Biotechnology, genetic engineering and GMOs

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There has been much talk about biotechnology, genetic engineering and GMOs but what is this really all about?

What is biotechnology?

The field of biotechnology, which involves genetic technology, has been a hot topic lately. Our genes, as well as those of all living organisms, contain important information.

Indeed, some would even say they contain the key to knowledge. We are currently in the era of genetics, because scientists have figured out how to manipulate genes and move them from one species or category of living being to another. These manipulations are called genetic engineering and its practical applications know no bounds: we need only choose the ones we would like to apply.

As a case in point, let's look at the progress made in the treatment of diabetes. Diabetics do not produce enough insulin to break down sugar, and depending on the severity of their illness, they are treated either with a special diet or insulin administered by pills or needles.

The insulin used was traditionally extracted from the pancreas of pigs and cattle. Unfortunately, most diabetics develop an intolerance or allergy to this type of insulin.

However, thanks to genetic engineering, we can now produce insulin from human cells, and thereby eliminate any intolerance to the drug.

If its applications are so positive, why is biotechnology the subject of such hot debate?

Because the applications of biotechnology are unlimited, some people fear possible abuse and unreasonable application.

Such is the case with biotechnology applications in food.

Agri-food scientists have succeeded in transferring the genes of certain plant or animal species to others in order to give them desired characteristics. These newly created organisms are called genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

Scientists have developed a variety of soy that is resistant to herbicide. This genetically modified or transgenic soy offers no additional quality than conventional soy except that it can withstand herbicides. Canada also cultivates a transgenic canola that is resistant to herbicides.

Proponents of genetic engineering contend that transgenetics has been practiced for centuries

Yes, it's true that both human beings and nature have for eons created hybrids, i.e. organisms produced from crossbreeding different varieties or species.

A cross between a horse and a donkey, the mule is a perfect case in point. The magnificent roses that grace our gardens are the product of crossbred varieties. But the point is crossbreeding is achieved through natural fertilization.

Plant breeders typically must wait several generations before obtaining an offspring with the desired traits. A new variety of wheat, for example, usually takes at least fifteen years to develop.

Now genetic engineering cuts through those steps to achieve results in much less time. As well, nature's regulatory mechanism, which rejects most crossbreeding between species because of gene incompatibility, is eliminated.

It therefore becomes possible, for example, to implant the genes of an Arctic ocean fish into a tomato to make it resistant to cold.

What has been consumer reaction to GMOs?

The reaction varies greatly depending on the country and region. In North America, despite concerns expressed by some scientists and consumer groups, the insertion of GMOs in the food supply took place smoothly.

In Europe, GMOs have sparked stormy debates in governments and prompted consumers to boycott foods and brands. As a result, most European food producers do not want GMOs in their product line and order only raw non-transgenic products.

Why do some consumers refuse to eat transgenic foods?

Fear of the unknown is one of the many reasons for this wariness. Others view transgenic food as an aberration of the laws of nature.

Many are concerned about who controls these technologies, and what seed patents will do to change the face of agriculture. Still others are afraid of the long-term effects on their health and the environment.

But the main fear is that the genes of genetically modified plant life will not break down in nature, resulting in the creation of new super-resistant plant varieties that no herbicide will be able to control.

It should be noted that not all scientists are convinced that GMOs are harmless and the debate rages on.

Are Canadians likely to find transgenic foods on their plates?

The answer is a categorical "yes", especially when it comes to canola and soy.

Soy oil is found in most foods that contain vegetable oil, ranging from tomato-based sauces to chocolate bars. Unless you only buy certified organic, GMOs are impossible to avoid.

Lorelei Bourrier is a translator specializing in agriculture.