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================== Electronic Edition ==================
---January 17, 2001---
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Biotech: The Basics, Part 1

by Rachel Massey*

Genetic engineering is the process by which genes are altered and transferred artificially from one organism to another. Genes, which are made of DNA, contain the instructions according to which cells produce proteins; proteins in turn form the basis for most of a cell's functions. Genetic engineering makes it possible to mix genetic material between organisms that could never breed with each other. It allows people to take genes from one species, such as a flounder, and insert them into another species, such as a tomato -- thus, for example, creating a tomato that has some of the characteristics of a fish.

Starting in the 1980s and accelerating rapidly in the past decade, companies have begun using genetic engineering to insert foreign genes into many crops, including important foods such as corn and soybeans.[1] Just in the past few years, genetically engineered ingredients have begun appearing in many foods in U.S. supermarkets; they have been detected in processed foods such as infant formulas, drink mixes, and taco shells, to name a few examples.[2] These foods are not labeled, so consumers have no way to know when they are eating genetically engineered food.

Genetic engineering is an extremely powerful technology whose mechanisms are not fully understood even by those who do the basic scientific work. In this series, we will review the main problems that have been identified with genetically engineered crops.[3]

Most genetically engineered crops planted worldwide are designed either to survive exposure to certain herbicides or to kill certain insects. Herbicide tolerant crops accounted for 71% of the acreage planted with genetically engineered crops in 1998 and 1999, and crops designed to kill insects (or designed both to kill insects AND to withstand herbicides) accounted for most of the remaining acreage. A small proportion (under 1%) of genetically engineered crops planted in 1998 and 1999 were designed to resist infection by certain viruses.[4]

Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops are able to survive applications of herbicides that would ordinarily kill them. The U.S. food supply currently includes products made from genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops including "Roundup Ready" canola, corn, and soybeans which are engineered to withstand applications of Monsanto's Roundup (active ingredient, glyphosate), as well as crops engineered to survive exposure to other herbicides.[1]

Genetically engineered pest-resistant (or pesticidal) crops are toxic to insects that eat them. For example, corn can be engineered to kill the European corn borer, an insect in the order lepidoptera (the category that includes butterflies and moths). This is accomplished by adding genetic material derived from a soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), to the genetic code of the corn. bacillus thuringiensis naturally produces a protein toxic to some insects, and organic farmers sometimes spray Bt on their crops as a natural pesticide. In genetically engineered "Bt corn," every cell of the corn plant produces the toxin ordinarily found only in the bacterium.

Unfortunately, genetically engineered crops can have adverse effects on human health and on ecosystems. And by failing to test or regulate genetically engineered crops adequately, the U.S. government has allowed corporations to introduce unfamiliar substances into our food supply without any systematic safety checks.

Here are some of the reasons why we might not want to eat genetically engineered crops:

To be continued.

    Rachel Massey is a consultant to Environmental Research Foundation.

  1. Union of Concerned Scientists, "Foods on the Market," available at Choose "biotechnology" in the bar at the bottom of the screen, then click on "Foods on the Market." []

  2. Consumers Union, Consumer Reports: "Genetically Engineered Foods in Your Shopping Cart," Press Release, August 23, 1999. Available at

  3. For one recent overview, see Environmental Media Services (EMS), Reporters' Guide: Genetic Engineering In Agriculture, Edition 1 (October 2000), available from EMS, Washington, D.C., (202) 463-6670 or at Also see Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), "Genetically Engineered Crops and Foods: Online Presentation," available at

  4. Clive James, "Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 1999" ISAAA Briefs No. 12: Preview, produced by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Available at

  5. See Michael Hansen, "Potential Environmental and Human Health Problems Associated with Genetically Engineered Food." Presentation delivered at CREA International Seminar on Transgenic Products, Curitiba, Brazil, October 11, 1999. Available from Consumer Policy Institute, Yonkers, N.Y.: 914-378-2455.

  6. National Research Council, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science And Regulation (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 2000). ISBN 0309069300.

  7. Union of Concerned Scientists, "Fact Sheet: Genetic Engineering Techniques." Available at Choose "biotechnology" in the bar at the bottom of the screen, then click on "Genetic Engineering Techniques." []

  8. See Food and Drug Administration, "Premarket Notice Concerning Bioengineered Foods," Federal Register Vol. 66, No. 12 (January 18, 2001), pg. 4710.

  9. Derry K. Mercer and others, "Fate of Free DNA and Transformation of the Oral Bacterium Streptococcus Gordonii DL1 by Plasmid DNA in Human Saliva," Applied And Environmental Microbiology Vol. 65, No. 1 (January 1999), pgs. 6-10.

  10. See World Health Organization (WHO), Overcoming Antimicrobial Resistance (Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2000). Available at

  11. British Medical Association Board of Science and Education, "The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health -- An Interim Statement," May 1999. Summary statement available at [The above file no longer exists. A google search results in many copies but none from A local copy is included in genmod.html. --ratitor]


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes. Environmental Research Foundation provides this electronic version of Rachel's Environment & Health News free of charge even though it costs the organization considerable time and money to produce it. We would like to continue to provide this service free. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution (anything you can afford, whether $5.00 or $500.00). Please send your tax-deductible contribution to: Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036. Please do not send credit card information via E-mail. For further information about making tax-deductible contributions to E.R.F. by credit card please phone us toll free at 1-888-2RACHEL, or at (410) 263-1584, or fax us at (410) 263-8944.
--Peter Montague, Editor

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