Yet a minority is trying to scare consumers into boycotting these fruits of our technology.
"The fear comes from overexaggerating the risks and eliminating the benefits from the discussion," said Ralph Dewey, a molecular biologist at N.C. State University.
Two recent victims of activist fear-mongering are StarLink corn, which produces its own natural pesticides, and Vector's nicotine-free tobacco, which contains reduced levels of nicotine to help people stop smoking.
N.C. State University sociology Professor Tom Hoban, who has spent more than a decade studying the subject, said two-thirds of U.S. consumers claim they're comfortable eating food produced using biotechnology. He said the foods' few opponents in this country have lost faith in the system altogether.
Their main scare tactics are the modified plants' potential allergenicity and their ecological effects.
Some biotech opponents fear that by switching genes in a plant, scientists might introduce an unknown substance that causes allergies into a species that didn't have it before.
Dewey said this risk shouldn't be ignored, but that scientists model and test the new plant's molecules to make sure they won't cause allergies.
Allergenicity fears brought down StarLink corn. The corn contains the bacterium Bt gene, which Dewey said has been added to all sorts of pest-resistant crops already on the market. Yet because of a small modification in StarLink's gene, regulatory agencies only approved it for animal feed until further tests could be completed.
Then the StarLink strain ended up in Kraft Taco Shells. Kraft pulled them off the market amid international hysteria after about 40 people ate the shells and reported various physical symptoms.
Yet allergen experts say there's virtually no risk associated with the ingestion of StarLink corn in this situation.
To turn this problem on its head, scientists also can use gene technology to "silence" or remove genes that naturally produce allergens and therefore make the food safe for people who could not eat the unmodified strain.
Activists' other main concern is the environmental impact of crops produced using biotechnology. The basic fear is that wind or insects could transfer the pollen from modified plants to wild or unmodified strains to create unintended hybrids.
Possible cross-pollination and the difficulty of keeping the strains separate have prompted N.C. farmers to pass up growing Vector's genetically altered tobacco. The growers say their overseas customers could refuse to buy normal tobacco from North Carolina if there is a chance it could be contaminated with the genetically altered crop.
"Because there is so much (anti-biotechnology) sentiment, especially in Europe, they fear that someone would find a trace of Vector tobacco because someone was careless in the warehouse," Dewey said. "Then they'll be stuck with a warehouse full of tobacco no one wants to buy. They're not going to take that risk."
But why are overseas consumers concerned about genetically modified tobacco? It'll be grown here, so it can't disrupt their ecology, and they'll be smoking it instead of eating it. The two major concerns should be eliminated.
Yet N.C. farmers can't forfeit those sales, so Pennsylvania farmers are thrilled to be growing the new tobacco at nearly twice the going rate for the standard crop while farmers here are held hostage to the continuing ignorance of the international community regarding biotechnology.
Americans lead the world in our acceptance of foods produced through biotechnology. In future controversies of this nature, it is our responsibility to set a mature, rational example for the rest of the world to follow.
Columnist Anne Fawcett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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