What do you get when you cross a chicken with an apple? A daffodil with rice? A flounder with a tomato? These aren’t jokes waiting for a punch line. Believe it or not, combinations like these may make their way to your dinner table. There’s a brave new world of agriculture that has some people excited about new "superfoods". Others are very nervous. For thousands of years, farmers have improved their crops by patiently crossbreeding plants that have good traits. But crossbreeding doesn’t always work. Even when it does, it can take decades to get good results. Now, thanks to advances in gene science, there are amazing shortcuts. Genes are the instructions inside cells that help determine what a living thing looks like: its size, its shape and countless other traits. Using the new tools of genetic engineering, scientists can take a gene from one living thing and put it directly into another plant or animal. John Mount, professor of agriculture at the University of Tennessee says that in this way you can make changes more precisely in a much shorter period of time. Scientists believe the new techniques can create crops that are pest-proof, disease resistant and more nutritious. Researchers are working on rice that has an extra boost of vitamin A from a daffodil gene. The rice could help prevent blindness for millions of kids who don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet.
Not everybody is convinced that pumping our food with foreign genes is a good idea. Many people say these genetically modified, or GM, foods may end up harming the environment and humans. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association says that we shouldn’t be
rushing into a new technology so quickly and thoughtlessly. He thinks we might be at risk of causing disaster if we don’t think about the possible results or dangers of the steps we take. Nearly half the U.S. corn and soybean crops are now genetically modified. Health concerns are growing. Many groups are demanding that GM foods be labelled. Last year public worry forced the Gerber and Heinz companies to stop using GM ingredients in baby foods. Just last month Frito Lay announced that its snacks would be free of GM ingredients. Companies are seeing that GM foods can be bad for business, even if they haven’t been proved to be bad for health. So far, GM foods haven’t harmed anyone. Most genetic researchers believe that if troubles do crop up, they will be manageable. As the battles go on, will we continue to see GM food on our tables? Allison Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University, is hopeful. Even though she has concerns, she thinks it would be silly not to use this technology. We just have to use it wisely.

adapted from Time for Kids, Trouble on the Table, World Report Edition, March 2000

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