Accessibility links

East/West: The Nature Of Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically modified foods -- known as GMs-- are increasingly a part of life both in the United States and in Central and Eastern Europe. They are also increasingly controversial. In a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky explains what GMs are, why they are prevalent in East -- but not West -- European countries, and what the controversy is all about. This first part looks at what genetic modification does.

Prague, 8 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Consumers in the United States got their first glimpse -- and taste -- of the future of food back in 1994. It was called the Flavr-Savr (flavor saver), a tomato whose producer -- Calgene -- boasted was juicier, bigger, and redder than any others.

The plant's genes had been spliced together in a laboratory to create a new kind of tomato at once, rather than by the laborious selective breeding process used by traditional farmers. Nothing like it had ever been sold in markets anywhere in the world. The Flavr-Savr was the first global commercial launch of what we now call genetically modified -- or bio-engineered -- foods or products, commonly known by the abbreviation, GM foods.

To their backers, GMs promise almost incalculable benefits, from healthier food and lower production costs to advantages for the environment. They say GM foods could even stamp out world hunger.

Critics say tampering with genetics could bring an unforeseen backlash from Mother Nature that might harm human health. They also contend genetic modification could give greater control over the world's food supply to the agro-industry.

Some 40 million hectares of genetically engineered crops were grown throughout the world in 1998. The world's biggest GM producers are Canada, the United States, and Argentina. In the United States alone, 1,300 companies employ more than 100,000 people in the bio-engineering field. It is believed that about 60 percent of all food produced in the United States now contain GM elements.

What are GM foods? For centuries, man has cultivated plants and bred animals to produce a particular desired trait. Traditional biotechnologies have given us hothouse roses with special colorings and cows with higher meat or milk yields. But today's bio-engineering is something different, based on taking genes out of an organism's cells and altering them in some way.

Scientists are now also able to transfer genes among different species to produce genetically engineered organisms with new characteristics. For example, about a quarter of most GM crops are created by inserting a synthetic version of a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium -- known by its Latin name bacillus thuringiensis, or BT. It enables the plants to produce their own BT toxins to destroy pests.

Isabelle Meister is the head of an anti-genetic engineering campaign for the international environmental group Greenpeace. Like other critics of GMs, she is wary of mixing genes from different species.

"You can only cross closely-related species. For example, maize can cross with maize or with this tirocide, [a] closely related wild plant you find in Mexico. But you definitely [should] not cross maize with chickens. However, genetic engineering enables to put chicken genes into maize."

But Vivian Moses, the chairman of the British-based bio-engineering institute CroGen, says that one gene is just like another.

"A gene is a gene, a gene is a piece of information. It doesn't come with a signature on it which says, I belong to such and such a species. You've heard the stories that people share about 98 percent of their genes with chimpanzees. So how do you decide what is a human gene and what is a chimpanzee gene."

One of the biggest arguments made by biotech industry supporters is that GM foods will help meet a growing food shortage. They note that the world's population is expected to rise by one-third in the next 20 years, and that little more arable land is available. Bio-engineered foods can meet the increased demand, they say.

But the argument that world population growth will outpace food production in the near future has taken a knock from a recent study from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO. The study said the estimated world population of around 8 billion by 2030 will be better fed than the current population.

FAO economist Josef Schmidhuber says warnings of a coming food shortage are not warranted.

"Overall, I think that we can be very optimistic -- or relatively optimistic -- as far as global food production is concerned. We expect that food production will continue to outpace population growth and we will have more people better fed, and fewer people undernourished."

In our the next part we'll look at the controversy over bio-engineered food and at one scientist who says his critical report on GMs led to him to lose his job.
  • 16x9 Image

    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.