Genetic engineering is a new technology that enables genes to be modified within an organism or transferred from one organism to another. Through genetic engineering, scientists can modify the blueprint and therefore the characteristics of an organism—or transfer fish genes into tomatoes. This enables the transfer of qualities deemed desirable from one organism to another – for example, to create tomatoes with a longer shelf life, or crops that are resistant to insect pests. Genetic engineering is seen as a potential means to increase crop yields, eradicate certain diseases, and otherwise improve human life.
The problems and hazards with genetically engineered food can be reduced to some simple and straightforward points: a) The foods are inherently unsafe to consume and may be dangerous; b) Genes released into nature cannot be recalled; c) Science does not know enough to be able to assess the environmental hazards; and d) The genetically engineered food products are of little if any value to humanity.
The USA exports $50 billion worth of agricultural products a year, of which a growing proportion is genetically engineered. Argentina in 1999 was the second-largest producer of transgenic crops. Many countries wish to separate genetically modified crops from other crops, so that the consumer can tell what she is buying. Canada, Mexico, the USA, Argentina, and Australia, all countries that increasingly produce genetically modified crops, are against the separation.
The deep concerns about the safety of genetically modified food in Europe are not shared by Americans. A 1999 survey showed that more than two-thirds of the respondents would buy produce "enhanced through biotechnology". However, although 73 percent had heard about biotechnology, only 40 percent realized that GM food was on sale in supermarkets. The many genetically engineered foods currently available include soy beans (which are used in 60% of processed foods), corn and corn syrup, tomatoes, yeast, dairy products, and canola (rape seed oil). Because of the widespread use of many of these substances, in a few years it may be almost impossible to find foods free of genetic engineering.
One concern about some genetically modified (GM) crops, such as maize used as animal fodder, is that they include a gene for antibiotic resistance. Fears that genes for antibiotic resistance could jump from genetically modified foods to bacteria in the gut may be fueled by new research from the Netherlands. The results show that DNA lingers in the intestine and confirm that genetically modified bacteria can transfer their antibiotic-resistance genes to bacteria in the gut.