Bioengineered Foods

Alternative names 
Genetically engineered foods

Definition

Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes inserted into their genetic codes.

Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or micro-organisms. Historically, farmers bred plants and animals for desired traits for thousands of years. They would produce dogs ranging from poodles to Great Danes, for example and roses from sweet-smelling miniatures to today’s long-lasting, but scent-free reds.

Selective breeding over time created these wide variations, but it is dependent on nature producing the desired gene and humans choosing to mate animals or plants with that gene to make the related characteristics more common or more pronounced.

Genetic engineering allows scientists to speed this process up by moving desired genes from one plant into another - or even from an animal to a plant or vice versa.

Function

Potential benefits of genetically engineered food include:

     
  • More nutritious food  
  • Tastier food  
  • Disease and drought resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources (water, fertilizer, etc.)  
  • Decreased use of pesticides  
  • Increased supply of food with reduced cost and longer shelf life  
  • Faster growing plants and animals  
  • Food with more desirable traits, such as potatoes that absorb less fat when fried  
  • Medicinal foods which could be used as vaccines or other medications

Potential risks include:

     
  • modified plants or animals may have genetic changes that are unexpected and harmful  
  • modified organisms may interbreed with natural organisms and out-compete them, leading to extinction of the original organism or to other unpredictable environmental effects  
  • a plant less resistant to some pests may be more susceptible to others

Food Sources
Tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, and soybeans have been genetically altered through biotechnology. Many more foods have ingredients which have been engineered and more are being developed. Check with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for more information.

Side Effects

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates production and labeling of genetically engineered foods. Some people have raised concerns that the genes from one food that are inserted into another food may cause an allergic reaction. For instance, if peanut genes are in tomatoes, could someone with a peanut allergy react to tomatoes?

In January 2001, the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition proposed that developers of bioengineered food submit scientific and safety information to the FDA at least 120 days before the food is marketed. Further details on these foods may be found on the FDA website.

Recommendations
Genetically engineered foods are generally regarded as safe. There are no reports of illness or injury due to genetically engineered foods. Each new genetically engineered food will have to be judged individually.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 8, 2012
by Armen E. Martirosyan, M.D.

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