When an organism's genes (its genetic materials) are changed in a laboratory, the organism is called genetically modified or transgenic. Genetically modified foods are products that contain transgenic animals or plants as ingredients. Genetically modifying food sources can make them bigger, stronger, and more nutritious. Changing genes in plants can protect them against disease. It can also help them survive when exposed to herbicides (chemicals used to kill weeds and plants) and insects. There are many uses for genetically modified foods. For example, in parts of Africa, people eat large amounts of rice. Regular rice is not very nutritious, so scientists have transgenic rice plants. These modified plants produce proteins that give their rice extra iron and vitamins. Scientists have also modified pigs to produce healthier meat and coffee plants to produce decaffeinated coffee beans, among other things.
People who support genetically altered foods argue that they can help people who live in areas with poor growing conditions. They believe these foods can help end world hunger. Those on the other side of the debate worry about the safety of genetically modified foods. They fear that mixing genes from different species could create strange new animal and plant breeds. Environmental groups worry that genetically altering foods could be dangerous to human health. They are not sure what effects genetically modified plants and animals might have on the people who eat them. Critics call these foods "Frankenfoods" because they have been pieced together using genes from different species.
One specific concern is that a gene might mistakenly be taken from a plant to which many people are allergic. For example, if a gene taken from a peanut were inserted into soybeans, it could cause the soybeans to produce peanut proteins. Those proteins could trigger a reaction in anyone who was allergic to peanuts. Another worry is that genetically modified plants might breed with the plants growing around them. Then the wild plants could pick up the traits from the modified plants. This cross-breeding could create problems such as weeds that herbicides cannot kill.