GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS. It's a phrase ripped from the headlines, guaranteed to spark heated debate and generate contentious discussions. Concerned Europeans march in opposition to GM foods. African ports have been barricaded to prevent the unloading of genetically modified corn, despite the urgent needs of starving people. Canadians have mailed slices of bread to their prime minister to protest the use of genetically modified wheat. And in Australia, Greenpeace activists attached themselves to a cargo ship with magnets and painted "Stop GE imports" on its hull in their campaign against genetically modified food.
The truth is we've been changing the genetic makeup of our food for millennia, coaxing nature to do our bidding. Long before scientists understood what genes were and how they worked, early civilizations created wheat and corn. These crops, so very different from their wild grassy ancestors, represent man's early ventures in altering evolution. In time, plant breeders learned to stir up plant genes faster, using novel breeding methods, chemicals, and even radiation to produce such marvels as white blackberries and red grapefruit.
But it was the curiosity of a 19th-century Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, that ushered in the modern era of genetics. Mendel spent countless hours in his garden crossing pea plants to find out just how traits were inherited, finally arriving at the idea of the gene, the unit of inheritance that is at the heart of today's plant breeding strategies.
Mendel's genetics turned molecular when Watson and Crick unveiled the structure of DNA in 1953. Within a few short decades, genes were understood to be DNA sequences that code for proteins using a universal genetic code. Genes could be moved easily between different organisms without losing their identity or changing their function. But the new terms that entered agriculture -- genetic engineering, biotechnology, genetic modification -- were disquieting. People began to ask questions about foods that they'd never asked plant breeders before: Is it safe to eat? Are these foods natural? Isn't it dangerous to fool with genes?
Nina Fedoroff, a leading expert in plant molecular biology and genetics, looks at the many issues raised by contemporary techniques for modifying food plants. She answers the most commonly asked questions -- and some we didn't think to ask. Fedoroff and her co-author, science writer Nancy Marie Brown, weave a narrative rich in history, technology, and science to dispel myths and misunderstandings. In the end, Fedoroff argues, the new molecular approaches hold the promise of being the most environmentally conservative way to increase our food supply, helping us to become better stewards of the earth while enabling us to feed ourselves and generations to come.