It’s only been 12 years since we first heard of genetic engineering related to food when a biotech cheese enzyme was approved by the U.S. government. We’ve only seen a trace of what’s possible.

Scientists are ecstatic about the potential of biotechnology for the food supply. They make their living studying and experimenting with genes sheltered by the Food and Drug Administration’s 1992 decree that foods produced through biotechnology are as safe as traditional foods and should be regulated the same.

Consider these seven directions biotechnology is going and the benefits it can bring to our food, soil, health and economy.


Plants become resistant to devastating diseases.

Hawaiian papaya is the poster child for this biotech benefit, says Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Only two years after the Aloha State introduced its genetically modified rainbow and sunup papaya varieties to the U.S. mainland, these varieties make up 45% of the state’s papaya production. The deadly ringspot virus nearly took Hawaii’s papaya industry to extinction. Biotech provided the solution.

While disease resistance seems like purely a grower benefit, it becomes a consumer benefit when Hawaiian papaya adds to customer choices. The Hawaiian varieties would have become unavailable were it not for the two transgenic papaya varieties, Means says.
Produce gains longer shelf life.

The perishability of produce makes it ripe for this benefit, which was first publicly addressed in 1994. The Flavr-Savr tomato marketed under the MacGregor label developed by Calgene Inc., Davis, Calif., was the first produce item to be genetically modified. It was developed to resist rotting and therefore offer a longer shelf life.

It didn’t last long. However, that was not because of technology but because of a tasteless tomato variety and of business and marketing shortcomings, industry experts say.

But it’s still a good idea, says Judy Kjelstrom, associate director of the University of California-Davis biotechnology program.

The university is working on developing transgenic tomatoes that can stay on the vine longer to gain flavor and yet delay ripening after they are picked. Kjelstrom believes that would be of particular interest to chefs who are challenged by the perishability of produce.

Allergens are taken out of food.

That’s a biotech switch. Opponents believe that biotechnology introduces allergens.

“No one has ever gone to the hospital from eating a product of biotech. That whole debate is more rhetorical than anything,” Kjelstrom says.

“The FDA has a protocol. If you’ve inserted a gene for a protein that’s on the list of known allergens, that product will never make it through the FDA. They do test for potential allergens in the approval process of any new genetically modified crop going on the food table.”

Rather, scientists can identify genes that make proteins allergy culprits and manipulate them to decrease the gene expression in the plant, she says. She notes that a scientist at the University of California-Berkeley has shown proof in dogs by decreasing the allergens in wheat.

Tree nuts and wheat commonly are the cause of allergies. Someday scientists will be able to develop varieties without the known allergens. “That would be great for chefs to know you don’t have to be nervous about serving peanuts in foods or peanut sauce,” says Susan Harlander, president of BIOrational Consultants Inc., Minneapolis.

Kiwi is one of the only fruits known to cause allergies — in 2% of the population. Scientists found that the fruit has a protein similar to one in latex. Those who are allergic to latex often are allergic to kiwifruit, Kjelstrom says.

She is unaware of any research under way to remove the offending gene.

FEWER CHEMICALS NEEDED

The economic ramifications of this are far-reaching and documented. Since biotechnology helps control diseases and pests, food production increases at lower costs.

In June, the National Center for Food & Agriculture Policy, Washington, D.C., released study results on the economic impact of the six crops currently in the marketplace developed through biotechnology: soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola.

Those developed through biotechnology produce an additional 4 billion pounds of food annually on the same acreage, and they improve farm income $1.5 billion annually with a pesticide reduction volume of 46 million pounds, according to the research organization.

That makes biotechnology eco-friendly. “Biotech farming is in the same game as organic farming,” Kjelstrom says.

PHOTOCHEMICAL LEVELS INCREASE

If lycopene is effective as an anticancer chemical found naturally in tomatoes, why not increase the antioxidant levels?

Scientists at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., have developed a tomato with 3.5 times more lycopene than the average tomato.

“This is one of the first examples of increasing the nutritional value of food through biotechnology,” says Avtar Handa, professor of horticulture.

The goal is to increase the nutrition quality of food to reduce risks of disease, BIOrational’s Harlander says.

Through biotechnology, you could increase lutein levels in leafy greens to help prevent macular degeneration and other eye diseases, she says. “Or you could transfer the ability to produce it from one vegetable to another. Those kinds of compounds are things that will be used to improve the nutrition quality of food in the future,” she says.

A scientist at the University of California-Davis is working on increasing antioxidant levels in broccoli to create a superbroccoli, Kjelstrom says.

PLANTS PRODUCE PHARMACEUTICALS

Kjelstrom came from a medical research background into agricultural research because of the potential she sees for having plants and animals produce pharmaceuticals.

For example, Large Scale Biology Corp., Vacaville, Calif., has been producing individualized vaccines in tobacco plants to treat patients with B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma since the summer of 2000.

Doctors take a biopsy of an individual’s tumor and grow the cancer cells in a culture. From the unique proteins they identify, scientists use a virus (carrier molecule) to transfer the genetic information for making the protein to the leaves of a tobacco plant. The plant reads the message and makes the tumor proteins. Once those proteins are separated from the tobacco proteins and put back into the body of the individual with the tumor, they create an immune response. The immune system is triggered to fight its own tumor, Kjelstrom says.

“This technology enables the production of complex therapeutics for personalized medicine, an approach that should improve greatly the effectiveness of treatment,” according to Large Scale Biology Corp.’s Web site (www.lsbc.com).

This concept takes biotechnology in a new direction with benefits way beyond fighting diseases, Kjelstrom says.

“Some farmers will grow crops for eating, but you will have farmers who will be “pharmers” — not for consumption but pharmaceuticals. They will get a premium price for their crop,” she says.

“Those I talk to say there could be a 10-fold reduction in (pharmaceutical) production costs if you produce pharmaceuticals in plants.”

GROW IN ADVERSE CONDITIONS

Through genetic engineering, tomatoes already have been developed at the University of California-Davis that can grow in soil irrigated by salt water, Kjelstrom says. “In the Central Valley in California, our land has fed many people, but there will be a point where it doesn’t get the yields due to salinity issues. Working on salt-tolerant tomatoes that can grow close to salt water addresses the future,” she says.

Researchers at Paradigm Genetics Inc., Research Triangle Park, N.C., are determining the functions of genes and how they can be altered to allow crops to become more draught resistant and grow in low-light environments, says Melissa Matson, manager of corporate communications.

The company’s research for Monsanto Co., St. Louis, will lead to introducing the traits into seeds, she says. It’s possible these types of crops could be growing in seven to 10 years.