Two Cents: A Cornell Scientist Explains GMOs
The Cornell Daily Sun recently published a series of opinion pieces debating the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms. In the interest of fostering further dialogue on the issue, The Sun solicited the opinions of several knowledgeable professors on the topic — in what will be the first in a series of debates on a host of controversial matters. The aim is to present a sampling of views, which in no way will be entirely comprehensive, but will hopefully allow readers to learn about different topics from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.
What are genetically modified foods?
“Much of the form and function of a plant is encoded by the DNA in its cells. When you eat either a genetically modified plant or an organic one, you are also eating its DNA. Knowing the code of a specific gene in a plant, or the code of a plant’s entire genome, allows us to observe and understand this source of variation in plant form and function. Two common types of DNA variations are often detected. First, differences in the code for a gene arise due to mutations in the DNA resulting in alleles or different forms of a gene. The second is diversity in which alleles are strung together to comprise the plant’s genome and brought together by pollination of the parent(s). Transgenic or genetically modified plants (G.M.O.s) contain a specifically targeted change in a gene or an insertion of an entirely new gene into a genome.”
–– Prof. Mazourek, plant breeding and genetics
Lack of FDA Regulation
When on sabbatical in Washington, D.C. in 2002, Prof. David Pelletier, nutritional sciences, explored the scientific and legal basis for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on genetically engineered food. Two categories exist for food regulation: food additive and food adulteration.
As described by Pelletier, the food additive category is more preventive in orientation and requires publicly available testing, documentation and approval before a food goes to market, while the food adulteration clause allows the FDA to respond to unexpected events that happen at some point before and after a food goes to market. From a strictly legal perspective, the FDA chose to give genetically engineered foods (as a class) the presumption of being Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), and thereby subject only to the adulteration clause.The dilemma is, G.E. foods do meet the legal definition of a food that needs to be regulated under the food additive clause, but in 1992 (and to this day) we do not have adequate tests for producers to assess the safety of the varied unintended compositional changes that can occur in G.E. foods.
“The pro-G.E. scientists typically give the example, ‘picture a string of yellow beads representing a strand of DNA in the cells of a food and having one bead replaced with a red one. This bead will produce the intended new protein. It only changes one thing in the food.’ However, we now know that the insertion of one gene can disrupts the functioning of dozens or even hundreds of other genes throughout the genome. It’s not beads on a string, but more like a spider web, if you pull on one part, it affects other parts.”
“None of this means G.E. foods are not safe –– it means we don’t have good methods for testing them. It also needs to be recognized that the FDA does not require foods from other technologies to undergo such testing.” Interestingly, Pelletier’s research documented that from 1994-2004, 21,936 USDA research projects were funded in all areas of food research, but only 19 of these had the keywords of “plants, biotechnology and allergens,” and most of these were devoted to detecting or reducing the risks from known allergens.
To date, no such research initiative has been launched. Another problem is that there is no requirement that G.E. foods be labeled, so it is not possible to do epidemiological studies to see if there are any adverse consequences of consuming G.E. foods. Most disturbing to Pelletier is the way in which the policy was developed. He said the FDA did not request input on its draft policy statement from an expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences, nor did it consult any of its advisory committees. “My beef isn’t with genetically engineered food; it’s with the process FDA used to formulate its policy, which was an inside job from beginning to end and even disregarded the concerns of senior FDA scientists.”
–– Interview with Prof. David Pelletier, nutritional sciences
You can read more from the Two Cents interview here.
MSNBC is currently running a poll asking”Do you believe that genetically modified foods should be labeled?” You can learn more and make your voice heard by voting here.