Whether they realize it or not, consumers all over America are buying supermarket chickens fed with genetically modified (GM) grains. “Over 70% of US corn and 80% of soybeans, as well as much of the canola, are GM,” said professor Diter VonWettstein, WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, School of Molecular Biology.

“Most American processed foods contain GM products, unless labeled otherwise,” agreed professor Paul Lurquin, School of Molecular Biosciences. “There is no law in the U.S. that forces anyone to label GM foods, unlike in Europe,” he added.

Lurquin, whose research in plant biotechnology helped establish early techniques for transgenesis, feels that U.S. biotechnology companies are hesitant to bring up the subject of GM, as it could cause fear in the general public. But he says people should have the choice not to buy. “It is a sin of omission,” he said, “they should have tried to educate the public beforehand, not after.”

Norah McCabe, assistant research professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, agrees. “I was surprised to learn that even some apples and potatoes had been genetically modified. I think it’s the consumer’s right to know if the food in our supermarket is GM.”

The caution stems from cases where unforeseen incidents in the evolution of transgenesis have led to potentially disastrous results said Lurquin. One case involved adding herbicide-resistant genes from bacteria into crop plants. The resistance worked well, but degradation products were created in the plant that bound tightly to cellular structures and could not be broken down further, thereby accumulating in the plant tissues. This breakdown product was a known carcinogen.

“It is extremely critical when anyone tampers with plants and animals, to appreciate the full consequences,” said Lurquin. “Consider and test every possibility — leave no stone unturned.”

WSU professors Jim Cook and Maurice Ku agree there are dangers and are acutely aware of the complex problems they are dealing with. “The number one problem is containment,” said Ku. “There is great concern over GM plants contaminating non-GM plants through volunteerism or mixing of grain.”

One way to curb that would be to use a nonfood crop species such as amaranthus, which was used as a food crop before the cultivation of corn in South America. “It could be ideal for vaccine production,” said Ku.

Another problem is gene escape. For example, the foreign genes in GM corn could contaminate nonGM corn or a related species through pollen spreading. “It would take a major effort to monitor for gene escape,” said Ku, “and it will happen — it has already occurred in canola.”

One way to avoid this scenario makes use of a plant’s three unique genomes. Animals have a single-nuclear genome while plants have that plus mitochodria and chloroplast genomes, which only carry the maternal characteristics that do not go into the pollen. “If we put a gene in the chloroplast genome,” said Ku, “there will be no possibility of gene escape. It is also more stable and allows a higher level of gene expression.”

Another issue surrounding the development of new GM plants is the creation of foreign proteins that could cause allergic reactions in people. There is also the problem of potential antibiotic resistance in corn and soy. “The FDA is currently monitoring for these types of things,” said Ku.

But the good news is … all of these researchers — Ku, Cook, VonWettstein and Lurquin — agree that our nation’s GM corn, soy and canola have been thoroughly tested and are considered safe to eat.