Biotechnology for the purposes of this discussion is using genetic engineering (GM) techniques to alter the DNA of an organism with genes or DNA strands that weren’t in the original organism. There are other forms of biotechnology that are less contentious such as traditional hybridization of organisms and mutating an organism (usually seeds) via radiation or chemicals.1(153) Humans have been creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food products since the advent of agriculture, just through more conventional means than genetic engineering.
While some people tend to think the biotechnology used to create modern GM products are against nature or unnatural, there is precedence with transgenic crops found in nature. It was recently discovered that 291 varieties of sweet potatoes cultivated around the world contain transfer DNA from Agrobacterium but not their wild cousins.2 It’s estimated that the gene transfer happened 8,000 years ago and imparted desired traits that lead to cultivation of those sweet potatoes but not the ones without the transfer DNA.2 Another argument against food biotechnology are fears that the resulting products are not safe for human consumption simply due to the breeding techniques. A few poorly designed pre-clinical trials on rodents are often cited as proof that Bt corn and soybeans cause cancer, but the studies don’t take into account that the rodents used are prone to developing tumors and other confounders weren’t discussed.3 Another safety concern is the possibility of toxic substances or allergens in GM products; however, conventional breeding processes are more likely to produce products with unforeseen consequences than biotechnology bred plants where specific genes are added or deleted rather than random genetic changes are made via cross-pollenation or mutagenesis. The Lenape potato, which was bred via conventional means, was removed from the market in the 1970’s after it was discovered that it contained more than three times the amount of solanine than other potatoes and caused severe nausea and diarrhea. The Lenape potato lead to increased regulations and testing in new produce varieties before they’re brought to market. GM products undergo even more testing before approval because of the inherent distrust the general public has for biotechnology.
According to Marion Nestle, a prominent academic who studies nutrition and food policies, there are many applications for food biotechnology, some are currently in use or being developed while others are still theoretical. Biotechnology could be used to improve crops to benefit human health and tastes such as changing the quality of crops or increasing desired traits like flavor and texture or increasing the levels of specific nutrients or desired chemical components.1(147) This has been done with the Arctic Apple to reduce oxidation and browning after it’s cut or bruised.4 It could also be used to reduce the levels of harmful or ill-favored components such as carcinogens, caffeine, or saturated fats.1(147) The Innate potatoes that are now on the market have similar benefits of not bruising or browning like Arctic Apples with the added trait of a reduced amount of acrylamide, which some agencies have classified as a carcinogen.5
Another use of biotechnology would be to improve crops for easier cultivation. This has been done by creating crops that are herbicide resistant (“Roundup ready”) or that contain traits that make them resistant to insect or microbial threats.1(147) Bt brinjal (eggplant) is being successfully cultivated in India and has reduced crop loss to insect damage and significantly decreased pesticide use.6 A partnership between governments, universities, and private institutions including the U.S. Agency for International Development, Cornell University, and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute worked on the Bt brinjal and plan to make the other 16 varieties of brinjal grown in India disease resistant as well.6 Biotechnology can also make crops more resistant to different growing conditions such as drought tolerant, different temperatures, or different soil conditions like salinity and heavy metals.1(147) Biotechnology can be used on farmed animals to reduce their susceptibility to diseases or increase their growth, reproduction, or milk production.1(147) It has also be used to develop organisms useful in the biomedical field for vaccines, testing, or producing pharmaceuticals.1(147)
There is great potential in biotechnology to improve crops for human consumption and decrease hunger, famines, and malnutrition around the world, but there’s also great responsibility not to use it purely for profit or to make things worse for those you are trying to help. Each new produce product needs to be evaluated on its own merits and not lumped together under one umbrella label of GMO. GMO only tells you how something was bred, not the properties of it. It shouldn’t matter if a crop was created by traditional hybridization, chemical or radiation mutation, or transgenic technology, but what impacts it has on human health and the environment. The end product is important, not the process. Does it increase pesticide use like many claim Roundup ready crops do? Does it reduce pesticide use like Bt corn, eggplants, soy, and sugar beets? Will it contribute to monocropping? Should a crop produced by biotechnology qualify for organic labeling if it could have potentially been made by traditional hybridizing and no pesticides, not even organic ones, are used to grow it? These questions can’t be answered by a simple label on the front of a package or a sticker on fruit.
1. Nestle, M. Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. Second Edition. Kindle Edition. Berkley, CA: University of California Press; 2010.
2. Kyndta T, Quispea D, Zhaic H, et al. The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2015; 112(18): 5844–5849. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1419685112
3. Touyz LZG. Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: myths and reality. Curr Oncol. 2013; 20 (2): e59-e61. doi: 10.3747/co.20.1283
4. Introducing Nonbrowning Apples. Arctic Apples by Okanogan Specialty Fruits. http://www.arcticapples.com/arctic-apples-r/introducing-nonbrowning/ Published 2016.
5. Saropoli N. FDA approves GMO potato that resists blight that caused Irish potato famine. Genetic Literacy Project. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/01/14/fda-approves-gmo-potato-resists-blight-caused-irish-potato-famine/ Published January 14, 2016.
6. Hossain A. Scientists and specialists meet Bt brinjal farmers and researchers in Bangladesh. Feed the Future. http://bteggplant.cornell.edu/content/news/blog/scientists-and-specialists-meet-bt-brinjal-farmers-and-researchers-bangladesh Published May 20, 2016.