Genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from genetically modified organisms.
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Genetically modified organisms have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering, using a process of either Cisgenesis or Transgenesis. These techniques are much more precise than mutagenesis (mutation breeding) where an organism is exposed to radiation or chemicals to create a non-specific but stable change. Other techniques by which humans modify food organisms include selective breeding (plant breeding and animal breeding), and somaclonal variation.
GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s. Typically, genetically modified foods are transgenic plant products: soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil. But animal products have also been developed. In 2006 a pig was controversially engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids through the expression of a roundworm gene produced. Researchers have also developed a genetically-modified breed of pigs that are able to absorb plant phosphorus more efficiently, and as a consequence the phosphorus content of their manure is reduced by as much as 60%.
Critics have objected to GM foods on several grounds, including perceived safety issues, ecological concerns, and economic concerns raised by the fact that these organisms are subject to intellectual property law.
Genetic modification involves the insertion or deletion of genes. In the process of Cisgenesis genes are artificially transferred between organisms that could be conventionally bred. In the process of Transgenesis genes from a different species are inserted, which is a form of horizontal gene transfer. In nature this can occur when exogenous DNA penetrates the cell membrane for any reason. To do this artificially may require attaching the genes to a virus or just physically inserting the extra DNA into the nucleus of the intended host with a very small syringe, or with very small particles fired from a gene gun. However, other methods exploit natural forms of gene transfer, such as the ability of Agrobacterium to transfer genetic material to plants, or the ability of lentiviruses to transfer genes to animal cells.
The first commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was a tomato (called FlavrSavr), which was modified to ripen without softening, by a Californian company Calgene. Calgene took the initiative to obtain FDA approval for its release in 1994 without any special labeling, although legally no such approval was required. It was welcomed by consumers who purchased the fruit at a substantial premium over the price of regular tomatoes. However, production problems and competition from a conventionally bred, longer shelf-life variety prevented the product from becoming profitable. A variant of the Flavr Savr was used by Zeneca to produce tomato paste which was sold in Europe during the summer of 1996. The labeling and pricing were designed as a marketing experiment, which proved, at the time, that European consumers would accept genetically engineered foods. Currently, there are a number of food species in which a genetically modified version exists.
Several studies supported by organic growers have claimed that genetically modified varieties of plants do not produce higher crop yields than normal plants. However, independent scientific studies have not been able to substantiate such claims.
One study by Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist of the Organic Center, found that genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans do not increase yields. The report reviewed over 8,200 university trials in 1998 and found that Roundup Ready soybeans yielded 7-10% less than similar natural varieties. In addition, the same study found that farmers used 5-10 times more herbicide (Roundup) on Roundup Ready soybeans than on conventional ones.
The genetically modified foods controversy is a dispute over the relative advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified (GM) food crops and other uses of genetically-modified organisms in food production. The dispute involves biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations and scientists. The dispute is most intense in Japan and Europe, where public concern about GM food is higher than in other parts of the world such as the United States, where GM crops are more widely grown and the introduction of these products has been less controversial.
Safety is a major issue in this controversy. Adverse health effects need to be screened for, because health effects are dependent upon the modifications made. The need for screening and testing increases as more changes are made, and "second-generation" GMs will require more testing. To date no adverse health effects caused by products approved for sale have been documented, although two products failed initial safety testing and were discontinued, due to allergic reactions. Most feeding trials have observed no toxic effects and saw that GM foods were equivalent in nutrition to unmodified foods, although a few reports attribute physiological changes to GM food. However, some scientists and advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund consider that the available data do not prove that GM food does not pose risks to health, and call for additional and more rigorous testing before marketing genetically engineered food.
Another area of controversy is what effect pest and herbicide-resistant crops have on ecosystems, by for example reducing the numbers of pest insects in farmland and impacting biodiversity, or by decreasing the use of insecticides. Attempts have been made to measure these effects by farm-scale trials of GM crops, although the interpretation of the results of these trials has been controversial. The risk and effects of horizontal gene transfer have also been cited as concerns, with the possibility that genes might spread from modified crops to wild relatives.
Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser  1 S.C.R. 902, 2004 SCC 34 is a leading Supreme Court of Canada case on patent rights for biotechnology. The court heard the question of whether growing genetically modified plants constitutes "use" of the patented invention of genetically modified plant cells. By a narrow 5-4 majority, the court ruled that it does. The case drew worldwide attention.
As of January 2009 there has only been one human feeding study conducted on the effects of genetically modified foods. The study involved seven human volunteers who had their large intestines removed. These volunteers were to eat GM soy to see if the DNA of the GM soy transferred to the bacteria that naturally lives in the human gut. Researchers identified that three of the seven volunteers had transgenes from GM soy transferred into the bacteria living in their gut, though none of the gene transfers occurred during the course of the study. In volunteers with complete digestive tracts, the transgene did not survive passage through intact gastrointestinal tract. Anti-GM advocates believe the study should prompt additional testing to determine its significance.
study on the possible effects of feeding genetically modified feeds to animals found that there was no significant differences in the safety and nutritional value of feedstuffs containing material derived from genetically modified plants. Specifically, the study noted that no residues of recombinant DNA or novel proteins have been found in any organ or tissue samples obtained from animals fed with GMP plants.
Allergies: In the mid 1990s Pioneer Hi-Bred tested the allergenicity of a transgenic soybean that expressed a Brazil nut seed storage protein in hope that the seeds would have increased levels of the amino acid methionine. The tests (radioallergosorbent testing, immunoblotting, and skin-prick testing) showed that individuals allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to the new GM soybean. Pioneer has indicated that it will not develop commercial cultivars containing Brazil nut protein because the protein is likely to be an allergen.
Transgenic plants are plants possessing a single or multiple genes, transferred from a different species. Though DNA from another species can be integrated into a plants' genome via natural processes, the term "transgenic plants" refers to plants created in a laboratory using recombinant DNA technology.
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