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GM Foods and In-Vitro Meat: A Summary December 4, 2009

Posted by Zaynah Abid in GM Food, In Vitro Meat.
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Genetically Modified foods are foods derived from genetically modified organisms, whose DNA have been altered in order to tailor specific effects—the most common desired effects include resistance to herbicide, weeds, pests, and the ability to withstand extreme climate conditions. More recent research, which focuses less on agricultural benefits and more on consumer-related benefits, involves increasing the nutritional content of foods, including vitamins, antioxidants like resveratrol, healthy fats like Omega-3 fatty acids, and other substances that might prevent chronic diseases. Research is also underway concerning the creation of an allergen-free peanut. These genetic modifications are typically achieved through the introduction of foreign genes into a plant cell, but researchers at University of Minnesota and Massachusetts General Hospital have recently presented a genetic modification technique that introduces small changes to a plant’s DNA (using zinc finger nucleases) without the introduction of a foreign gene.

At the moment, GM foods are considered to be at the forefront of the fight to secure global food security, by promising significantly higher crop yields and nutritional enhancements. The U.S. government and private foundations like the Gates Foundation have therefore encouraged research in this field to eradicate food shortages and hunger around the globe. The use of GM food is widespread in the United States but its use is strictly regulated in Europe and is viewed with a lot of suspicion and distrust in developing countries. Environmental groups like Greenpeace, along with some circles in the scientific community, have put up stiff resistance against the use of genetically modified foods. It is interesting to note, however, that GM foods fill the shelves of supermarkets, often without the knowledge of the consumer, since the FDA requires no special labeling on foods grown from biotech seed.

One of the main concerns regarding GM foods is the monopoly of the biotech firms over the production of genetically modified products. Moreover, intellectual property rights of the seed companies have prevented independent research and comparison of GM seeds, with these giant companies controlling the information released to the public. The seeds cannot be tested by independent researchers to verify the claims of the biotech companies and to establish the safety of the seeds, which raises questions about the motives of these firms. According to some studies, crops like Golden Rice, which is marketed to contain enhanced nutritional content, does not provide a sufficient amount of nutrition when normal-sized servings are consumed on a daily basis. Greenpeace and other activists also assert that GM foods can potentially be harmful to human health, and detrimental DNA can show up in other areas of the food chain. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of GM foods and many unanswered questions, which are masking the benefits that can be achieved from its use.

In-vitro meat, another type of biotech food, is meat derived from animal tissue, which is grown on a synthetic scaffold and harvested in a lab. There are numerous benefits to such meat, which range from its antibiotic and steroid-free properties to its enhanced nutrition, its avoidance of animal cruelty and its environmental benefits, including fewer greenhouse gas emissions. While in-vitro meat is still in the basic research stages of development, there are hopes for its commercial production and manufacture in the next 5-10 years.

Our blog has focused on a variety of aspects of genetically modified foods and in-vitro meat, including some of the topics and controversies described above. In addition to presenting our own perspective on the issues, we wanted to obtain some additional opinions from the Brown community – from students to professors – in order to get a sense of how much information people had about either topic, as well as how open they would be to purchasing and consuming either in-vitro meat or genetically modified foods.


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