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- Food Biotechnology: Benefits and Concerns


Genetic engineering provides powerful tools to enhance the modification of plants to the potential benefit of society. However, as with any new scientific advancement, careful consideration of the effects of employing these tools is necessary to ensure that the result will be a net benefit to society. Recent controversies about genetically engineered crops have highlighted the need for experimental evidence and sound scientific judgment to assess the risks versus benefits. This debate was once relegated mainly to the plant scientists and activists and focused only on the food safety aspects. It has now flowed into the realm of the biomedical sciences with issues such as predicting allergenicity, assessing nutritional benefit, evaluating nutritional quality, meeting the nutritional needs of developing nations, and expanding the sustainable food supply to meet future demands. Pant biologists and animal biologists often conduct their inquiries in parallel universes; interactions between the two fields of science are serendipitous and unsystematic. The Life Sciences Research Office held a forum during Experimental Biology 2001 to present current topics in food biotechnology to the experimental biology community with the hope of bridging the two universes. The conference had the further goal of identifying those areas in need of future research. This paper summarizes the benefits and risks of this new technology, describes consumers’ knowledge and attitudes, explains the regulatory process new products of biotechnology go through prior to commercialization, and identifies challenges facing the industry, consumers and regulators.

Agricultural biotechnology may be defined as the use of living plant organisms, or parts thereof, to produce food and feed products such as insect-resistant corn, to develop processes like the manufacturing of biologics by tobacco, and to provide services such as, bioremediation of heavy metal contamination using genetically engineered poplars (1Citation ,2Citation ). Although biotechnology appears to be a new technology, the underlying concept is not new. Farmers have been using genetic manipulation to improve crops for thousands of years. For example, some 8000 years ago the Native Americans created corn by domestication of a wild plant called teosinte. Teosinte has a short, thin ear with very small kernels. The Native Americans used selective breeding, a crude form of genetic manipulation, in a remarkable way to produce a more productive variety. The end product looks very similar to the varieties of corn we produce today (3Citation ).

During the last century plant breeders expanded the tools of genetic manipulation beyond conventional cross breeding to use a variety of other breeding techniques, including embryo rescue, chemical mutagenesis, radiation mutagenesis, and somaclonal variation (4Citation ). These techniques do not allow control at the genome level; rather they allow multiple genes to transfer and require a rigorous selection process to ensure that the desired characteristic is stable (5Citation ). Plants created by these conventional phenotypic selection techniques do not undergo formal food or environmental safety evaluation prior to introduction into the environment and marketplace. On the other hand, over the past 20 years, the development of genetic engineering techniques now allows the development of crops containing specific single gene transfers. These are controllable, testable, and predictable changes, grounded on scientific principle. Genetically engineered crops undergo extensive testing of composition, safety, agronomic traits, and environmental effects prior to introduction into the marketplace. These assessments are described further in the section of this paper, entitled Regulation of Crop Biotechnology.

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