Serving healthy food at a hospital is very important to improving patients health. Eliminating genetically altered (or genetically modified, genetically engineered) foods, however, does not move Catholic Healthcare West closer to that goal (Jan. 12, p. 17).
Field or lab, risks the same
Genetically modified foods are just as safe as conventional foods
They are better served focusing on serving fresh fruits and vegetablesas they are at their hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif. While CHW is to be lauded for trying to improve the nutritional quality of patient food, at present there is insufficient data to show nutritional advantages from consuming either conventionally or organically produced foods. More important for hospital patients, as well as all consumers, is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Convincing epidemiological evidence shows that diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetablesregardless of the methods used to produce themreduce the frequency and severity of numerous health conditions.
Many aspects of green healthcare, which CHW espouses, are approaches everyone would be well-served to followlinking patients and hospitals through mass transit, reducing packaging waste, using biodegradable dinnerware and purchasing supplies from local sources to reduce its carbon footprint. However, looking for providers who do not use genetically engineered sugar beets or meat from cloned animals is not the road to a greener hospital. In the Modern Healthcare article, CHWs ecology program coordinator, Sister Mary Ellen Leciejewski, claimed, Previous genetically engineered crops have increased pesticide use, and animal cloning is a cruel and unnecessary technology in meat production. While Sister Leciejewski may have legitimate concerns about U.S. food production, some of her claims need to be examined.
Having crops tolerant to weed and pest attack, whether by genetic engineering or classical breeding, can reduce numbers and strength of pesticide applications. Growing genetically engineered crops tolerant to weed pesticidesso-called herbicide-tolerant, or HT, cropsallows pesticide applications directly to crop and weed surfaces, replacing practices that damage the environment, like spraying and mechanical weed removal. The latter lowers fuel use and conserves soils prone to erosion. Pesticide use on both HT and insect-tolerant genetically engineered crops has been extensively analyzed. Early studies looked at amounts of active pesticide ingredients. Most demonstrated overall reductions in pesticide use with HT and insect-tolerant varieties, compared with conventional varieties, although some studies noted a slight increase in herbicide use with HT soybean.
Measuring only active ingredient, however, does not provide a complete picture of environmental effects, like differences in environmental and toxicological impacts of various pesticides. Recently, a method was devised to judge environmental impact by measuring toxicity of the active ingredient, its mode of action, period of time it persists, and its ability to contaminate groundwater. All published studies using this method have shown reductions in environmental impact with genetically engineered crops. But further reductions are needed, and these can be accomplished using the best tools available: integrated pest management, biocontrol, organic production methods and genetically engineered crops.
A clone is an organism genetically identical to an ancestor. Clones are achieved by splitting an early-stage, multicellular embryo to create twins, the same process that occurs in women who give birth to identical twins. The first split-embryo calves entered the food supply in 1981. Since the mid-1980s, clones have also been produced by introducing genetic information from one cell into an unfertilized egg from which its genetic information was removed.
One food-safety issue raised about consuming food from cloned animals is whether food composition changes occur. Numerous published scientific studies have found no obvious differences in milk or meat from cloned cows.
The Food and Drug Administration draft risk-assessment on livestock cloning states, The current weight of evidence suggests that there are no biological reasons, either based on underlying scientific assumptions or empirical studies, to indicate that consumption of edible products from clones of cattle, pigs, sheep or goats poses a greater risk than consumption of those products from their nonclone counterparts. Thus, food from cloned animals is as safe as food from noncloned (sexually-derived) animals. Judging whether cloning is cruel, however, has to do with personal views of the sanctity of reproductive interventions, whether in humans or animals.
The FDA requires labeling of genetically engineered foods and cloned animal products, using the same labeling policy as for conventional foods. Such labels provide consumers with information about changes in nutrition, health safety or food quality, but do not provide information on the process by which the food or crop is produced. Labels indicate that a food, genetically engineered or not, is significantly different from its conventional counterpart. Currently marketed genetically engineered products do not have significant differences, except for the product of the introduced genetic informationthe safety of which is determined independently. Thus, current foods with genetically engineered ingredients are not labeled because no significant differences exist in, for example, vitamins, fats and toxins. Regarding allergenicity, foods must be labeled if they derive from a plant engineered with genetic information from a previously recognized allergenic source, like peanut, soy or wheat, or from a plant in which the new protein has characteristics of known allergens. Just like foods created by conventional breeding or grown using conventional or organic practices, genetically engineered foods are not 100% safe. But research suggests that food-safety issues with a commercialized genetically engineered food are unlikely to be greater than those with conventional foods.
Peggy Lemaux is a specialist in the Plant and Microbial Biology Department at the University of California at Berkeley. Alison van Eenennaam is an animal biotechnology specialist in the Animal Science Department at the University of California at Davis.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.