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?

On the other hand, people have been eating GE products for 15 years, and there’s been no smoking gun, no study establishing a cause-and-effect link or even a correlation between eating GE foods and public health problems or specific diseases. “There’s very little evidence they are harmful in a way that anybody can measure,” says EatingWell nutrition advisor Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a New York University professor of food studies, who follows the issue closely.

Biotech boosters concur, and say that it’s not just about corporate profits: genetic engineering has the potential to do a lot of good. Plants and animals can now be altered to address chronic problems in agriculture: to resist pests, to be more nutritious, to thrive in hostile environments. Deployed in the developing world, such foods could help to alleviate recurring famines, hunger, even poverty.

Take the case of Golden Rice. Developed over a decade ago by a pair of German scientists, Golden Rice contains genes taken from a daffodil and a soil bacterium that enable it to make beta carotene, a key source of vitamin A in the diet that is found in many vegetables (and also the stuff that makes carrots orange). Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness, other health problems and ultimately death in parts of the developing world. Golden Rice’s developers ran into patent problems that delayed its debut for many years; recently they partnered with the agriculture chemical giant Syngenta to work out the scientific kinks and legal questions and hope to gain FDA approval this year.

There’s also the Enviropig, a genetically engineered Yorkshire pig developed at the University of Guelph in Ontario and approved for limited production in Canada. It’s been altered with genes from a mouse and an E. coli bacterium to make it produce poop low in phosphorus. (No, we’re not kidding.) High-phosphorus runoff from hog farming and fertilizer causes algae blooms that consume oxygen, killing fish and other aquatic life. Enviropigs’ manure contains 30 to 70 percent less phosphorus (depending on diet and age of pig). And this past January, scientists in the UK announced they had created a transgenic chicken that doesn’t transmit what is now the highly contagious H5N1 bird flu, Reuters reported.

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