Foods in their purest forms mostly gone, scientists say

By Seth Borenstein and Malcolm Ritter
Associated Press / September 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON — We have always played with our food.

For thousands of years, humans have practiced selective breeding — pairing the beefiest bull with the healthiest heifers to start a herd. That concept was refined to develop plant hybridization and artificial insemination. Today we have tastier corn on sturdier stalks, bigger turkeys, and meatier cattle.

Now comes an Atlantic salmon that is genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as a regular salmon.

If US regulators approve it, the fish would be the first such scientifically altered animal to reach the dinner plate.

Whatever the regulator’s decision on the salmon, it is only the start. In labs and on experimental farms are:

■ Vaccines and other pharmaceuticals grown in bananas and other plants.

■ Trademarked “Enviropigs,’’ whose manure does not pollute as much.

■ Cows that do not produce methane in their flatulence.

And in the far-off future, there might be foods built from scratch — the scratch being DNA.

Sometimes when science tinkers with food, it works. Decades ago, Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution’’ of scientifically precise hybrids led to bigger crop yields that have dramatically reduced hunger.

Sometimes it flops. Anyone remember the Flavr Savr tomato? Probably not. “There was no flavor there to save,’’ one taster quipped.

To the biotech world, precise tinkering with the genes in plants is a proven way to reduce disease, protect from insects, and increase the food supply.

To skeptics, genetic changes put the world and the food supply at risk. Modified organisms can escape into the wild or mingle with native species, changing them with unknown effects.

In the past 15 years, genetically engineered plants have been grown on more than 2 billion acres in more than 20 countries.

Some specialists say the natural food of our forebears is mostly long gone, due to breeding and other commonplace practices.

Old-fashioned breeding has led to turkeys that “can’t have sex anymore because we’ve been breeding them for big chests,’’ says Martina Newell McGloughlin, director of the University of California’s Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

“All of the animals, plants, and microbes we use in our food system, our agricultural system, are genetically modified in one way or another,’’ said Bruce Chassy, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That or they’re wild.’’

The modifications are mostly from selective breeding and hybridization. But genetic engineers compare these methods employed for thousands of years to using a sledgehammer.

McGloughlin said, “Genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, yet it is regulated . . . There is no regulation at all on the traditional breeding system.’’

She finds fears over genetically engineered food and the regulations that accompany them hard to stomach. More than four-fifths of the soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in the United States last year used genetically engineered crops, according to a 2010 National Academies of Sciences study.