Tinkering with food may be out of necessity

WASHINGTON — We've always played with our food — even before we knew about genes or how to change them.

For thousands of years, humans have practiced selective breeding — pairing the beefiest bull with the healthiest heifers to start a new herd. That concept was refined to develop plant hybridization and artificial insemination. Today we've got tastier corn on sturdier stalks, bigger turkeys and meatier cattle.

Now comes an Atlantic salmon that is genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as a regular salmon. If U.S. regulators approve it, the fish would be the first such scientifically altered animal to reach the dinner plate.

Scientists have already determined that it's safe to eat. They are weighing other factors, including environmental risks, after two days of intense hearings.

Whatever the decision on salmon, it's only the start of things to come. In labs and on experimental farms are:

* Vaccines and other pharmaceuticals grown in bananas and other plants.

* Trademarked "Enviropigs" whose manure doesn't pollute as much.

* Cows that don't produce methane in their flatulence.

And in the far-off future, there may be foods built from scratch — the scratch being DNA.

Sometimes when science tinkers with food, it works. Decades ago, Norman Borlaug's "Green Revolution" of scientifically precise hybrids led to bigger crop yields that have dramatically reduced hunger.

Sometimes it flops. Anyone remember the Flavr Savr tomato? Probably not. It didn't taste good. "There was no flavor there to save," one expert quipped. But you might remember 10 years ago when genetically modified corn meant for animal feed wound up in taco shells?

To the biotech world, precise tinkering with the genes in plants and animals is a proven way to reduce disease, protect from insects and increase the food supply to curb world hunger.

To skeptics, genetic changes put the natural world and the food supply at risk. Modified organisms can escape into the wild or mingle with native species, potentially changing them, with unknown effects.

Over the past 15 years, genetically engineered plants have been grown on more than 2 billion acres in more than 20 countries. Consumers eat genetically engineered plant products in large quantities in the U.S., often in unlabeled products such as oils and processed foods.

The same crops are viewed more suspiciously in Europe and other countries, including India. China, meanwhile, is working to develop genetically modified rice that would be less prone to insect damage.

In fact, some experts say the natural food of our forebears is for the most part long gone. That's mostly due to breeding and other now-commonplace practices.

Old-fashioned breeding has led to turkeys that "can't have sex anymore because we've been breeding them for big chests," says Martina Newell McGloughlin, director of the University of California's Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

"All of the animals, plants and microbes we use in our food system, our agricultural system, are genetically modified in one way or another," says Bruce Chassy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "That, or they're wild."

The modifications are mostly from selective breeding and hybridization, the traditional ways of changing plants and animals. But these methods used for thousands of years are compared by genetic engineers to using a sledgehammer. They say their techniques are like using a scalpel.

Precise, predictable

"Genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, yet it is regulated up the wazoo," McGloughlin says. "Yet there is no regulation at all on the traditional breeding system."

She finds fears over genetically engineered food and the regulations that accompany them hard to stomach.

More than four-fifths of the soybean, corn and cotton acreage in the United States last year used genetically engineered crops, according to a 2010 National Academies of Sciences study.

David Ervin of Portland State University in Oregon, who chaired the committee that wrote the report, said it found no large-scale environmental risks associated with the current genetically engineered corn, cotton and soybeans in the United States. As for future crops, "you just have to be very cautious," depending on the nature of the plants, he says.

The report, which didn't consider health impacts of eating genetically engineered crops, did recommend large-scale studies of ecological effects of such crops, Ervin said.

Scientists who work on genetic modifications insist time has proven them correct.

James Murray, a professor of animal sciences at the University of California at Davis, says with the world population predicted to surpass 9 billion before 2050, genetically engineered food is the only hope to avoid starvation.

That many people cannot be fed "using agriculture as it is right now," Murray says. "What is the cost to humanity if we do not use this technology?"