As of 2003, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 81 percent of soybeans and 40 percent of corn produced in the United States are genetically modified -- so you have probably been consuming genetically modified foods for quite some time.
Humans have been doing this to their foods naturally for many years. The old-fashioned way to genetically modify food crops is to cross-breed plants that show the characteristics the farmer wants to improve. Over several seasons, the preferred traits will become more evident. Unfortunately, this type of modification is a slow and somewhat limited process.
Genetically engineering food crops goes a few steps beyond the old-fashioned process of cross-breeding. Plants can be genetically modified so that they are more resistant to pests or altered in such a way that the crop plants are resistant to weed-killers. This allows stronger weed-killers to be applied to the fields to maintain the land without killing the crops.
Genetically engineering plants isn't limited to making them easier to grow. Plants could be modified to improve their nutrition content or improve their safety.
For example, some plants that normally contain large amounts of calcium could be genetically modified to reduce the amount of oxalates they also produce. Oxalates normally bind some of the calcium and make it unavailable for absorption in the body. This modification to reduce the oxalate would allow more calcium to be absorbed.
Another possibility is to genetically modify peanuts so that their proteins are less allergenic; this change could potentially save lives of the people who suffer from this dangerous allergy. Of course, it would be difficult (and scary) to test this during development.
The idea of genetically engineered foods makes some people nervous. A quick search on the Internet will bring sites from various groups who are concerned about the safety of growing and eating genetically modified foods.
Some areas of concern are:
- The potential for unknowingly creating allergens.
- Possibly spreading pesticide-resistance to wild plants.
- Possible toxicity to animals.
- The idea that these foods are un-natural.
- Should genetically engineered foods be labeled?
There are also economic concerns about genetically modified foods when the patents and seed contracts are owned and controlled by only one company, Monsanto.
Dodo HW, Konan KN, Chen FC, Egnin M, Viquez OM. "Alleviating peanut allergy using genetic engineering: the silencing of the immunodominant allergen Ara h 2 leads to its significant reduction and a decrease in peanut allergenicity." Plant Biotechnol J. 2007 Sep 3.
Morris J, Nakata PA, McConn M, Brock A, Hirschi KD. "Increased calcium bioavailability in mice fed genetically engineered plants lacking calcium oxalate." Plant Mol Biol. 2007 Jul;64(5):613-8.
United States Food and Drug Administration. "Genetic Engineering: The Future of Foods?" November 2003.