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Genetically modified foods refer to foods that have been produced through biotechnology processes involving alteration of DNA. This genetic modification is done to confer the organism or crops with enhanced nutritional value, increased resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and reduction of production costs.
The concept of genetic engineering has been in existence for many years, but genetic modification of foods emerged in the early 1990s. Currently, a lot of food consumed is composed of genetically altered elements, albeit without the knowledge of the consumers (Whitman, 2000).
Genetically modified foods have been hailed for their potential of enhancing food security, particularly in small scale agriculture in low income countries.
It has been proposed that genetically modified foods are integral in enhancement of safe food security, enhanced quality and increased shelf-life; hence becoming cost-effective to consumers and farmers. Proponents of this technology also argue that genetically modified foods have many health benefits, in addition to being environmentally friendly and the great capability of enhancing the quality and quantity of yields (W.H.O., 2013).
Genetically modified foods are, therefore, considered to be a viable method of promoting food production and ensuring sustainable food security across the world to meet the demands of the increasing population. In spite of the perceived benefits of genetic engineering technology in the agricultural sector, the production and use of genetically modified foods has triggered a number of issues pertaining to safety and consequences of consumption (Whitman, 2000).
Benefits of genetically modified foods
Many champions of genetically modified foods suggest the potential of genetic engineering technology in feeding the huge population that is faced with starvation across the world. Genetically modified foods could help in increasing production, while providing foods that are more nutritious, with minimal impacts on the environment.
In developing countries, genetic engineering technology could help the farmers to be able to meet the food demands while decreasing the adverse environmental effects. Genetically modified crops have been shown to have greater yields, besides reducing the need for pesticides.
This is because genetically modified crops have increased ability to resist pest infestation, subsequently resulting in increased earnings (Uzogara, 2000). Some genetically engineered crops are designed to resist herbicides, thus allowing chemical control of weeds to be practiced. Foods that have been genetically modified are perceived to attain faster growth, and can survive harsh conditions due to their potency to resists draught, pests and diseases.
Genetically modified foods have also been suggested to contain many other benefits, including being tastier, safer, more nutritious, and have longer shelf life. Though scientific studies regarding the safety and benefits of genetically modified foods are not comprehensive, it is argued that critics of this technology are driven by overblown fears (W.H.O., 2013).
Controversies surrounding genetically modified foods
To most opponents of the application of genetic engineering technology in agriculture, issues relating to safety, ethics, religion, and environment are greater than those that are related to better food quality, enhanced production and food security. Genetic modification technology is perceived to carry risks touching on agricultural practices, health and environment.
The major issue raised by the society concerning this technology pertains to whether genetically modified foods should be banned for the benefit of people. The gene transfer techniques are not entirely foolproof, thus raising fears that faults may emerge and lead to many unprecedented events.
There is a possibility that DNA transfer to target cells may not be effective, or it may be transferred to untargeted point with the potential effect being the expression or suppression of certain proteins that were not intended. This may cause unanticipated gene mutations in the target cells, leading to physiological alterations (Bakshi, 2003).
A number of animal studies have indicated that genetically modified foods could pose serious health risks, including the tendency to cause impotency, immune disorders, acceleration of aging, hormonal regulation disorders, and alteration of major organs and the gastrointestinal system (Bakshi, 2003). It has also been demonstrated that genetically modified foods can act as allergens and sources of toxins.
With the apparent lack of clear regulatory mechanisms and policies to ensure that genetically modified foods are tested for human health and environmental effects, human beings become reduced to experimental animals, thus subjecting them to adverse toxic effects and dietary problems.
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In animals, it has been found that the use of genetically modified feeds causes complications, such as premature delivery, abortions, and sterility (Bakshi, 2003). Some genetically modified crops such as corn and cotton are engineered to produce pesticide.
It has been demonstrated that this built-in pesticide is very toxic and concentrated as compared to the naturally sprayed pesticide, which has been confirmed to cause allergies in some people. Many studies have also shown the immune system of genetically modified animals to be significantly altered, with a persistent increase in cytokines; indicating the capability of these foods to cause conditions such as asthma, allergy and inflammation in human beings (Whitman, 2000).
Some of the genetically modified foods such as soy have also been shown to have certain chemicals known to be allergens, for example trypsin inhibitor protein. Genetic engineering of food may also result into transfer of genes that have the capability to trigger allergies into the host cells.
Furthermore, most of the DNA transferred into genetically modified foods originates from microorganisms that have not been studied to elucidate their allergenic properties. Similarly, the new genetic combinations in genetically modified foods could cause allergies to some consumers or worsen the existing allergic conditions. Various cases of genetically modified foods causing allergic reactions have been reported, leading to withdrawal of these foods from the market (Bakshi, 2003).
Genetic modification of crops could also increase the expression of naturally occurring toxins, through possible activation of certain proteins, resulting into release of toxic chemicals. It is argued that sufficient studies have not been carried out to prove that genetically modified foods are safe for consumption (Krierbel & Epstein, 2001).
Genetically modified foods are also associated with many environmental risks. Issues relating to the manner in which science is marketed and applied have also been raised, challenging the perceived benefits of genetically modified foods. Many opponents of genetic engineering technology perceive that genetic modification of food is a costly technology that places farmers from low income countries at disadvantaged positions since they cannot afford it.
It is also argued that this technology cannot address the food shortage issue, which is perceived to be more of a political and economic problem than a food production issue (Krierbel & Epstein, 2001).
