DEAR DR. BLONZ: In California there is a ballot issue (Proposition 37) about requiring labels on genetically modified foods. I am interested in your take on this. -- M.Q., San Jose, Calif.
DEAR M.Q.: In the past, improving a food crop via plant breeding was a hit-or-miss proposition that took years to achieve any measurable success. Genetic modification, a type of biotechnology, removes much of the guesswork by identifying the specific genetic code associated with a desired trait. This code can then be removed and made a part of the genetic instructions of a target plant. For example, you could take genes that contribute to great taste in one variety and transfer them to another variety that has poor taste but a longer shelf life. If it works, you could end up with a variety that has both qualities.
Plants might also be modified to grow in soil and water conditions where they previously could not survive. Genetic modification also has to the potential to create crops that remain fresher longer, are less dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and are more nutritious. For example, grains tend to lack certain amino acids so they cannot serve as good sources of protein. Genetic modifications can be engineered to provide the missing amino acids, turning easy-to-grow foods such as grains into inexpensive sources of complete proteins. Such developments would have little impact in the U.S., where we already eat too much protein, but they could represent a life-saving advancement in developing countries where single grains are often the main food eaten.
However, with such power and potential, there are questions of safety. When reprograming the way things grow, is it just a matter of time before a mistake opens a Pandora's box of new diseases, bugs, or even super weeds? It's a fair question.
There is government supervision through the FDA, EPA and USDA, but there is little practical control over experiments conducted in individual laboratories. Questions need to be constantly asked: Is this research necessary? Will this development feed more people, help save lives or provide a higher quality of life for a greater number of people?
We don't always know who is going to ask these questions, if anyone, and who will determine the answers. It is because of these unknowns that, at this point, biotechnology must be regarded with cautious optimism. As great as its potential is, the forces likely to decide its future are those who control the purse strings. Government coffers are running dry and those of private companies are usually salted with economic self-interest, a fact that may not coincide with the good of humanity.
As an example, genetic modification can create crops that are resistant to a particular pesticide or herbicide. By growing these varieties, more of a company's chemicals could be applied to kill pests without killing the crop. There is also the option of genetically engineering plants to produce their own pesticides. Rather than a step toward less dependence on synthetic chemicals, such "advances" would provide further rationale for their use. There is also the advent of patenting genetically modified seeds, creating corporate ownership of certain crops.
Few could argue with the use of science to create varieties of plants with higher nutritional quality, a higher resistance to disease or greater tolerance to variations in soil and temperature conditions. Such developments could change unfertile regions into productive farmland. This would be invaluable for those parts of the world constantly besieged by drought and famine. But if genetic modification is used only for profit, the development of crops to feed the hungry -- and the long-term health of the land and those who work it -- may shift to secondary importance.
It's in your best interest to follow this issue and make your opinions known with your voice, your vote and your wallet. It is essential to understand that genetic modification of foods represents the employment of a scientific method that has multiple personalities. Knowledge is power, and it is to our benefit to know where and how genetic modification is being used. As such, I favor California's Proposition 37. While not a perfect solution, it is definitely a step forward.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.