|Home > Policy
Issues > GE Food > Introduction
Genetic engineering is a process by which new genes are inserted
into the genome of a plant, animal, or other organism. The new genes
usually come from a very different type of organism, for instance,
genes from salmon have been inserted into tomatoes, and genes from
bacteria have been inserted into corn and soybeans. The growth of
genetic engineering technology in recent years is unprecedented,
and shows no signs of slowing down. The first genetically engineered
(GE) plants were introduced in 1995 to prevent crop damage by pests,
and now the “next generation” of crops engineered to
produce pharmaceutical and industrial products are being introduced.(1)
A number of crops, including canola and soy, have been significantly
experimented with, but others, including various fruits and nuts,
have only begun to be explored. Genetic engineering also extends
beyond the realm of agriculture. Tests are now being conducted to
make trees more resistant to pests and to increase the growth rates
of fish. As the sophistication of the technology increases, so will
the questions surrounding the use of GE organisms.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Services
|Currently, it is nearly
impossible for Americans to avoid genetically engineered (GE)
organisms in their daily lives. Most consumers are unaware that,
according to the True Food Network, “at least 46 different
genetically engineered foods are being sold without labeling
or pre-market safety testing. These genetically engineered foods
are present in up to 70% of processed food products, from major
soy-based baby formulas to some of the most popular corn chip
brands, found in supermarket shelves every day.”(2)
Since these products are not labeled, consumers can’t
avoid consuming GE products even if they want to. This has raised
concerns about the potential allergic reactions and other possible
human health issues.(3)
The use of GE organisms has presented a host of questions. Many
individuals raise questions about the safety of GE organisms and
the overall ethics issues regarding their use. Also important is
whether they are as effective as they were intended to be. However,
one of the greatest concerns is genetic contamination and its effect
upon the natural environment. There is already evidence that crops
containing pesticides can harm non-target insects, and that crops
engineered to resist herbicides encourage increased spraying of
chemicals which pollute our water and soil. Furthermore, the new
genes can “escape” into wild plants(4),
contributing to the spread of herbicide resistance(5)
and causing ecological damage.
Due to the regulatory structure at the federal level, genetically
engineered organisms are currently regulated by three different
agencies and no less than twelve laws.(6)
Generally speaking, the current regulatory schematic dealing with
GE organisms needs to be updated to reflect the new technology and
its prevalence. It is important for a strong federal stance to be
developed, but, in the meantime, states have been on the forefront
with introducing legislation concerning genetic engineering. In
the 2001-2002 state legislative session, 158 bills were introduced
in 39 states.(7) It is important that,
as states look to push the value of biotechnology, they also deal
with the legal issues surrounding the use of genetically engineered
organisms. The bills included in this package would mandate labeling
for food and food products that contain GE organisms; require manufacturers
to be liable for their products; and, ban the cultivation of GE
crops while states study their impact.
Also see SERC’s package on Transgenic
This web site offers the tools necessary for your state to grapple
with the issues surrounding the use of genetically engineered organisms.
These tools include sample bills, talking points, press clips, a
fact pack, research, and other background information.
We may have other useful materials on this subject which are not
posted on our web site. Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call our office in Madison, Wisconsin, at (608) 252-9800.
If you’ve used this site and found it helpful
or, if you have suggestions about how it could be made more helpful,
please let us know. Feel free to use the sample bill text included
here in your state. If you do, please notify us.
(1) “Issues in the Regulation of Genetically Engineered Plants
and Animals.” Washington, D.C.: The Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology, April 2004. 22 January 2005 <http://pewagbiotech.org/research/regulation/request.php>.
(2) “Demand Choice - Demand Labeling.” The True Food Network.
22 January 2005 <http://www.truefoodnow.org/shoppersguide/labeling.html>.
(3) Gurian-Sherman, Doug. “A Look at the Unintended Effects
of Genetically Engineering Food Plants: Re. the National Academy of
Sciences Report on Unintended Effects.” Washington, D.C.: Center
for Food Safety, 26 July 2004. 22 January 2005 <http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/pubs/Briefing_Unintended_Effects7.26.2004.pdf>.
(4) “Have Transgenes, Will Travel: Issues Raised by Gene Flow
from Genetically Engineered Crops.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Initiative
on Food and Biotechnology, August 2003. 22 January 2005 <http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/issuebriefs/geneflow.pdf>.
(5) Mellon, Margaret and Jane Rissler. “Environmental Effects
of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Recent Experiences.” Paper
presented by Margaret Mellon at a conference, Genetically Modified
Foods – the American Experience, sponsored by the Royal Veterinary
and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 12-13, 2003.
Union of Concerned Scientists. 22 January 2005 <http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/biotechnology/page.cfm?
(6) Fish, Andrew C. and Larisa Rudenko. “Guide to U.S. Regulation
of Genetically Modified Food and Agricultural Biotechnology Products.”
Washington, D.C.: Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, September
2001. 22 January 2005 <http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/issuebriefs/1-regguide.pdf>.
(7) Peterson, Kavan. “States in Forefront of Agricultural Biotech
Debate.” Stateline.org. 12 June 2003. 22 January 2005 <http://www.stateline.org/stateline/?pa=story&sa=showStoryInfo&id=310218>.
|This package was last updated on January 25, 2005.