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Overview on the Effects of Genetically Modified Food Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 7th, 2022

It has been said that if man learned how to be content then mankind would still be in living in caves, on trees or in crude houses made of mud and sticks. There would be no technological advances beyond the discovery of fire. Everyone will be happy with a nomadic existence hunting and gathering food. But this is not the case. Human beings will always try to find a better way to live, to dress, drink and to eat. One of the most amazing discoveries in modern history is the ability to genetically alter food.

This means increase in yield, vitamin-enriched foods, drought and insect-resistant plants as well as sturdier animals for consumption. Although this type of technology is beneficial to ensure food security there are those who are not convinced that the rewards outweigh the risks. This study will take a closer look at genetically modified foods its benefits as well the risks and involved and how people and governments should react to these issues.

In a nutshell, genetically modified (GM) food “consists of plants and animals whose genes have been altered” (Freedman, 2009, p4). The original researchers who tackled the creation of GM were motivated by a common goal, to develop crops that are able to produce higher yields in order to solve world hunger (Freedman, 2009, p.4). Later on it included the modification of animal genes to have the same result and it is to ensure food security.

Before going any further it is important to point out that at the core of GM is modern biotechnology. This will help clarify that GMs are not a byproduct of conventional techniques such as breeding and selection. In order to have a clear picture of what is required to produce GMs one needs to understand the standard definition of biotechnology in relation to GMs and according to Codex Alimentarius Commission which was adapted from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, modern biotechnology is defined as:

the application of in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic aid into cells or organelles; or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers, and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection (WHO, 2005, p.2).

The capability to produce the desired traits is nothing new to farmers and breeders of animals. According to scientists, “Historically, farmers bred plants and animals for thousands of years to produce the desired traits … they produced dogs ranging from poodles to Great Danes, and roses from sweet-smelling miniatures to today’s long-lasting, but scent-free reds” (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1).

It is the use of selective breeding that allowed for the creation of wide varieties of plants and animals, however, “the process depended on nature to produce the desired gene” (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1). The only thing that humans did was to mate invidual animals and cross-polinate plants that carried the particular gene that they had identified beforehand in order for the desired characteristic to become common or more pronounced (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1).

In other words more deliberate human interference is the key feature of biotechnology and genetically engineered food. The specific action is the recombination of DNA, injection of nucleic acid into cells and even fusion of cells. The trigger mechanism is the DNA because it contains genetic material. The genetic material in turn commands the cells to produce cells with a set of characteristics. Thus, the recombination of DNA and even the injection of nucleic acid into cells can easily alter the normal mode of cell reproduction.

This is the reason why biotechnologists working to create GMs are able to produce plants and animals with special characteristics that are absent in normal plants and animals that did not have recombinant DNA or other foreign genetic material in their system.

For instance a normal tomato plant can only produce a certain number of fruits. Now, a new technology will enable farmers to double the yield of each tomato plant but there is only one problem a normal tomato plant cannot handle the added weight. This is where genetic engineering comes in, scientists can recombine the DNA of a tomato and tougher more sinewy plant and as a result the genetically engineered tomato plant will develop strong stems that can now handle the added weight of a double yield.

Benefits

The benefits of GMs are numerous and easily bolster the argument that GMs are needed to feed an overpopulated planet. This is because GMs are said to produce more nutritious and tastier food (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1). Aside from that plants that went through genetic engineering process are disease and drought resistant and at the same time said to require fewer resources such as water and fertilizer (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1).

In addition genetically modified plants and animals are said to be fast growing, thus significantly increasing food supply as well as increase the shelf life of the foodstuff (MedlinePlus, 2010, p.1). At first glance it seems that GMs is the answer to the farmer’s and consumer’s prayers.

GM crops are no only fast growing there is also a significant increase in “per-acre yield and at the same time, reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides” (Carroll & Bucholtz, 2009, p.840). The main problem of most farmers is low yield and the reduction of the same because of pests. The double impact of increased yield and less use of pest control chemicals will only mean one thing and that would be increased revenue for the farmers while low cost of food commodities for the consumers.

The proven success of GMs is perhaps the reason why GM crops are grown in every continent except in Antarctica (Freedman, 2009, p.4). In South America GM crops can be found in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Chile, and Honduras (Freedman, 2009, p.4).

In Europe, GM crops are planted in France, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania, while in Asia GMs are grown in India, China and the Philippines (Freedman, 2009, p. 4). However, there are those who are voicing their concerns regarding how scientists are interfering with natural processes and they fear the consequences.

Risks

Although it is a well-documented fact that GMs help solve many of the problems common to farming and food production it cannot be denied that there is great potential for problems to occur.

The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organisation was able to express the concern succinctly in the following statement “Introduction of a transgene into a recipient organism is not a precisely controlled process, and can result in a variety of outcomes with regard to integration, expression and stability of the transgene in the host (WHO, 2005, p.11). Since this technology is relatively new there is no way of knowing the long-term effects or even the impact of recent breakthroughs.

