More media coverage about genetically engineered (GE) food is getting the attention of consumers around the world. GE crops are plants with insertions of one or more new genes in the DNA. The difference between GE and past traditional cross-breeding is that cross-breeding was only able to occur between similar species. With GE, any gene from a plant, animal, bacterium, fungus, or virus can be inserted into the DNA of other organism.
The concern is that these new genetic transformations may create unforeseen health effects that may be difficult to test for or predict. About one-fourth of U.S. cropland is planted with GE crops, making the United States the world’s largest producer. In 1999, about 50 percent of U.S. soybeans, 33 percent of corn, and 55 percent of cotton were GE varieties. Concerns about GE foods include:
- Allergens. New proteins appearing in foods may cross-react and set up allergic reactions. The genetically engineered corn called StarLink was removed from human consumption because of concerns about potential allergic reactions.
- Toxins. Bovine growth hormone used in milk production may have adverse health effects. (See next section.)
- Reduced nutritional quality. Some GE foods may have less nutritional quality. A study found that the phytoestrogen compounds in GE soybeans were lower than in non-GE soybeans. These are the compounds that have been found to be protective against heart disease and cancer.
One of the major issues consumers face is that GE products are not labeled as such in the United States. Many other countries, such as Europe, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and New Zealand, have GE regulations and labeling requirements.