Questions and Answers About Food Biotechnology

What is food biotechnology?

Food biotechnology uses what is known about plant science and genetics to improve the food we eat and how it is produced.  The tools of food biotechnology include both traditional breeding techniques, such as cross-breeding and more modern methods, which involve using what we know about genes, or instructions for specific traits, to improve the quantity and quality of plant species.  Modern food biotechnology allows scientists to move desirable traits from one plant to another, with increased precision and efficiency.

What are the main crops produced using food biotechnology and how common is food biotechnology?
According to the 2007 data collected by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the U.S. is currently the leader in global planting of crops produced through biotechnology.  The U.S. planted 57.7 million hectares of biotechnology varieties of  soybeans, maize (corn), cotton, canola, squash, papaya, and alfalfa in 2007.  Additionally, the number of countries planting crops produced through biotechnology increased to 23 countries globally in 2007 (ISAAA Briefs 37-2007).

How is food biotechnology used?

Food biotechnology helps to produce fresher, better-tasting foods.  For example, food biotechnology enables the production of fruits and vegetables that ripen on the vine for a better, fresher taste.  Several foods have already benefited from biotechnology.  The following are a few examples of foods enhanced through biotechnology:

• Tomatoes with delayed ripening traits that have better flavor, remain fresh longer and withstand transport better than traditional tomatoes.

• Soybeans, canola, corn, cotton, and potato plants that are protected from insects, or tolerant of herbicides or both.

• Squash which has been made more resistant to a virus that often kills the vegetable on the vine.

Furthermore, food biotechnology allows farmers to grow more food to help feed the world’s growing population.  Insect-and-virus-crop varieties produce hardier plants, leading to higher crop yields.

Food biotechnology also aids in protecting the environment, by allowing crops to be protected from insects and viruses, thereby decreasing the amount of pesticides used in farming.  Decreasing the amount of pesticides used in farming has a positive impact on the health and well-being of wildlife, decreases farmers’ exposure to pesticides, and contributes to a cleaner water supply.  Food biotechnology also reduces erosion and fossil fuel emissions because herbicide-tolerant crops require less tilling of the soil, which helps to reduce the amount of fuel needed to power tractors.

What is the future of food biotechnology?

Future biotechnology traits will build on the success of traits currently on the market and will increase productivity to feed a growing world population, deliver enhanced nutritional benefits, and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.

Applying food biotechnology may also provide more healthful foods for people and animals.  Foods with enhanced nutritional traits are on their way to the supermarket shelves.  Through food biotechnology, foods may help to combat chronic diseases by providing more healthful compounds, including increased levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and decreased amounts of unhealthful fats.

Crops produced through biotechnology that are able to grow in harsh environmental conditions, such as extreme heat or drought, are also being developed.  This may lead to crop planting on land that may have once been unsuitable for agriculture.

Scientists have also begun to target certain allergy-causing proteins in foods, so that people with food allergies may one day be able to consume previously allergenic foods safely.

As research and development in the field of food biotechnology continues, scientists may discover a faster way to detect unwanted viruses and bacteria that may be present in food.  This may help decrease the risk of foodborne illnesses and aid in keeping food safe to eat.


Who is responsible for the regulation and oversight of foods produced through biotechnology?

Three federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) share the responsibility of overseeing the regulatory aspects of food biotechnology in the U.S.

The FDA’s primary responsibility involves ensuring the safety and appropriate labeling of food and animal feed produced through biotechnology.  The FDA evaluates the safety and nutritional information of a product to make sure that the product is safe according to the regulations.  As for labeling of foods produced through biotechnology, the FDA requires special labeling of that product only if an allergen is introduced in the food during the process of biotechnology or if the nutritional content of the food differs significantly from its conventional counterpart.

The second federal agency involved is the USDA, which oversees and regulates field testing, movement and incorporation of biotechnology crops and seeds.  The USDA is responsible for determining the agricultural and environmental safety of new biotechnology crops before they are available in the marketplace.

The third federal agency involved in regulating food and animal feed produced through biotechnology is the EPA, who regulates pesticide use in agriculture, including the properties of biotechnology crops that allow these crops to be protected from insects.  The EPA oversees field testing, as well as the sale and distribution of pest-protected crops to ensure public and environmental health.

Are foods produced through biotechnology safe to eat?

Yes.  Based on strong scientific evidence and consensus among a broad representation of scientific and governmental bodies, there is no known food safety concern related to consuming food produced through biotechnology.  A number of food and health organizations such as the American Medical Association and the Institute of Food Technologists recognize and support the use of food biotechnology.

Why say ‘biotechnology’ instead of ‘GMO?’

We follow the guidance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA states that the scientifically accurate terms are “bioengineered,” “genetically engineered,” or “foods produced using biotechnology.” Their analysis considers the term “genetically modified organism” or “GMO” as potentially misleading to consumers, because humans have been genetically modifying crops and animals for tens of thousands of years through far less precise or efficient methods than we enjoy today.

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