Benefits and Concerns Related to rDNA Biotechnology-Derived Foods

Rarely does a new technology receive a broad and enthusiastic welcome. A mix of motives— some rational, some not, some economic, some religious or ethical, some based only on lack of understanding—have characteristically attended the implementation of innovation. Biotechnology is no exception.

Specific Benefits

Listed below are examples of existing and potential benefits offered by the use of rDNA biotechnology.

Plant Attribute Benefits. rDNA biotechnology- derived food crops offer growers: increased crop resistance to pests, disease, and environmental stress; increased crop yields; and decreased production costs. Potential advantages for consumers include: improved organoleptic and nutritional quality; improved shelf-life of fresh fruits and vegetables; and reduced allergen concentrations.

Food Technology Uses of Bioprocessing. rDNA biotechnology enables optimization of the microorganisms and enzymes necessary for processing of fermented foods such as cheeses, pickles, wine, beer, and sausages, resulting in food ingredients of higher quality and purity as well as ingredients not otherwise available.

Environmental Benefits. rDNA biotechnology has been used to develop herbicide-tolerant crops that enable the use of comparatively environmentally benign herbicides and increase the flexibility in crop rotation. In addition, these crops facilitate no-till agriculture, which reduces fossil fuel use, soil erosion, and air pollution. Increased yields on existing farm land, especially through crops adapted to local soil or drought conditions, will help provide the necessary quantities of food as the world’s population grows without converting our remaining forests into farm land.

Diet, Nutrition, and Health Benefits. rDNA biotechnology has the potential to provide more food to the world and foods of improved nutritional composition to meet the specific needs of different populations. In addition, specific plant components now recognized for their ability to contribute to improved health and the prevention of some degenerative diseases could also be incorporated into foods.

Specific Concerns

The transition from traditional plant breeding to the use of rDNA biotechnology has raised several issues of consumer concern. A thorough analysis of these concerns reveals that many stem from not fully understanding the science involved and how these potential risks have already been addressed. It remains appropriate for all rDNA biotechnology-derived products to be examined on a case-by-case basis before being commercialized.

Economic and Access Concerns. Sound regulatory, antitrust, and patent policies for rDNA biotechnology should address concerns of public access versus private-sector control of patents of genes and research techniques. These policies also will resolve issues of agribusiness consolidation and stifled competition. In addition, increased funding of public research is needed.

Environmental and Monitoring Concerns. It is important for all agricultural chemicals, including the active ingredients in rDNA biotechnology-derived plants with pest and disease resistance and herbicide tolerance, to continue to be properly regulated and monitored. All new products are carefully tested for safety related to animal and microbial life. Soil persistence and the likelihood of surface and subsoil water contamination are also considered.

Allergenicity. No unique allergic reactions to any rDNA biotechnology-derived foods have occurred. Potential allergenicity can be assessed and is an important part of a comprehensive safety assessment protocol.

Antibiotic Resistance Transfer. Scientists and most regulators around the world generally believe that the risk of horizontal gene transfer of an antibiotic resistance gene from an rDNA biotechnology-derived plant to microorganisms is virtually nonexistent. In addition, markers other than antibiotic resistance markers are used in most products currently under development.

Concerns with Naturally Occurring Toxicants. Many naturally occurring toxicants are endogenous to food sources while others are formed in or on foods naturally or as a result of storage or normal processing. Precautions should continue to be taken to assure that breeding methods, whether traditional or rDNA biotechnology, do not result in an increase in risk.

Conclusions

The body of existing scientific evidence leads to the conclusion that there are no increased adverse health or environmental effects attributable to the use of rDNA biotechnology in food production. With the current higher degree of regulatory oversight for all foods derived from rDNA biotechnology, there is less likelihood of adverse effects to consumers than with new conventional foods. The agricultural biotechnology industry would benefit from a regulatory system that increases consumer confidence in food product safety.


In an effort to contribute to a meaningful dialogue on scientific issues and consumer concerns about rDNA biotechnology, the Institute of Food Technologists, a non-profit society for food science and technology, conducted a comprehensive review of biotechnology. IFT convened three panels of experts, consisting of IFT members and other prominent biotechnology authorities, to evaluate the scientific evidence and write a report divided into four sections: Introduction, Safety, Labeling, and Benefits and Concerns.