For years now, scaremongers have been trying to frighten consumers with the specter of so-called "Frankenfoods," especially food plants altered by gene-splicing to include pesticide resistance or higher levels of particular nutrients. Several years ago, for example, alarmist groups raised the fear that a protein added to StarLink corn would cause fatal allergic reactions in consumers. It didn't happen. But that hasn't stopped such accusations from getting much media play and causing some consumers to mistrust the latest methodologies. Some groups have demanded that all crops altered by genetic engineering undergo safety testing before they can be marketed, while crops altered by other forms of genetic modification (such as hybridization of different species) are not required to do so.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) shined the cold light of logic on the whole issue with its latest report, "Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects." In it, the expert panel makes it clear that there are a variety of methods for altering the genetic makeup of plants or animals they list twelve. All are forms of "genetic modification," but only five involve actual gene-splicing technology. The panel considered all these types and determined that, in fact, the manipulation most likely to have undesired effects was the induction of mutations in an organism's DNA by chemicals or ionizing radiation (standard agricultural techniques that have been used for many years). The chance that gene-splicing techniques might have deleterious effects would depend, in large part, on the relationship between the donor and recipient of the transferred DNA.
The NAS report advised that food plants and animals that are genetically altered by any means be evaluated for their potential adverse health impact but did not single out those altered by gene-splicing. Suggestions on how to determine which foods need scrutiny before and after marketing comprise much of the report, along with recommendations on identification and assessment of unintended health effects.
Their advice is scientifically sound and a much-needed breath of cool air in an overheated debate.
Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health. For more information about biotechnology as it applies to foods, see ACSH s report Biotechonology and Food.