Is Genetically Engineered Food the Food of the Future?

By John McQuaid, "Is This the Food of the Future?," March/April 2011

Super salmon, enviropigs, blemish-free apples—What does the new wave of genetically engineered foods mean for our health and our planet?

A Transgenic Revolution

The term “genetically engineered” means altering an organism’s genetic code, usually by implanting a strand of DNA containing a specific genetic instruction from a different species, in order to produce a desired characteristic that nature hasn’t given it. It is often used interchangeably with “genetically altered” and “genetically modified” (though the FDA says those other terms can describe more conventional means for altering genes, such as hybridizing plants or selectively breeding animals for size, body type or longevity). Regardless of what it’s called, transgenic food is nothing new.

The first genetically engineered food, the “Flavr Savr” tomato, modified with an altered tomato gene to ripen slowly, was approved in 1994. It was a commercial failure due to high production costs, but more products quickly followed. The first GE varieties of corn and soybeans were cleared for use in farming in the United States in 1996, and since then more than 100 genetically modified plants have won government approval, including varieties of corn, soybeans, sugar beets and papayas. From a business standpoint, most have been a spectacular success for their producers: 93 percent of soybean and 70 percent of corn farmland in the United States are planted with crops genetically engineered to be herbicide- or pest-resistant.

According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as of 2005 more than three-quarters of processed foods in the U.S. contained genetically modified foods. So the chances are good that you’ve already been eating them, without knowing it.

Next: GE Foods & Human Health »

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