Joseph Hotchkiss, Ph.D.
I don't like the [phrase] "genetically modified food." Virtually all of our
foods have been genetically modified. If you take the apple, for example,
there are literally dozens of varieties of apples. How did we get those dozens
of varieties? We genetically modified the apple through conventional breeding.
We crossed one kind of apple with another apple, and we produced very different
apples--different color, different flavor, different functions. What's
different now is that we have some new technologies, some new techniques to do
Normal breeding can produce risks, just as any other genetic or other kinds of
breeding can produce risks. ...
Celery naturally contains a photo-active toxicant, a chemical [that] becomes
toxic when it hits sunlight. In California, a new variety of celery was bred
that had--unknown to the people who bred it--high levels of this toxicant in
it. ... The workers who harvested this [celery] came out with a very severe
skin rash. Why? Because it had the high level of toxicant resulting from
commercial, normal kind of breeding.
Norman Borlaug, Ph.D.
Remember also that Mother Nature has been making wide crosses across genera for
millions of years. Ninety percent of the wheat produced today [and] used for
bread is the result of a cross between three wild grasses that still exist in
the foothills of Iran and Iraq and south Turkey. ... This was known long before
agriculture was invented--millions of years ago--and it didn't transfer a gene.
... That was the grain of commerce from the early Sumerian period through the
Greek into Roman times.
Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Texas A&M
Martina McGloughlin, Ph.D.
How old is biotechnology?
Director, Biotechnology and Life Sciences Informatics Program, University of
read her interview
In the broader sense, biotechnology is literally thousands of years old. We've
been modifying the world around us since we first realized we could make such
things as cheese and bread and, very importantly, brew alcohol. ...
Comparing today's crops with their wild ancestors, what would we notice?
The ancestors of modern-day corn or potatoes are so totally unlike the present
[cultivars] that for most people, they would be absolutely unrecognizable.
There's also obviously a lot of negative aspects with respect to the ancestors
of these plants, insofar as being able to supply sustenance. They are very
small. They have poor yield. They oftentimes taste pretty awful. In many
instances, they can be quite toxic. An example would be potatoes and tomatoes.
They're all members of the deadly nightshade family. ... Over the many years of
breeding, we've managed to breed out most of these toxins. ...
What's new about so-called genetically modified plants?
Over this century we've been introducing an awful lot of technologies in
addition to the original selection and breeding. I think a lot of people don't
realize this. We've been using mutagenesis breeding since the middle part of
this century, and it's still done quite a lot. ... Several plants--in fact,
something like 1,800 cultivars--have been introduced using this mutagenesis
breeding approach. ...
Another type of technology that was introduced in the middle of this century is
a technology called wide cross, or embryo rescue. In this instance, you're
crossing two plants that are not sexually compatible, that is, species that
would never interact in nature. Basically you're using scientific tricks to go
in there and rescue that embryo that would normally be lost. ... There's a
large number of products that come into the market each year, produced using
these wide crosses. ...
Historically, genetic engineering was used for other applications, such as
medicine, and in making enzymes, and it didn't attract much attention.
About 200 million people worldwide have benefited from the products of
genetically engineered pharmaceuticals. Diseases that were really recalcitrant
to treatment up until genetic engineering are now being treated very
effectively. For example, one of them is human growth hormone, which is used to
treat children that are suffering from human growth hormone deficiency. Prior
to genetic engineering, this had to actually be extracted from the pituitary
glands of corpses. Now using genetic engineering, you're just making a copy of
the gene and you're actually making human growth hormone in large fermenters.
It's easy to purify and it's highly effective, and it makes it much less
Likewise, diabetes has been treated using genetically engineered insulin. Prior
to biotechnology, most insulin was produced using the pancreases of pigs. Of
course, a lot of people were allergic to the product because it wasn't human.
Now you make a copy of the human gene. You put it into your microbe of choice
and grow it up again in fermenters.
Chymosin is another example. About 90 percent of all cheese is produced now
using a genetically engineered enzyme. Prior to that, you had to isolate this
enzyme from the forestomach of an unweaned calf. ... Using biotechnology, you
make a copy of that gene from the calf, you put it into your microbe of choice,
you grow it up in a fermenter. ...
Detergents have about three or four different genetically engineered enzymes, so that
you can wash your clothes at room temperature. ... In addition, there are
enzymes that protect the quality of your clothes. For example, there is a dye
transfer enzyme that protects your clothes from transfer of dyes. ...
Jim Maryanski, Ph.D.
Food has always been genetically modified?
Yes. I think we would consider all of the crops that we have as crops that
have been subjected to some type of genetic modification. ...
From the early '80s, these methods were applied in medicine?
Yes. The first product that FDA reviewed was insulin produced through
fermentation. That was approved in 1982. We even had experience prior to that,
because [of a] scientist who had first raised questions about the safe use of
this technology. That led to the development at the National Institutes of
Health of guidelines for research. So when the questions started to be raised
about the application of these techniques in the food sector, FDA had a lot of
experience from the research guidelines through NIH [and] from its own
experience in reviewing the first pharmaceuticals.
We've used genetic engineering in enzymes in foods, without public
Yes. The first food ingredient was something called chymosin, or what people
may know better as rennet. It's the enzyme used to clot milk to make cheese.
That enzyme was produced in a bacteria as the first product of modern
biotechnology. FDA made a decision on [rennet] in 1990. We had a petition
with an opportunity for public comment, and we received no comments from the
public at all, at that time.
That was just the first of many enzymes?
Yes. There, of course, were other things--enzymes used to make high fructose
corn syrup, for example, that's used in soft drinks.
Obviously, humans have been modifying nature genetically for 10,000 years
with selection, breeding, mutagenesis. Why is this qualitatively different?
In classical breeding, genes are turned on and off when you cross strains. I
have no problem whatsoever with classical breeding, because it's worked itself
over 10,000 years and it's also part of the evolutionary schema. ...
What's different here is that we have now technologies that allow these life
science companies to bypass classical breeding. That's what makes it both
powerful and exciting. In classical breeding, you can cross close relatives.
Taxonomy is an anthropocentric discipline anyway. You can, for example, cross
various wheat strains and corn strains, etc. ... You can cross a donkey and a
horse in classical breeding--they're very close relatives--and you can get a
mule. But you can't cross a donkey and an apple tree in classical breeding.
What the public needs to understand is that these new technologies, especially
recombinant DNA technology, allows scientists to bypass biological boundaries
altogether. You can take a gene from any species--plant, animal, or human--and
place it into the genetic code of your food crop or other genetically modified
organism. [Crossing genetic information from one species to another] is
something we've never seen in 10,000 years of classical breeding. ...