For Release November 28, 2000

Is Biotech Food Something to Worry About?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

If you are reading this column hoping that I will tell you absolutely whether food containing biotech, or bioengineered products, i.e. GMOs, is safe or not, youíre going to be disappointed. What I do want to accomplish, is to just make you a little more aware of some of the issues, so that you can better understand the debate and controversy. To truly do an adequate job of explaining genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or biotech or bioengineered products, would require two months worth of this column.

In a nutshell, plant researchers can insert genetic material from one plant species into another plant species. It doesnít always work like planned, and some of the genes just canít get transferred yet. In one aspect, this technique is nothing new. We have long used wild relatives of all our major crop plants to find new genes to improve insect or disease resistance, food quality, hardiness, any number of traits. But the more distant the relationship, the more difficult it was to accomplish this. Just think if we could make corn fix its own atmospheric nitrogen like soybeans do!

What the new techniques allow, is to take genes from totally unrelated plants, or even from fungi, bacteria, etc., and incorporate that genetic material into a desired plant. Like I said, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnít. It is not an exact science of looking in a microscope and snipping the DNA here and here and then splicing different DNA there and there.

The possibilities of what we can do with plants is enormous. Imagine a turf grass that was resistant to Roundup. It sure could simplify a lot of problems. But, there are concerns, both scientific and ethical. The ethical concerns are up to you to sort out, I will simply address the scientific concerns.

Are these foods safe? Keep in mind, that the FDA does not test the actual food products manufactured with biotech crops. The technology and products are also so new, we donít know if there are long term implications. This has always been a potential problem with new scientific advances. Some long term implications have been negative, some have been very positive or at least benign.

Should consumers be aware of whatís in their food? Well, for starters I would like consumers to simply be much more aware of where their food comes from and how it is processed to begin with. Given that, yes, I do think consumers should be aware. Anyone can virtually be allergic to anything, and with varying degrees of allergic reactions. It doesnít matter whether itís poison ivy, a drug allergy or a food allergy. It can happen and people deserve to know what is in a processed food product. (I am predicting that this will be THE big fight of the next congressional session in Washington, D.C.)

Should you be concerned? Maybe not concerned, but very aware. Read what you can and then call us at the Extension Office and ask questions. We are on the tip of the iceberg of what could emerge from this technology. Some of it could be very positive, some of it is already of questionable need. In the mean time, stay tuned, read, listen, and ask questions. And be sure to enjoy your next meal, after all, we still have the safest and cheapest food in the world!


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