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Did you know people share many genes with tomatoes?

No two people are alike. That's true. However, they are a lot more similar genetically than you would think.

Genetically, people share almost all the same genes - 99.9 percent, according to Peggy Lemaux, associate Cooperative Extension specialist in plant biotechnology at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, Lemaux told the 1,000 attending CAPCA's annual conference in Anaheim, humans also share genes with other living things. For example, people and tomatoes share as much as 60 percent of the same genes.

Lemaux has been speaking about genetic engineering for a decade as he and her colleagues delve deeper into plant breeding. However, for the past year she has found herself much more in demand as the topics of biotechnology or genetic engineering have exploded in worldwide controversy.

Even though the use of recombinant DNA represents a major breakthrough in plant breeding, she said it is nothing more than an extension of classical plant breeding that has taken place for 1,000 years.

What has some people upset is that the new technology allows crossing outside of species. Biotechnology also allows scientists to be very specific in which genes to transfer. This is something they could not do in the past.

More than 69 million acres were planted to transgenic crops this year, proving that growers are accepting the technology. Yes it is down from 71 million acres in 1999, but the decline hardly represents a major reversal in on-farm acceptance of biotechnology.

And, she believes the future of biotechnology is limitless for the benefits it can offer to not only farmers, but to mankind in improving nutrition and even providing vaccines through plants.

The controversy surrounding this new technology is good, she said, because it makes everyone more responsible in developing the technology.

However, the debate will be harmful if it "sidetracks people from critically thinking about how to use this new technology."

It is unlikely that the technology will be halted, she added.

Unfortunately the actions of Greenpeace and the reaction of Europeans to transgenic crops is casting doubts over how far and how fast the technology will be provided and accepted.

Even with those developments, Lemaux said consumers continue to have a fairly high acceptance of genetically modified foods. One of the issues that generate that acceptance is that GMO products can reduce the use of pesticides. However, that support is eroding and part of that is because people feel vulnerable when they learn they have been involuntarily eating genetically modified foods.

"This is the major thrust behind labeling GMO foods," she said, even though GMO foods for human consumption have been thoroughly tested.

Lemaux is not surprised by the corn contamination incident involving Taco shells. It speaks to the issue of segregation and the almost impossible task of segregating commodities like corn.

Even though a person would have to eat 100,000 of the Tacos shells made with the Bt-corn to cause any damage, the incident could likely lead to even more regulations.

What worries biotechnology supporters is that these incidents will result in long, costly legal battles that could turn food companies against GMO products rather than try to segregate products and utilize them.

Biotechnology, she predicted, will continue to move forward. However, not all consumers will accept it.

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