Governments and respective departments handling the safety assessment of GMs consistently defend the use of GMs because these are deemed safe by studies made concerning genetically modified foods (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2009, p.840). But those who are not in favour of GMs that governments used data coming from company-sponsored studies and therefore considered as unreliable (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2009, p.840).

Critics are saying that there is the possibility of altering the toxicity of plants because of the insertion of a foreign gene (Parekh, 2004, p.299). This is because the introduction of new genes “may increase or decrease the expression of the existing proteins or enzymes, which in turn results in the change of other substances in plants” (Parekh, 2004, p.300). There is also concern with regards to the potential human-health effects from horizontal gene transfer (WHO, 2005, p.15).

With regards to toxicity and other potential direct effect on human health experts are saying that the potential direct health effects of GM foods ‘are generally comparable to the known risks associated with conventional foods” (WHO, 2005, p.13). This means that there is no significant difference when it comes to problems encountered while consuming GMs and when consuming conventional foods.

With regards to the fear of the possible detrimental effects from horizontal gene transfer this is the testimony of global watchdogs “The FAO/WHO expert panels concluded that horizontal gene transfer is a rare event” (WHO, 2005, p.15).

However, critics are quick with their rebuttals and they asked if there are long term tests conducted to examine environmental impact more thoroughly and they added if these experts are already aware of the effect of GM food as it moves through the food chain (Carroll & Buchholtz, 2009, p.840). The debate continues.

Allergens

One of the primary concerns is the creation of GMs that can cause food allergies for people who were previously not allergic to this type of food. This means that because of an unintended effect the genetic engineering of crop has created a new variant that produces an allergen.

This principle was in full display when a genetically modified soybean suddenly contained an allergen when in conventional soybean this type of allergen was non-existent (Brown, 2005, p.17). It was an American company, the Pioneer Hi-Bred International that attempted to develop a line of GM soybean that was supposed to produce a methionine-rich protein courtesy of a gene taken from Brazil nuts (Parekh, 2004, p.304).

At that time it was common knowledge that there are people who are allergic to Brazil nuts but no one can pinpoint what gene was causing this allergic reaction. Using blood and skin-prick tests the researchers from Pioneer Hi-Bred discovered that some of their subjects were allergic to the GM soybean. This may strengthen the case of those who are not in favour of GMs but there is an explanation for this problem.

It has to be pointed out that major food allergens are proteins that are “derived from eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, including crustaceans and molluscs such as clams, mussels and oysters” (WHO, 2005, p.16). In the previously mentioned genetically modified soybean it was discovered that it contained a gene encoding a known allergen, this gene is known as the 2S-Albumin (WHO, 2005, p.16).

However, this information was revealed during the assessment and testing phase and so the said GM soybean was never released to the market (Brown, 2009, p.17). But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of the opponents of genetically modified foods.

As a consequence of these fears and uncertainties, “Many countries have since established specific premarket regulatory systems requiring the rigorous assessment of GMOs and GM foods before their release into the environment and/or use in the food supply” (WHO, 2005, p.11).

The problem encountered by Pioneer Hi-Bred must be used as some form of case study so that regulatory bodies and other government agencies in-charge with food safety will be made aware to scrutinize the link between crops that are modified using gene encoding proteins and the type of proteins that trigger an allergic reaction.

In this manner genetic engineers and biotechnology experts will make it part of their standard operating procedure to carefully analyse and then identify the gene that encode a characteristic that in turn will heighten the toxicity or alter the impact of GM crop.

The risk and benefits of GMs were clearly outlined in the preceding discussion. Food security is the number one problem in many parts of the world. Hunger is a problem that can no longer be ignored and based on scientific evidence there is no better solution than to use GMs.

But the problem with GMs is easy to understand and it is link to the radical improvement in the field of biotechnology and the relatively new technology related to genetic modification of plants and animals that there is not enough data that will enable scientists to predict the long-term effects.

Conclusion

Without a doubt GMs are already a major part of agriculture and food security. It is impossible to totally eradicate the use of biotechnology to increase food production and enhance the qualities of crops, poultry and livestock.

However, it is prudent to slow down the process until scientists are able to determine the future impact of GMs and how to safeguard the general public from the risks inherent in genetic modification. One of the best ways to ensure the safety of the general public is to create a system that will scrutinise a product or GM before it will be released to the market.

Works Cited

Brown, Judith. Nutrition Now. London: Thomson Learning, 2005.

Carroll, Archie & Ann Buchholtz. Business and Society: Ethics and Stakeholder Management. OH: South-Western Cengage Learning, 2009.

Freedman, Jeri. Genetically Modified Food: How Biotechnology is Changing What we Eat. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2009.

MedlinePlus. Genetically Engineered Foods. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 15 Nov. 2010. Web. <>.

Parekh, Sarad. The GMO Handbook: Genetically Modified Animals, Microbes and Plants in Biotechnology. New Jersey: Humana Press, 2004.

World Health Organisation (WHO). Modern food biotechnology, human health and development An evidence-based study. Food Safety Department, WHO. 1 June 2005. Web. <>.

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