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Altered Foods: Labeling, GMOs, and Biotechnology

What kind of corn is in your favorite corn chip? Current debate in California surrounds the labeling of genetically modified foods and foods made from genetically engineered crops. Students can get hands-on and learn more about genetically modified organisms with biotechnology science Project Ideas from Science Buddies and Bio-Rad Laboratories.

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Debate over the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms has been headline news in the months leading up to this week's election, especially in California where voters are considering Proposition 37. Students can learn more about genetic engineering and modification of foods—and even put favorite foods to the test using gel electrophoresis. They can also plant and grow genetically modified seeds and see how they fare against other seeds.

This week, voters around the country will cast their votes on a variety of local and national issues. In California, one of the hotly contested issues involves the labeling of foods. Proposition 37 seeks to require food companies to clearly note whether or not a product is genetically modified (GM). Currently, in the U.S., product labels do not have to say if a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMO), and foods that contain less than 5% GMO content can be labeled as GMO-free. On the flip side, a high percentage of U.S. crops involved in the production of staple corn- and soy-based ingredients are grown from GM seeds.

The Right to Know?

Proposition 37 and the issue of more transparency when it comes to GM foods has been heavily debated in California, and manufacturers around the country will be watching as voters weigh in on the issue of food labeling. If passed, Proposition 37 will have a widespread impact as companies that sell food to California stores will all need to change labeling practices to meet California regulations. While California is the first U.S. state to petition for GM labeling, many other countries require such labeling, including England, Spain, Italy, Australia, China, Japan, and Russia.

Similar but Different

If you know someone who is a gardener or a farmer, you may know about hybrid plants and crops. Creating a hybrid plant involves taking two varieties of a plant and cross-breeding the two to create a new species—one that may be hardier, for example. Careful cultivation of hybrids and, in some cases, additional levels of cross-breeding, leads to new varieties, types of plants. Chances are that some of the vegetables you eat are of hybrid varieties. For instance, Early Girl tomatoes are a hybrid, as is Yellow Hybrid Sweet Corn. Hybridization and genetic modification may sound similar as both seek to create crops that are "improved" or "better" in some way, but hybridization and genetic modification are different in fundamental ways: while hybridization is limited to moving traits between organisms that can interbreed, genetic modification can also move traits between organisms that could never breed.

A genetically modified organism is one that has been altered in a lab by scientists who directly change the genetic structure. Many kinds of genetic modification are possible, including introducing genetic material from other organisms or modifying an existing gene. GMO research is used to enhance and strengthen crops by giving them qualities that may make them more successful as crops, easier to grow in certain areas, longer lasting once harvested, more nutritional, or a better choice for global populations. Genetic modifications, for example, may include giving crops the ability to fight off insects or resist pesticides, as in the case of Bt-corn. Bt-corn is a type of corn that has been genetically altered so that it contains a gene that serves as a natural insecticide. Rather than farmers having to use insecticides on the crops, the corn contains its own insect-killing gene because of a bacteria-based gene that it now carries as part of its genetic makeup. The gene used in Bt-corn comes from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis and targets certain kinds of insects, not all.

Golden rice is another example of a GM food. The rice is golden in color because it has been genetically modified to contain beta-carotene, which the body converts into nutritionally-important A-vitamins. By increasing the nutritional value of rice, a staple food in some underdeveloped countries, many may benefit from getting the essential vitamin in their diets through a common food.

What's at Issue?

While GMOs are created to address both local and global problems, some worry that GM foods may have unintended health and environmental consequences, including ones that may not be detected or realized right away. Proponents of genetic modification of foods and crops, on the other hand, insist that GMOs are safe. In a recent statement on the issue from its board of directors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) writes "the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." The AAAS statement goes on to note that "contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply."

The Foods You Eat

Even if you are not eating genetically modified corn straight from the field, many products made from corn, including some corn chips and cereals, for example, use Bt-corn. Similarly, high fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, is made from corn. Especially if you eat processed and ready-to-eat foods, chances are good that some of the foods you eat contain GMOs. In most cases, you cannot tell by looking or tasting a food whether or not it has been made using GMOs or GMO byproducts. This is the issue behind Proposition 37. If passed, producers and manufacturers will be required to label foods so that consumers will know whether or not a food contains GMOs. Consumers then will make individual decisions about what foods they buy and eat.

Already consumers make similar decisions about buying organic foods, buying foods with certain kinds of chemicals, dyes, oils, additives, and preservatives. Similarly, mandated labeling has given consumers the ability to monitor and compare the fat, calorie, vitamin, sugar, and protein contents of foods. If GM labeling is added, it will be another level of information consumers have when making choices at the grocery store. Proponents of Proposition 37 argue that consumers have a right to actively make this choice, while opponents argue that there are large economic consequences to labeling, particularly if consumers are not educated about genetically modified foods. "Legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers," concludes the AAAS statement.

Making Connections

Regardless of the outcome of next week's election and Proposition 37, understanding what it means for a food to be a GMO, and how that compares to the kind of hybrids that plant biologists create, is important for student scientists. While you can't pick up a bag of chips and do a taste-test to detect GMOs, investigating favorite products and testing for the presence of GMOs is something students interested in biotechnology can pursue. While not a science project for the home kitchen, a student or class with access to a research laboratory with PCR equipment can analyze common foods using the GMO Investigator Kit from the Bio-Rad Biotechnology Explorer Program. For students looking to conduct an individual biotechnology project, the "Genetically Modified Foods*" Abbreviated Project Idea offers a starting point for devising an independent science project on this topic. (Note: a teacher's assistance is required to order from Bio-Rad Laboratories. The GMO Investigator Kit is sold as a classroom kit.)

Students can also experiment firsthand with growing GM seeds. The "May the Best Plant Win! Experiment with Genetically Modified Seeds" Project Idea guides students in growing and observing the interaction between plants that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides and other plants. By planting wild seeds alongside GM seeds, students can investigate what happens when the two types compete for resources.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Biotechnology Techniques are sponsored by support from Bio-Rad Laboratories and its Biotechnology Explorer program.

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