Most crops today are genetically modified

The list of foods containing corn is extensive.

High fructose corn syrup is the most commonly used sweetener in processed foods. Many chips and cereals contain corn, and whiskey’s key ingredient is corn.

But many consumers are probably unaware that almost 90 percent of today’s corn crops are genetically altered.

Corn is not the only crop with modified DNA.

“Most of your grain crops will be 80 percent genetically engineered, or higher,” said Dr. Troy Bray, professor of biology and chair of the biology department at Henderson State University. “But that doesn’t mean they’re unsafe.”

Corn and other altered foods are often called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The website Live Science defines a GMO as an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering. In most cases, GMOs have been altered with DNA from another organism such as a bacterium, plant, or animal.

As an example, Bray said corn has been engineered to where it can produce its own pesticide by taking a bacteria gene that kills the pestilent corn borer and injecting it into the corn genome.

“This corn now, both naturally and genetically, produces an insecticide that takes care of the pests without the need for spraying a pesticide,” Bray said.

“And they took it another step further by taking bacteria that was resistant to the herbicide Roundup and putting its resistant gene into corn,” he said. “Before, this herbicide would kill the corn just as easy as the grass and weeds around it. Now, the Roundup-ready corn protects itself.”

Bray said there are now 10 different “Roundup-ready” crops.

Other potential benefits of GMOs are foods that are larger, tastier, more nutritious, and resistant to diseases and droughts.

“All of this makes food products more affordable,” Bray said. “You think about being able to save on pesticides. And we’re making more food now from less land than ever before because we’re increasing the yields fruit and vegetables using the same amount of land.”

Improving the genes of plants and animals through selective breeding is a longstanding practice that takes generations, but genetic engineering has greatly expedited the process.

There are some critics who argue that GMOs can cause environmental damage and health problems for consumers, such as allergies.

But the American Association for the Advancement of Science said many of the world’s respected organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, concluded that foods containing ingredients derived from genetically modified crops presents no more risk than crop plants modified by conventional techniques.

Henderson State’s biology department may not have the capacity to provide the most modern tools for genetic research, but it does prepare its students for a successful future in the field.

“In our classes, we learn about the tools and techniques used in genetic engineering,” Bray said. “We extract, amplify and prepare DNA for sequencing.”

He said after learning the basics, students are prepared to move on to specialized studies in graduate school. And when they are ready enter the job market, “the field is wide open,” he said, ranging from food industries to conservation groups.

For more information about Henderson’s biology department, go to hsu.edu/biology.