“Alteration of crops is widespread, producing plants with higher yields, less need for pesticides and other desirable qualities. And, many scientists say, such crops are as safe as any other.
To the naked eye, the white puffs of cotton growing on shrubs, the yellow flowers on canola plants and the towering tassels on cornstalks look just like those on any other plants. But inside their cells, where their DNA contains instructions for how these crops should grow, there are a few genes that were put there not by Mother Nature but by scientists in a lab.
Some of the genes are from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis that makes proteins lethal to flies, moths and other insects. Others are from the soil bacteriumAgrobacterium that programs plants to make a key enzyme that isn’t vulnerable to a popular weed killer. These modifications allow farmers to grow crops with easier weed control and fewer pest-killing chemicals.
To an increasingly vocal group of consumers, this genetic tinkering is a major source of anxiety. They worry that eating engineered foods could be bad for their health or cause unanticipated environmental problems. At the very least, they insist, they deserve the right to know whether the foods they might buy contain genetically modified ingredients.
In California, this unease has culminated in Proposition 37. If approved on Nov. 6, the initiative would require many grocery store items containing genetically modified ingredients to carry labels.
But among scientists, there is widespread agreement that such crops aren’t dangerous. The plants, they say, are as safe as those generated for centuries by conventional breeding and, in the 20th century, by irradiating plant material, exposing it to chemical mutagens or fusing cells together to produce plants with higher grain yields, resistance to frost and other desirable properties. Now they want to insert other genes into plants to make them more nutritious, resistant to drought or able to capture nitrogen from the air so they require less fertilizer, among other useful traits.”
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