Probing Question: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?

According to Penn State plant geneticist and molecular biologist Nina Fedoroff, "Genetically modified foods are as safe to eat as foods made from plants modified by more traditional methods of plant breeding. In fact, they are very probably safer, simply because they undergo testing that has never been required for food plants modified either by traditional breeding techniques or by mutagenesis, both of which can alter a plant's chemical composition.

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Howard Nuernberger

"The label sparks heated debate," Fedoroff continues. "Concerned Europeans march in opposition to GM foods. African ports have been barricaded to prevent the unloading of genetically modified corn, despite the urgent needs of starving people. Canadians have mailed slices of bread to their prime minister to protest the use of genetically modified wheat. And in Australia, Greenpeace activists attached themselves to a cargo ship with magnets and painted "Stop GE imports" on its hull in their fervent campaign against genetically modified food.

"But the fact is that we've been changing the genetic makeup of our food for millennia, coaxing nature to do our bidding. Long before scientists understood what genes were and how they worked, early civilizations created wheat and corn. These crops, so very different from their wild ancestors, were mankind's first ventures in genetic modification. In time, plant breeders learned to stir up plant genes faster, using novel hybridization methods, chemicals and even radiation, to produce such marvels as white blackberries, Ice Cube lettuce, and Rio Red grapefruit.

"It was the curiosity of the 19th century Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel that ushered in the modern era of 20th century genetics. Mendelian genetics turned molecular when Watson and Crick unveiled the structure of DNA in 1953 and within a few short decades, genes were understood to be DNA sequences that could be moved easily between different organisms without losing their identity or changing their function. But the new terms that entered agriculture—genetic engineering, biotechnology, genetic modification—were disquieting. People began to ask questions about foods that they'd never asked plant breeders before: Is it safe to eat? Are these foods natural? Isn't it dangerous to fool with genes?"

In the end, Fedoroff argues, "the new molecular approaches hold the promise of being the most environmentally conservative way to increase our food supply, helping us to become better stewards of the earth while enabling us to feed ourselves and generations to come."

Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., is Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State; nvf1@psu.edu. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Fedoroff currently serves on the National Science Board.

Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods, written by Fedoroff and science writer (and former Research/Penn State editor) Nancy Marie Brown, was published last October by the Joseph Henry Press of the National Academy of Sciences, and was named one of Library Journal's best sci-tech books for general readers for 2004.

Last Updated February 24, 2005