According to a recent survey by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 54 percent of soybean acreage, 25 percent of corn acreage and 61 percent of cotton acreage in the United States are planted with seeds produced through biotechnology. More than 1,800 scientific evaluations in the United States — including tests for allergenicity and environmental safety—arrived at the same conclusion: commercially available soybeans produced through agricultural biotechnology are safe for consumers and the environment.
THE BASICS (TRADITIONAL CROSSBREEDING VS. BIOTECHNOLOGY)
There’s been some confusion over what biotechnology is and whether or not there is cause for concern. Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding spread by some very vocal, but severely misinformed people. Following is an explanation of why biotechnology is safe and how it provides promise for our future.
Agricultural biotechnology is a science that has evolved over hundreds of years. Through experimental crossbreeding of garden peas, Gregor Mendel’s work in the 1860s helped explain the basic laws of genetics, demonstrating that there is recombination of parental traits in offspring. Mendel’s work with peas also led to an explanation of dominant and recessive hereditary traits. Today, agricultural biotechnology is a continuation of the work that Mendel and others began.
Through methods similar to Mendel’s experimental crossbreeding, farmers and plant breeders have labored for centuries to improve crops. Traditional crossbreeding methods include selecting and sowing seeds from plants with desirable traits, such as higher quality nutrition, disease resistance and higher yield. By breeding plants through traditional crossbreeding, plant breeders are subject to a slow and inexact process, and more often than not, multiple variations of the desired end product are produced.
Agricultural biotechnology works toward the same goals as traditional crossbreeding and achieves them with greater precision and predictability. The tools of biotechnology allow plant breeders to carefully select and introduce beneficial traits to the crops grown for food. The results are environmentally friendlier agriculture and a more nutritious, healthful and abundant food supply.
Protecting Water Quality
Reducing nutrients in farm runoff, increasing crops' fertilizer efficiency and conserving topsoil are ways that biotechnology helps protect water quality. Herbicide tolerant crops promote conservation tillage, preserving topsoil and even reducing greenhouse gas effects by keeping carbon sequestered in soil. And reduced insect damage in Bt crops means healthier plants use fertilizer more efficiently, reducing harmful residues left in the soil.
Reducing Chemical Pesticides
Biotechnology is used to strengthen a crop's own ability to defend itself against destructive insects, reducing the need for chemical pesticides.
Developing Environmentally-Friendly Weed Control
Crops that are genetically modified to withstand applications of herbicides allow farmers to integrate best management practices, such as the use of environmentally gentler herbicides and conservation tillage.
Producing Healthier Foods
Advancements in agricultural biotechnology are leading to healthier, more nutritious foods. For example, a healthier soybean oil is currently being developed with reduced saturated fat content.
Feeding a Hungry World
In 25 years, the world’s food production must increase by more than 75 percent to keep up with the Earth’s population. Agricultural biotechnology is the safest and most efficient way to meet that demand.
Promising Hope in Developing Countries
Scientists have developed a type of rice that could eliminate vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a problem that is a common cause of blindness and other health troubles in millions of children. Produced through biotechnology, scientists say the improved nutritional composition of “golden rice” could prevent 1 - 2 million deaths per year.
Delivering Edible Vaccines
Scientists around the world are using biotechnology to develop edible vaccines through such food products as bananas, tomatoes and potatoes. Although vaccines exist for such devastating diseases as Norwalk virus, cholera, rotavirus and hepatitis B, delivery is often difficult in underdeveloped countries due to the lack of funding, trained personnel and refrigeration. Plants enhanced with edible vaccines will provide low-cost tablets, powders or purees that can be easily stored and administered.
Agricultural biotechnology is regulated by three federal agencies: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Food and Drug Administration
FDA policy is based on existing food law, and requires that biotech foods meet the same rigorous safety standards as is required for all other foods.
Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA analyzes technical issues presented by advances in biotechnology and synthesizes these technical issues with laws necessary to develop regulatory programs for products produced through biotechnology.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Within the USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the government's lead agency regulating the testing of biotechnology-derived, new plant varieties. A company, academic or research institution, non-profit organization or public sector scientist wishing to field test or move a biotechnology-derived plant must generally obtain APHIS approval before proceeding. Also under USDA supervision, the following agencies contribute to the regulating and monitoring of agricultural biotechnology: Food Safety Inspection Service, Foreign Agriculture Service, Agriculture Research Service, Economic Research Service, Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service, Agriculture Marketing Service, and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.
Other Industry Endorsements
Health and food professional organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and the Institute of Food Technologists endorse the use of biotechnology to enhance food production.
Soybeans and the Brazil Nut Protein
In April 1993, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. discontinued its research program aimed at enhancing the nutritional content of soybeans through introduction of a Brazil nut gene. Preliminary results of a study, funded by Pioneer, at the University of Nebraska suggested that the Brazil nut gene transferred a potential for allergenicity to the soybeans. Following the findings, Pioneer discontinued all field-testing and destroyed all plant material and seeds not held for laboratory study.
Note: No soybeans with the Brazil nut protein are currently, or have ever been, in animal or human food streams.
Pioneer’s discontinuation of the Brazil nut research program is a prime example of how the current regulatory process ensures the safety of biotech foods before they are introduced to the market.
Misconceptions About “Superweeds”
The safety reviews conducted by FDA, EPA and USDA include a careful evaluation of possibility for outcrossing, or the passing of a trait from one species to another. Outcrossing is not a concern for herbicide-tolerant soybeans grown on U.S. farms. Soybeans have no wild relatives in the United States so pollen carried from soybean plants will find no receptive weedy species to pollinate. In addition, soybean plants are almost entirely self-pollinating, which means they do not generally trade pollen with other plants. Because of these factors, regulatory agencies have agreed that herbicide-tolerant soybeans are safe for the environment.
In addition to monitoring herbicide-tolerant soybeans, regulatory agencies have established guidelines to evaluate weed responses to other biotech crops on the market.
The Monarch Butterfly
A study presented in the science journal, Nature (May 1999), found that pollen from corn produced though biotechnology may harm monarch larvae. A research team at Cornell University fed monarch larvae milkweed dusted with the pollen grains of Bt corn, which contains a bacterium gene that makes the crop resistant to corn borers. The Cornell research was limited to laboratory testing and provides no evidence on what effect the Bt pollen has on monarch populations in the wild. The conditions represented in this study do not represent what one would actually find in the field as it relates to monarch mortality. Larvae mortality was not correlated with the plant location within or at the edge of the field. Research shows that the number of pollen grains found on milkweed plants drops rapidly beyond the edge of the field.
Approximately one year later, researchers at Iowa State University announced they, too, found evidence that pollen from Bt corn could be deadly for monarch larvae. The Iowa study published in the journal, Oecologia, claims to present the “first evidence that Bt corn pollen naturally deposited on common milkweed in a corn field causes significant mortality…” It is important to note that this study, much like the Cornell study, was not done “in the field;” rather, researchers measured field conditions and attempted to duplicate those conditions in a laboratory setting. To date, no measurements of monarch larvae mortality were taken, or have been taken, in a natural setting.
Last year, more than 28 million acres were planted with Bt corn, which was about a 40 percent increase from the previous year. In the same time period, the monarch butterfly population flourished, increasing by about 30 percent over previous years.
FDA guidelines on food labeling currently state that if a food presents a safety issue—if it contains a serious allergen, for example—it must be labeled in order to protect consumers. Currently, the FDA maintains that when a technique is used to modify a plant in a way that does not significantly change its composition or safety, special labeling is not necessary.