Genetic Engineering

Genetic Engineering: A Growing Industry (2014)

Adrienne Pauly

The issues surrounding genetic engineering (GE) are complex and overlapping, rendering most attempts to generalize about GE misleading. The most common definition, and the one used here, is: Genetic engineering is the manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating, or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques. 

Transgenesis/Recombinant DNA Technology involves the insertion of one or more individual genes into an organism/species to create a new organism. The resultant organism is “transgenic,” otherwise known as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

These newer techniques generate higher crop yields; provide disease, insect or herbicide resistance; enhance nutritional value; improve plants’ abilities to survive unfavorable growing conditions such as cold, drought or soil salinity; and increase pharmaceutical value more quickly and efficiently than traditional methods.

The earliest advances in GE were made in the pharmaceutical industry with an Insulin product marketed in 1978. Genetically modified rennet was approved for use in cheese in 1990, and in 1994 Calgene received FDA approval for the first GE food crop, the Flavr Savr tomato. A number of row crops followed quickly, and 1995 brought regulatory approval of the first “stacked” GE seed. Stacked seeds employ multiple genetically engineered genes that may combine one or more herbicide tolerant (Ht) and Bt (a bacterium) combinations that provide both resistance to multiple insects and at the same time provide tolerance to various herbicides. As of 2013, stacked crops accounted for more than half of all U.S. corn or cotton.

So far, the DFA reports having completed 98 reviews of GE crops or traits proposed for commercialization. Farmers have quickly adopted the new technologies, and by 2013 the Grocery Manufacturing Associations estimated that 70% to 80% of the food we eat in the United States contains ingredients that come from genetically modified crops. And this expansion is a worldwide phenomenon: in 2012 a record 170.3 million hectares of biotech crops were produced globally with adoption growing fastest in the developing countries.

The most widely used GE crops include a gene coding that creates herbicide tolerant crops (Ht crops) that can be sprayed without harm to the crops and is most commonly found in weed-killing products, such as Roundup.

Another common GE trait makes use of genetic material from a naturally occurring bacterium (Bt) and is often used by organic farmers to counter insect predation.

Regulation of GE products is based on the concept of substantial equivalence, wherein products are evaluated comparing them to conventional (non-GE) products or processes. Hence, if a new food is determined to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as being as safe as the conventional food. This concept has been widely used by national and international agencies, but critics charge that this definition is far too vague and that, although it is useful to the industry, it is unacceptable to consumers.

The approval processes used by various agencies (FDA, USDA, EPA) vary, but all aim to eliminate or minimize potential harmful consequences when reviewing GE crops or processes. Before a transgenic crop can be grown outside a laboratory, it must receive approval from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).

Although the first GE application in animals took place in 1974 to create a transgenic mouse, no animals have been approved for market release as human food. Forty different breeds of animals have been genetically engineered for research and medical purposes. Traits being developed include improved milk products and composition, increased growth rate, improved feed utilization, etc.

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