bacterium that produces a protein that is toxic to the insects that feed on it.) HT corn (HT stands for herbicide tolerant) is resistant to herbicides like glyphosate and has been developed by multiple companies, including DeKalb, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Bayer CropScience. Some genetically modified corn is “stacked” with both traits.
The Latest News: Genetically modified corn has dramatically reduced the pest population of the European corn borer, a benefit to the farmers who plant the less-expensive conventional corn seed, as well. Conventional corn plantings also serve to limit the development of herbicide-resistant weeds. In 2010, nearly 70 percent of U.S. farmland planted in corn used a GE crop.
Backstory: Like corn and soybeans, canola (or rapeseed) was genetically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant and was approved in 1996. Today, about 90 percent of the U.S. and Canadian canola crop is genetically modified.
The Latest News: As in corn and soybean fields, the use of the herbicide glyphosate by farmers is resulting in the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, known as “superweeds.”
A team from the University of Arkansas collected wild canola plants across North Dakota, and recently found that 86 percent of them tested positive for genetic modification. In addition, “Canola can interbreed with 40 different weed species worldwide—10 in the U.S.—so they can continue to spread across North America,” says Ken Roseboro of The Organic & Non-GMO BOX Report.
Backstory: Developed by Monsanto and KWS Saat Ag to be glyphosate-resistant, the genetically engineered sugar beet was approved by the USDA in 2005. It now accounts for 95 percent of the U.S. sugar beet market and makes up half of the U.S. production of sugar. (The other half is derived from sugarcane.)
The Latest News: Sugar beets are largely wind-pollinated. Environmental groups are concerned the GE sugar beet will contaminate organic table beets and Swiss chard and successfully petitioned a judge for an injunction against GE crops. In November 2010, a federal judge ordered 256 acres of GE sugar beet seedlings to be destroyed and placed a moratorium on future planting until a thorough environmental study can be conducted.
Backstory: Developed in 1999 after years of research stemming from a 1982 Rockefeller Foundation initiative, Golden Rice was genetically modified to contain higher levels of beta carotene, which our bodies use to make vitamin A. According to the World Health Organization, 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind each year because of vitamin A deficiencies. That added beta carotene gives the rice a yellow-orange color, and its name: Golden Rice. Farmers will be given free seeds, and will be allowed to save seeds for future planting.
The Latest News: A country-by-country approval process could mean slow going for adoption of Golden Rice. But Golden Rice has already been cross-bred into local rice varieties in India and the Philippines in limited quantities. There are no plans to grow or distribute it in the U.S.
Backstory: In 1999, scientists at the University of Guelph, Ontario, added DNA from a mouse and from E. coli bacteria to a Yorkshire pig embryo to create “Enviropig”: so named because it is able to better digest plant phosphorus and produces 30 to 70 percent less phosphorus in its manure, potentially reducing pollution that can cause algal growth, fish kills and unpotable water.
The Latest News: Enviropig has been approved for limited production (though not as food) in Canada and is under review by the FDA. It’s not likely a decision will be made on Enviropig until after the AquAdvantage salmon case has been decided.
Backstory: Scientists have discovered how to turn off the gene that produces the enzyme polyphenol oxidase. The result? Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples that are slower to brown when sliced.
The Latest News: Okanagan Specialty Fruits of British Columbia petitioned the USDA in November 2010 for approval of their genetically engineered Arctic-brand apples.
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