Discovery Science: Technology – Genetically Modified Food

Physics and Technology – Technology – Genetically Modified Food

Through selective breeding, people have long exercised indirect influence over the genetic makeup of plants and animals. Today, however, genetic technologies make it possible to directly manipulate an organism’s genes.

Food may come into contact with genetic technologies in various ways. In the simplest case, a genetically engineered natural product is eaten directly as food. However, many genetically modified (GM) plants undergo further processing after harvest and are only used as edible ingredients. For instance, starch can be derived from GM corn, and GM soybeans are used to make soybean oil or soy meal.

Many additives are produced with the help of genetically engineered microorganisms (such as yeast and bacteria), and thus GM products enter the food supply in a roundabout manner. Indirect contact with genetically modified organisms (GMO) can also occur; for example, if livestock consume feed made from GM plants. Technology does not have the capability for the detection of GM components in the resulting meat products.

The approval process

A GM plant may produce specific proteins or other substances that have never before been part of the human food supply. These substances potentially have negative health effects: for instance, they may act as toxins or allergens.

Accordingly an extensive testing and approval process is mandated for foods of this kind, including individual ingredients and additives, as well as whole foods. Approval is granted only if the food is shown to be safe in accordance with scientific standards. This is accomplished by comparing the GM product with its traditional counterpart.

Criticism of GM food and genetic technology

The long-term effects of the use of GM plants on people and the environment have not yet been adequately determined. This is the main focus of protests against the use of genetic technology in agriculture. Since GM plants are grown in open fields, their release is something that cannot be undone. They may cross (hybridize) with other plants or crowd out traditional plant species-with unforeseeable consequences in areas such as species diversity.

Despite attempts to evaluate risks to human health, it is not possible to test every component of a GM plant. Furthermore, since legal requirements and corresponding oversight systems have not been instituted in every country, there is a risk that field testing or agricultural use of GM plants could get out of control.

Objections have also been raised against the patenting of GM organisms, which gives companies ownership rights to seeds and plants. This practice may give rise to monopolies in the food industry, with incalculable costs, especially for impoverished or developing countries.


Genes contain the biological information of heredity: that is, they are responsible for the inherited characteristics of an organism. Through genetic engineering, these characteristics can be transferred directly to another organism when new genes are inserted into a living cell.

Genetically modified organisms often exhibit characteristics that are not found in nature. For instance, bacteria can be altered so that they produce new substances, while plants can be made resistant to pests or diseases. Genes can even be transferred among unrelated species—a feat that is impossible us traditional breeding methods.


THE CULTIVATION of genetically modified crops has expanded to more than 100 million acres worldwide. However, the long term effects on people, animals, and the environment have not yet been determined scientifically.