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Bright Future, Lingering Controversies

Controversies In Agricultural Biotechnology

Biotechnology is a controversial field. Environmental groups, worried consumers, traditional farmers, and others have protested it. Some people refuse to buy bioengineered products. Politicians in many nations have made laws that restrict biotechnology research in certain areas. But biotechnology's reach continues to expand, despite such actions.

The safety of food produced using biotechnology is one source of controversy. Companies that create genetically modified organisms say that their products are substantially equivalent to—and often healthier than—foods that are not genetically engineered. Critics claim that these foods cannot be substantially equivalent because they have different DNA. No one knows what the long-term health effects of inserting genes from one organism into another may be. This is true for both the organism with the foreign gene, and for the people or animals that eat the genetically modified organism.

Food allergies are a particular concern. Some people become ill when they eat certain foods. They can break out in a rash or have trouble breathing. Some can even have a deadly reaction to certain foods, like peanuts. In many cases, researchers don't know what protein or proteins in the food cause the allergic reaction. If DNA from an allergy-causing food is put in another food that ordinarily causes no reaction in a person, the modified food may be consumed by that person—who remains unaware of the modification—and cause a dangerous reaction.

For example, scientists created genetically modified soybeans that contained a protein from a Brazil nut. They tested the soybeans on blood drawn from people who are allergic to Brazil nuts. The test showed that those people would have an allergic reaction to the soybeans as well. The soybeans were intended for chickens, not humans, to eat. The chickens digested the protein, so their meat did not cause allergic reactions in humans. But, to be safe, the company decided not to sell the soybeans containing the Brazil nut protein.

Containing the accidental spread of GMOs is also a controversial issue. People worry that genetically engineered organisms will get loose in the wild. Wind can easily transfer pollen from genetically modified plants to natural plants in a nearby field. Genetically modified animals can break out of their pens. Since the long-term health effects of genetic modification are still unknown, it would be a grave error if modified plants or animals began reproducing with “normal” plants and animals, passing on their genetic modifications to general populations.

Finally, some people fear that insects and other pests will develop resistance to the pesticides genetically engineered into crops. While mutations in DNA can cause disease, sometimes they can lead to beneficial characteristics. Organisms can develop genetic mutations that make them immune to substances that are usually toxic. For example, some bollworms may develop a mutation that prevented the Bt in Bt cotton from hurting them. The bollworms with this characteristic would reproduce more than regular bollworms, since they would be more hardy and have access to a larger food supply than their unprotected cousins, which were still poisoned by Bt. Eventually, the pesticide in the cotton would not be effective anymore because the Bt-resistant bollworms would become dominant. Farmers currently plant fields of regular, non-modified plants near GMOs for the pests to feed on. This helps reduce the chances that they will develop resistance to the pesticides contained within the genetically modified crops.

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