As used in the law, bioengineering with respect to food describes any food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant DNA techniques and for which modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or in nature.
Although not synonymous, another commonly used phrase to describe bioengineered (or genetically engineered) food is genetically modified food. Genetic modification specifically refers to a range of methods to alter a given species for a desired phenotype, whereas genetic engineering requires the deliberate introduction of a genetic change in the target organism's genome. Often these genes give the food crop some trait or characteristic not present in the non-modified version of the plant. For example, genes can be inserted that cause a plant to produce its own insecticide, increasing the plant’s resistance to certain insects. Scientists can also insert genes that make crops more resistant to herbicides that are used to control weeds.
Many of these plant products exist and are being used in agriculture today. “Roundup Ready” crops describe plants that contain an inserted gene that makes them tolerate the commonly-used weed killer Roundup. This allows farmers to apply Roundup to keep weeds down without affecting their crop yield. Another engineered food is “Golden Rice”. This is a type of rice that has been engineered to produce b-carotene, a nutrient that later converts to vitamin A; proponents urge consumption of the rice in an attempt to reduce vitamin A deficiency in children suffering malnutrition.
The gene that has been inserted into an organism is called a transgene. If the transgene has been successfully inserted into a chromosome of the target organism, it will be passed on to all offspring. Once the gene has been successfully inserted into the organism’s chromosomes, the organism is now considered transgenic because it has a gene that was not originally present in its genome.
According to researchers at Harvard University, many of the concerns about genetically engineered foods focus on their safety for humans and the environment. The researchers suggest people are concerned about potential allergic responses to the genetically modified foods or about undesired side effects. These side effects include, but are not limited to, potential damage to internal organs or to a baby during pregnancy, or gene transfer from the genetically engineered food to the consumer.
With regards to the environment, people focus on the potential that genetically engineered foods might push insects and weeds to adapt to pesticides and herbicides. However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests that GMO foods are not causally associated with adverse human health impacts, nor with impacts to the environment beyond some increased resistance to herbicides and insecticides.