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Bioengineered foods are foods that have had a gene from a different species of plant or other organism introduced to produce desired characteristics or traits.
The general purpose of bioengineering is to create plants that are in some way superior to the current plant breed being used. Some genetically engineered plants are engineered to resist specific insects or diseases. This means that these plants are more likely to grow big and stay healthy. Because most farming uses pesticides or insecticides to protect plants, plants that are bioengineered to be pest resistant allow farmers to use less of these chemicals. This is positive for the environment, as well as possibly less costly for the farmer, and can often provide cheaper products for the consumer.
Bioengineering can also be used to increase the nutrient content of foods, or to add vitamins that are not usually found in a certain food. A variety of rice, sometimes referred to as “golden rice,” that includes beta-carotene has been developed. Beta-carotene is a provitamin to vitamin A, which means that the body can use it to produce vitamin A Rice is a staple of the diet of many Asians, and because rice does not normally contain vitamin A, many people in Asia are vitamin A deficient. This deficiency is believed to have resulted in blindness in a quarter of a million children in southeast Asia alone. If the new strain of rice that contains beta-carotene is introduced to the area, it could help to eliminate vitamin A deficiency and significantly reduce childhood blindness.
All people have deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in their cells. DNA is where all of the information needed to produce and sustain life is stored. DNA is made up of strands of nucleic acids that are grouped to form individual genes. Each gene contains the information about how to synthesize a particular protein The proteins synthesized lead to individual characteristics, such as hair and eye color in humans.
Plants also contain DNA, as do almost all other living things. When scientists genetically engineer a plant, they take a gene from another plant or organism such as a bacterium and insert it into the original plant or trade it for a gene in the original plant. This trading of genes is called transposing.
Scientists did not learn how to insert and transpose genes successful until the 1980s. However, long before this people had been trying to create better, heartier plants and animals through selective breeding. For hundreds of years farmers had selected and bred animals based on characterizes that they wanted the offspring to have. Farmers might decide to breed a cow that gave a higher quantity of milk than other cows in the hopes of producing more cows that gave an above average quantity of milk. Farmers also planted the seeds of plants that had desirable characteristics hoping to produce more plants with those same traits.
Although many people were engaged in trying to make new, better, plants and animals for many years it was not until the work of Gregor Mendel in the nineteenth century that people began to be understood how traits were passed from one generation to the next. He did research on pea plants and discovered that traits were passed from one generation to the next in a way that could be predicated. Peas had a much simpler inheritance pattern than most organisms, so even with this knowledge it was very difficult for scientists to produce plants with the exact traits they wanted. Plants with the desired trait had to be cross bred, and then plants from the resulting generation that had the desired traits had to be selected and cross bred again and again. It takes many generations of plants to produce offspring that regularly have the desired trait.
Today, scientists do not have to cross breed plants repeatedly to get a new variety of plant that has the traits or characteristics they desire. Instead, they search for a gene in another plant that will produce the desired characteristics and insert it into the DNA of the original plant. Often two or three different genes are inserted, sometimes each from different plants or animals. Plants that have had this done are considered bioengineered. It is estimated that more than 50% of the soybeans grown in the United States, and more than 25% of the corn have been bioengineered in some way. About two-thirds of processed foods contain some form of bioengineered crop.
Bioengineered foods are regulated and monitored by three different government agencies: the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The FDA is responsible for the regulation and labeling of the bioengineered foods, the USDA oversees the safety and completeness of test fields used by bioengineering companies to test their new plants, and the EPA regulates any bioengineered plants that contain pesticide-related genes.
Before companies can put a genetically engineered food on the market they need to prove that it is safe for consumers. The FDA requires that companies prove that the bioengineered food is just as safe and nutritious as the non-bioengineered equivalent. This includes providing information for the FDA to review about the kinds of proteins synthesized by the new gene or genes, nutritional content, toxicology reports, and other information. Labeling of bioengineered foods is voluntary, and is left to the discretion of the company.
There is a small chance that some people might have an unexpected allergic reaction to proteins
There are no expected interactions between bioengineered foods and any other foods, medicines, or products.
There are no complications expected from consuming bioengineered foods.
Some parents might be concerned that allergens that could affect their child might be introduced into unexpected plant species. Ninety percent of food allergies in the United States are to milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, wheat, and legumes (including peanuts and soybeans). The FDA ensures that each bioengineered food is tested to ensure that none of the common proteins that cause reactions before these foods can be sold to consumers. They also test for additional, less common, proteins that have been known to cause allergic reactions. It is extremely unlikely that a child who is allergic to one food would have a spontaneous reaction to another food product.
Shannon, Joyce Brennfleck ed. Diet and Nutrition Source-book. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2006.
Saterbak, Ann and Ka-Yiu San and Larry V. McIntire. Bioengineering Fundamentals. New York: Nova Science, 2007.
United States Department of Agriculture. 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250. Website: <http://www.usda.gov>
United States Food and Drug Administration. 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857-0001. Telephone: (888) 463-6332. Website: <http://www.fda.gov>
World Health Organization. Telephone: +41-22-791-2222. Website: <http://www.who.int/en/>
Tish Davidson, M.A.