September 24, 2010

Salmon just one round in genetic food fight

Scientists say it's safe to eat, but should we? Skeptics aside, engineered foods are here to stay -- for better or worse.


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A cow wearing an ear tag eats on the Fazenda Gramada government farm in Brazil. The 1,850-acre farm is an experiment that integrates the raising of crops, cattle and timber in a bid to defend the Amazon from defores-tation. In the past 15 years, genetically altered plants have been grown on more than 2 billion acres worldwide.

The Associated Press

Nestle fears unintended consequences in the food supply and environment. She previously served on Food and Drug Administration advisory boards, and she opposes the genetically engineered salmon. In the 1990s, she voted against allowing genetically engineered plants.

Animals are a bigger problem in trying to prevent mixing with non-genetically modified populations, she says: "Millions (of farmed fish) escape, not one or two, but millions."

L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, a professor of biology at the University of Nebraska who was on the National Academies study team, finds a distinct difference between old-fashioned breeding and genetic modification. What is happening recently is that we are mixing genes of plants and animals that in normal evolution or nature don't mix, she says.

Or as Margaret Mellon, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, puts it: You can't breed a cow with a starfish.

Such DNA mixing is not necessarily bad, but it's something to be careful with, Wolfenbarger and Mellon say.

"These are things that we can look at as long as we also have the ability to kind of brainstorm and figure out what the unintended consequences are," Wolfenbarger says. She contends that so far, at least with plants, science has had a good handle on preventing problems.

Not so, says Nestle.

Back in the 1990s, she recalled, opponents of genetically engineered crops were "laughed out of the room . . . and they turned out to be right." Just as critics warned, the pollen of genetically modified crops is drifting into natural areas. Weeds and insects have become resistant to the anti-pest modifications, she said.

But scientists who work on genetic modifications insist time has proven them correct.

James Murray, a professor of animal sciences at the University of California at Davis, says the fears surrounding genetically engineered foods sound similar to concerns about microwave ovens, which some people initially thought would give off dangerous radiation or blow up pacemakers.

With the world population predicted to surpass 9 billion before 2050, genetically engineered food is the only hope to avoid starvation, he says.

That many people cannot be fed "using agriculture as it is right now," Murray says. "What is the cost to humanity if we do not use this technology?"


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