What’s in those tortillas?
Are genetically modified organisms in the food supply? Consumers don’t know because food isn’t labeled. But some first-year Chico State University biology students are soon going to find out on their own.
In early November, the students will be performing a molecular-biology lab experiment that will test everyday foods for genetically modified corn.
The tests will be done in little tubes about an inch tall and will search for the presence of corn DNA and the DNA of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a pesticide bacterium that has been engineered into corn and other crops. Bt, when traditionally used as a topical pesticide, is considered to have a low toxicity to humans and other mammals, though the long-term effects of genetically engineered Bt on humans are not known.
Students will be expected to bring in an assortment of food for the test. “The goal is to get as many foods as we can,” said Gordon Wolfe, an associate professor of biology. “If we get enough samples from S&S and Chico Natural Foods, we could find out if any of them are positive and say, if you go to these stores you are unlikely to get genetically engineered food. If you go to Safeway or Raley’s and pick at random all these corn foods, then 50 percent of them might turn out to be genetically engineered.”
Using a small sample of each type of food, students will extract DNA using a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification, hoping to capture corn and Bt genes. If the Bt DNA pattern is detected, the test will be considered accurate only if the corn DNA is also present.
Wolfe and his colleagues Jeff Bell and Kris Blee set up the lab test long before Butte County’s Measure D was on the horizon, and Wolfe said there was no connection between the measure, which would ban genetically modified crops, and the lab. Wolf said the relevance of the results would be lasting whatever the outcome of the measure.
“We really don’t know what [results] we’re going to get, but, absolutely, at the end of this lab our students will have some idea of what they are eating,” he stated.
Wolfe does have opinions regarding the broader issue of genetic engineering, however. “We don’t know the implications for human health or for impact on the environment,” he said, suggesting that we wouldn’t know the long-term effects of GMOs, good or bad, until we’d been consuming them for 20 years.
By the same token, he added, if our food crops become contaminated with GMOs, they can’t be taken off the market, as is done with harmful pharmaceuticals. Wolfe equated the issue with the secret testing that occurred during the building of the nuclear bomb. "Just like with the nuclear tests, we thought it was a beneficial thing; the government went and doused people without telling them about tests that were being done with radiation, [they] covered it up. … Later on we discovered that it wasn’t as benign as we thought."