WB01343_.gif (599 bytes) Pesticide and Environmental Update

Biotech Fact Sheet

Fast Facts

There are several kinds of genetically engineered crops being marketed right now — mainly soybeans, cotton, corn and potatoes. These seeds are altered mainly in two ways. Some have genes from bacteria spliced into them to kill certain insects, usually with a natural toxin known as Bt. For a complete explanation of this kind of crop, click here. Other crops are altered to be able to withstand spraying of certain herbicides. (Roundup Ready corn, for instance, is licensed by the same company that makes Roundup herbicide: Monsanto.). For information on herbicide-resistant crops, click here.

Genetically engineered foods are primarily created by splicing genes from the DNA of an organism — plant, animal or microbe — and inserting it into the genes of another organism meant for human consumption. This is done through recombinant DNA techniques. Genetically engineered foods are also referred to as transgenic foods and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ruled that new life forms can be patented, overturning a Patents and Trademark Office denial of a patent for a genetically engineered microbe. The court decision moved the research from academic labs into the commercial arena, with biotech companies pouring billions into research of new life forms. To read the

Supreme Court opinion, click here. In 1990, the FDA approved the first genetically engineered food product, chymosin. Chymosin is produced by genetically engineered bacteria and functions like natural rennet, an enzyme essential to cheese production that is traditionally obtained from cows' stomachs. Chymosin is now used to make more than half of all cheese produced in the U.S. The source of the new enzyme was E. Coli. To read the FDA’s policy on chymosin and other foods created through biotechnology, click here.

For the future, companies are working on foods they say will benefit consumers by tasting better and including more nutrients. So far, the benefits of the genetically engineered foods on the market are strictly for the producers — ease of growing and delivery to stores. Recent studies, however, have shown mixed results on whether farmers benefit from using genetically engineered seeds.

Monsanto is the leader in developing genetically engineered seeds, with AgrEvo, Novartis and DuPont/Pioneer also producing such seeds. The market for genetically engineered seeds in the United States is controlled almost exclusively by Monsanto, which has 88 percent of the market (based on area planted in 1998). AgrEvo controlled 8 percent and Novartis, 4 percent, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International. There are at least 36 genetically engineered crops patented so far. For a complete list, click here.

Internal FDA reports and memos reveal that the agency's own scientists disagreed about the safety of genetically engineered foods before the agency issued rulings on how such foods would be tested. But in 1992, the FDA ruled that genetically engineered foods do not have to be labeled. Thus they are mixed into the food supply undistinguished from unadulterated crops.

Along with the DNA spliced into a crop, a marker gene is inserted so that the plant can be tested to see if the insertion was successful. (This is necessary because genetic engineers cannot predict if or where the foreign gene will attach in the new cell; the marker allows them to determine which cells experienced a successful insertion.) Commonly used are bacterial genes that confer resistance to an antibiotic, which can lead to increased resistance to antibiotics in people eating such food.

Since cells normally fight off anything foreign, a promoter gene is also inserted to help override the cell's defenses and promote the intended function of the inserted gene. To work, strong, aggressive promoters -- such as viruses and bacteria are needed. Frequently used is the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus because it is a strong promoter and has a high species-compatibility. Some geneticists believe inserting foreign viruses into cells could lead to the creation of new viruses. >From 1986 to 1997, approximately 25,000 field trials on genetically engineered crops were conducted by 45 countries on more than 60 crops and 10 traits, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International. Of this total, 15,000 field trials were conducted during the first ten-year period, and 10,000 in the last two years. Almost 280 billion acres of genetically engineered crops were grown worldwide in 1998. Soybeans, maize, cotton, canola/rapeseed and potatoes were the five principal genetically engineered crops grown in 1998, according to RAFI.