Influence of Biotechnology on Food Safety

The influence of biotechnology on agriculture has already led to profound and revolutionary developments through genomics and transgenics and continues to transform agriculture. Whereas genomics seeks to understand and modify the chromosomal traits of a species, transgenics focuses on changing traits of an organism by transferring individual genes from one species to another. Estimates indicate that the world market for genetically modified (GM) plants will be $8 billion in 2005 and $25 billion by 2010. The number of countries growing transgenic crops commercially has increased from 1 in 1992 to 13 in 1999. Furthermore, between 1996 and 2000, the global area of agriculture devoted to growing transgenic crops increased by more than 25-fold, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 44.2 million hectares in 2000. The United States, Canada, and Argentina grew approximately 98% of the total amount. Within transgenic plants, herbicide tolerance is the most common trait, accounting for 74% of all transgenic crops in 2000 (80).

Genetically modified crops can directly benefit the farmer by altering the inputs needed to produce a crop, such as herbicides or fertilizer. Other plants are designed to benefit the consumer when the end product expresses a desirable outcome, such as improved quality, nutritional content, or storability (81,82).

Examples of genetic engineering to benefit the farmer/grower include the following:

1. Glyphosate or round-up tolerant soybeans: A gene from another plant is introduced into the soybean plant, allowing farmers to spray the glyphosate herbicide and kill weeds without harming the genetically engineered (GE)-soybean plant.

2. Bt crops: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is an aerobic, motile, gram-positive endospore-forming bacillus initially isolated in Japan and described by Berlinger in 1915 (80).

Bt has insecticidal activity from endotoxins included in crystals formed during sporulation, but vegetative insecticidal proteins (VIPs) from before sporulation are also being developed. The crystals of different strains of most Bts contain varying combinations of insecticidal crystal proteins (ICPs), and different ICPs are toxic to different groups of insects. To confer resistance to insects in specific plants, a gene from the Bt bacteria is introduced into corn, cotton, or other plant types. The plants then produce the same protein crystal that the bacteria produce that is toxic to many types of insects that would normally harm the plant, such as the European corn borer (80).

Two examples of genetic engineering to benefit the consumer include the following:

1. High-oleic soybeans: These contain less saturated fat than conventional soybeans, leading to consumer health benefits, lower processing costs, and longer shelf life for oil.

2. High-lauric canola: An inserted gene allows the plant to produce an oil composed of 40% lauric acid, a key ingredient in many soaps, detergents, lubricants, and cosmetics.

Similar applications are occurring in animal agriculture. These include the creation of a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone to boost milk production in dairy cows and development of low-phytate corn and other types of animal feeds that lead to the decrease of phosphorus in animal waste, leading to less pollution and lower cost of animal feeds (81).

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