Future Foder

Biochemistry Professor Delves Into Study of
Genetically-Engineered Food

November 28, 2006

By Debra Cano Ramos

If you’ve taken a bite of sweet corn or eaten soybean products, you’ve probably consumed a biotech food.

“Just about everyone in the United States has eaten a genetically-engineered food,” said Christopher Meyer, professor of biochemistry.

To some, the thought of eating bioengineered food may not be appetizing. But for Meyer, a leading researcher in biotechnology, it’s the food of the future.

While breakthroughs in medical technology are usually lauded, agricultural biotechnology may be perceived as unnatural or a “bad seed,” so to speak. But, “genetic engineering of plants is equally important,” Meyer said.

He is enthusiastic about the possibilities of genetically engineered plants and passionate about dispelling the stereotypes surrounding the growing science.

The question commonly asked is, “Why bio-engineer plants?”
“For the same reasons that plants have been genetically modified for centuries: to increase the yield, improve quality and variety, for profit and for basic research,” Meyer said.

Genetically engineered foods are from crops where there is an intentional transfer of genes, or DNA, from one organism to another by a process called “transformation” or “transgenesis,” Meyer said. Genetic modification is a change in genes by any means, such as mutation or cross-pollination.

Besides corn and soybeans, common genetically engineered plants also include potatoes, tomatoes and cotton. Many processed foods may also have ingredients from genetically engineered plants.

Between 2004 and 2005, Meyer said, there was an 11 percent increase of biotech crops worldwide, with 21 countries growing such crops, including the United States.

Plants that are genetically engineered have risks, as do all technologies, but don’t pose risks that are different than conventionally grown food, he said.

“Natural foods are not always good for you,” he said. Natural crops, such as coffee, he noted, may contain harmful compounds and still other plants produce “natural” pesticides, which can be toxic.

Moreover, biotech foods have been deemed to be safe by various government agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“There are a lot more regulations for biotech foods than for many of the ‘natural’ foods that you’d find in health food stores — and that can be risky,” he said.

Safety standards also have been set in place for genetic engineering to reduce public health risks, such as creating or exacerbating a food allergen or toxin, Meyer said.

On the other hand, some of the benefits of biotechnology include reducing weeds, pests and diseases to crops and reducing or eliminating the need to use chemical pesticides.

For Meyer and other scientists, the future of genetically engineered plants is important to prevent diseases (by producing cheaper therapeutic proteins in plant crops), make food more nutritious and create a more environmentally-sound world.

Despite some of the concerns of plant genetic engineering, Meyer said he is hopeful that his work will someday make a difference to help solve some of the world’s environmental problems, as well as enhance human living. “Our research so far has been successful and, we think it has a great deal of promise,” he said.


Chris Meyer
Chris Meyer