Gene-splicing, or genetic engineering, can improve the flavor and nutritional value of foods, make them more resistant to pests and increase their shelf life. The Food and Drug Administration claims that gene-spliced foods are not harmful to humans.
Are you ready for genetically engineered foods?
Doesn't sound appetizing, does it?
But what if it means getting a tomato that tastes vine-ripened, with all the great flavor of fresh-picked fruit? Or potatoes that absorb less fat and make healthier and tastier potato chips? Or more nutritious peas, squash, beets, cantaloupes, cherries, radishes, and on and on?
All this is expected to result from a new technique known variously as gene-splicing, recombinant DNA, or genetic engineering. DNA is the genetic material that controls all the traits of a living thing.
The process that makes these new foods possible involves combining, or splicing, a single gene from a fruit's or vegetable's DNA with a beneficial gene from a mammal, bacterium, or other plant. By changing the plant's DNA sequence, scientists say, they can improve the characteristics of a fruit or vegetable.
Biotech--Not a New Idea
Genetic engineering, a form of biotechnology, is simply a more advanced way of doing what we've done since the days of Gregor Mendel. He was a 19th-century monk who, by carefully recording how cross-breeding different types of pea plants affected many of the plants' characteristics, figured out the basic laws of heredity. Mendel is now recognized as the "father of genetics."
Using living organisms to change, or create, a new product is not a new idea. For centuries, food scientists point out, food production has used living organisms in processes such as fermentation. Bread, cheese wine, buttermilk, pickles, sausage, and yogurt are examples of food products produced through the use of living organisms.
Farmers have been tinkering with plant genes for thousands of years, according to James Maryanski, Ph.D., biotechnology strategic manager for foods for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They do it to get higher yields from their crops, more fiber, and other desirable traits.
Cross-pollination, done by Mother Nature herself, is a kind of genetic engineering. Cross-breeding--either intentional by scientists or by natural means--has produced hundreds of new crops, such as broccoflower, a combination of broccoli and cauliflower, and an array of new summer squashes.
According to Maryanski, the process of gene transfer was originally developed in the early 1970s for use in medical research. it resulted in commercial production of insulin, a great boon to the quality of life for millions of persons with diabetes. We now also have genetically engineered interferon, hepatitis b vaccine, a drug for dissolving blood clots, and a human growth hormone.
Tastier, Better Produced
Gene-splicing, say food scientists, will provide foods that are tastier, more varied, and more wholesome. Foods will be produced more efficiently. We will have fruits and vegetables that are more resistant to cold or drought and that contain higher-quality protein. It may enable some foods to be grown in climates where they can't grow now.
It is expected to reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals. It could provide Third World nations with an adequate food supply to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.
The first genetically engineered product we can expect to see will be a tomato called FlavrSavr.
Today, tomatoes are harvested while they are still hard and green, so they can be packed and get to marke before they spoil. Before shipping, commercial packers bathe the tomatoes in ethylene gas for several days to hasten ripening . These prematurely picked and artificially ripened tomatoes don't have much flavor.
The genetically engineered tomato, however, will be allowed to ripen on the vine and will reach the market, say it's producers, with the natural bright color and rich flavor of ripe, fresh-picked fruit. it will stay fresh longer and be firm enough to handle without damage.
Scientists expect the new tomatoes to be at the head of a parade of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables. More than 50 products are now in the testing and production stages. These include virus-resistant cantaloupes, longer-lasting peppers, leaner pork, herbicide-resistant soybeans, higher-starch potatoes that absorb less fat, cooking oils with lower saturated fat content, and drought-resistant grains.
They will all have longer shipping and shelf lives, better resistance to pests and disease, and better nutritional values.
Any Harmful Effects
Not everyone is happy about the idea of genetically engineered foods. Opponents fear there will not be adequate monitoring of the process, with harmful effects on the consumer.
The FDA denies this, saying that it will monitor the new technology with the same safety checks that it has used to regulate and guarantee the quality of the nation's food supply.
The FDA does not consider genetic engineering of foods any more hazardous than conventional cross-breeding techniques. Many food scientists consider it a safer way of modifying foods.
Except under certain circumstances, the genetically engineered foods will not carry a special label. However, if in the process of production a substance is added to the food that is known to cause allergic reactions in sensitive persons, that fact must be on the label.
If the level of important nutrients is changed, the label would have to say so. Other circumstances include the use of a substance that has no previous history or safe use.
Generally, any substantial change in a food will trigger a requirement for labeling.
Genetically engineered foods are coming--and with them the promise of tastier, longer-lasting, virus- and drought-resistant produce that requires less use of pesticides and other chemicals that are harmful to the environment. If so, it's good news for the future.