Genetics are not new to food. For thousands of years, farm animal breeds or edible vegetable varieties have been improved through selective breeding or by taking advantage of natural variability.
New technologies employ genetic engineering to direct modifications so that, instead of mixing genes at random, the relevant gene may be inserted into the desired organism. If foods are designed using this method, what are known as transgenic foods are generated. Nowadays several of these products are being marketed all over the world, most of them developed in the United States, Australia, Canada and Japan. However, the European Union has rejected applications to allow two varieties of transgenic corn in its territory.
There are minor differences between engineered and conventional foods. Essentially, it is only the genetic techniques used in their design, although these techniques have important consequences. It is, on principle, not possible to cross a tomato with a potato, but tomato genes may be inserted in a potato and vice versa. This difference has ethical repercussions. For example, a hypothetical transgenic vegetable carrying an animal gene could be a problem for a strict vegetarian.
Possible health risks have been researched for years. The priority has been establishing the scientific principles for reviewing these foods. Genetically modified foods that have been approved for sale have been reviewed according to three criteria: nutritional content, allergen potential and toxicity. They are, without doubt, the most reviewed foods in history.
Nowadays there is no scientific data to prove that genetically engineered foods are a health risk for consumers. This is not so clear in the environment, because there is not enough information or methods to analyse this type of hazard, which could pose a problem for biodiversity. The review deficiency does not only affect transgenic plants, but also conventional ones. A very clear hazard is posed by what is known as “genetic pollution”, that is, the gene flow between genetically modified organisms to wild varieties. It is known that it may happen if sexual compatibility exists.
Many non-governmental organizations criticize genetically modified foods because of their socio-economic impact on developing nations, because of their reliance on patents owned by multinational corporations.
Another matter is what consumers think about these products. Although many studies have been carried out, it has been difficult to ascertain tendencies from consumers of different countries due to the variations in the populations studied, the type of survey or the questions asked. However, most consumers are ignorant about genetically modified foods. Genetically modified animal products are somewhat rejected, while vegetables are better accepted.
What seems evident is that consumers are unanimously in favour of clear label identification of these products. And that it is necessary to keep on reviewing and investigating, especially the environmental effects, and to try to convey truthful information to the final consumers.
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