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The Debate Over Genetically Modified Foods

Kerryn Sakko


Before their release, (GM) foods require more encompassing tests to assess their:

  • effect on human health
  • impact on the environment
  • overall benefits or risks to society

May 2002


Can strawberry crops be genetically engineered to survive frost? Photo by Ken Hammond.

Food can be engineered to prevent disease.
  • Rice with built-in Vitamin A that can help prevent blindness in 100 million children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency;
  • A tomato that softens more slowly, allowing it to develop longer on the vine and keep longer on the shelf;
  • Potatoes that absorb less fat when fried, changing the ever-popular french fries from junk food into a more nutritional food;
  • Strawberry crops that can survive frost;
  • An apple with a vaccine against a virus that causes childhood pneumonia.

These are some of the benefits promised by biotechnology. The debate over its benefits and safety, however, continues. Do we really need to fear mutant weeds, killer tomatoes, and giant corn and will the benefits be delivered?

Conventional breeding is a slow, unpredictable process.
Desired GM organisms can be bred in one generation.

Conventional Breeding versus Genetically Modified (GM) Crops

For thousands of years farmers have used a process of selection and cross breeding to continually improve the quality of crops. Even in nature, plants and animals selectively breed, thus ensuring the optimum gene pool for future generations. Traditional breeding methods are slow, requiring intensive labor: while trying to get a desirable trait in a bred species, undesirable traits will appear and breeders must continue the process over and over again until all the undesirables are bred out.

Kerryn Sakko is an undergraduate student at Adelaide University, Australia, studying for a double degree in chemical engineering, mathematics and computer science. In 2001, she represented Australia, with 19 other students from around the country, at the APEC Youth Science Forum held in Singapore. Currently, Kerryn assists the Junior Field Naturalist Club and helps in the supervision and running of events for CSIRO’s Double Helix Science Club. She is also a member of Youth Science Forum, a club that promotes science, where she contributes her time and skills to science learning events, including Sieman’s Science School.

The Debate Over Genetically Modified Foods

Ag BioTech InfoNet

Ag BioTech InfoNet covers all aspects of the application of biotechnology and genetic engineering in agricultural production, food processing, and marketing.

GM food information

The National Center for Biotechnology Information, maintained by the University of Reading, UK, provides many reading choices on the subject of GM food as it relates to the United Kingdom.

USDA Agricultural Biotechnology: Questions and Answers

Breeders have been evaluating new products developed through agricultural biotechnology for centuries. In addition to these efforts, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work to ensure that crops produced through genetic engineering for commercial use are properly tested and studied to make sure they pose no significant risk to consumers or the environment. Learn the answers to popular AG Biotech questions, as well as gain access to useful resources, including a biotechnology glossary.

Biotechnology resources

Biotechnology-related news, books and web resources.

Food and Environment Electronic Digest (FEED)

FEED is a free email newsletter that will keep you informed about food production and safety issues.


Teaching Resources from the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR)

The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) strengthens public trust in research through education and dialogue. Its diverse membership spans academic, industry, non-profit research institutes, health care, and voluntary health organizations. Through membership and extensive education programs, it fosters a shared commitment to the ethical conduct of research and ensures the vitality of the life sciences community.

Consumer Awareness
This four lesson curriculum engages middle and high school students in an investigation of personal care products. Being an informed consumer requires critical evaluation skills and a basic understanding of science and regulations. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany another article about GM food on this site. Educators can delete the section on article content and extension questions but may want to use the activity handouts to support the article above.

Lesson Title: GM Foods: Are They Safe?
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson examines potential benefits and risks of genetically modified foods. Students can interview a biotech company, design enhanced GM food products or packaging labels, form a GM food lobby group… and more!

Download/view lesson.
(To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Environmental Inquiry

Cornell University offers background information and classroom activities, including lab work using bioassays, to examine toxicology.


Understanding Science