Political and economic issues across local and global levels have been suggested to prevent distribution of foods so as to reach the people faced with starvation, but not issues of agriculture and technology. Politics and economic barriers have also been shown to contribute to greater poverty, subsequently making individuals unable to afford food.
Some bioethicists are of the view that most genetic engineering advances in agriculture are profit-based as compared to those that are need-based, thus challenging the appropriateness of genetic modification of food in ensuring food security, safeguarding the environment and decreasing poverty especially in low income countries.
This argument is supported by the costly nature of genetic engineering technology and the yields from the application of this technology, which in some instances have been observed to be less than the yields obtained from the use of conventional food production processes. The economic benefits of genetic engineering of foods are usually attained by the large scale agricultural producers, thus pitting the majority of the population who are involved in small scale agricultural production (Weasel, 2009).
With the widespread adoption of genetic engineering technology, regulatory policies such as patents have been formulated, subsequently allowing biotechnological organizations to reap from the patenting of indigenous knowledge without consent of the consumers (Azadi & Ho, 2010).
Though biotechnological firms suggests that genetic modification of foods is essential in addressing starvation and ensuring food security, the patenting of this technology and food has been perceived by many as being a potential threat to food security (Weasel, 2009).
Patenting of genetically modified foods gives biotechnology firms monopoly control, thus demeaning the sanctity of life. This technology has also enhanced dependency, whereby farmers have to continuously go back to the biotechnology firms to purchase seeds for sowing in subsequent planting seasons.
Being a relatively new technology, it is argued that genetic modification has not been well tested and, therefore, has not been accepted as the appropriate method of addressing problems relating to food safety and shortage.
Genetically modified food is regarded as unsafe because sufficient tests have not been carried out to show that the insertion and alteration of the genetic material could cause some unprecedented long term effects in another organism. Despite possessing positive attributes such as health benefits and food safety, many consumers are wary of these foods because of lack of proven safety testing (Goodyear-Smith, 2001).
There are also fears that the genetic material inserted into genetically modified foods often gets transferred into the DNA of commensals found in the alimentary canal of human beings. This may lead to production of the harmful genetically modified chemicals inside the body of the human being, even long after ceasing the consumption of such foods.
Prior to the widespread adoption of this genetic engineering technology in agriculture, many scientists and regulatory agents raised concerns that genetically modified foods were inherently harmful, and could trigger allergies, toxic effects, gene transfer to commensals in the gut, and could lead to emergence of new diseases and nutritional problems (Smith, 2003).
To date, no rigorous tests have been performed on the same to dispel these fears; instead, the biotechnology companies have been mandated to ensure that their foods are safe. The lack of any published human clinical trial and rigorous tests on genetically modified foods, therefore, leaves the toxicological safety of these foods unaddressed and makes humans to act as experimental animals.
It, therefore, remains unknown whether genetically modified foods could be contributing the rising cases of various ill health conditions such as obesity, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and reproductive problems among other diseases affecting the population. In most cases, the testing that has been performed involves evaluation of growth and productivity of the modified organism, and not in terms of environmental and health impacts (Azadi & Ho, 2010).
Gene transfer may affect the nutritional quality of foods as the transfer is likely to reduce the amounts of certain nutrients, while raising the levels of other nutrients. This causes a nutritional variation between the conventional foods and similar foods produced through genetic modification techniques.
Furthermore, few studies have been carried out to show the effect of nutrient alterations brought about by genetic engineering in relation to nutrient-gene interactions, metabolism and bioavailability (Goodyear-Smith, 2001). Critics of genetically modified foods, therefore, argue that little information is available to show how the alteration of food contents affect gene regulation and expression as these changes occur at rates that far overwhelm scientific studies, particularly in regard to pediatric nutrition.
Genetic modification of food involves the transfer of genetic material even between organisms belonging to different species. To biotechnology firms and other proponents of genetically modified foods, this approach helps in maximizing productivity and profits. However, many consumers, environmental conservationists and opponents of genetically modified foods perceive gene transfer across different species as causing a decrease in diversity (Weasel, 2009).
With the reduction of diversity, benefits such as resistance to diseases and pests, adaptation to adverse weather conditions and productivity also diminish. Critics of genetic engineering technology, therefore, suggest that application of this technology creates uniformity in organisms and decreases their genetic diversity, rendering them to increased risks of diseases and pests.
Transfer of genetic material also carries many environmental risks, especially in the event of wide cultivation of such crops. Some critics suggest that genetically engineered plants with herbicide and insect resistant traits could transfer these traits to wild plants, and subsequently lead to evolution of weeds that are difficult to eradicate.
These weeds could develop into invasive plants with the capability to decrease crop production and cause a disruption of the ecosystem. The genetically modified plants could also evolve into weeds, which will then require costly and environmental unfriendly means to eradicate (Krierbel & Epstein, 2001).
It is also possible for non-target organisms to become affected by the genetic engineering of food, thus further reducing diversity. It is a persistent concern that genetically modified foods such as pesticide resistant crops could cause harm to non-target organisms.
Some of the genetically modified crops could also alter the soil chemistry through release of toxins and decomposition of the plants after death. In addition, crops that have been genetically modified so as to tolerate higher chemical concentrations further perpetuate increased use of herbicides, subsequently causing greater concentration of chemicals in the soil (Smith, 2003).
The deliberate transfer of antibiotic resistance genes in genetic engineering may have severe health and environmental impacts. There are fears that these genes, which are antibiotic resistant, may be transferred to pathogenic microbes in the alimentary canal of humans and animals, thus conferring these microbes greater pathogenicity and subsequently contributing to the increasing public health issues (Weasel, 2009).
Genetic modification of food is applauded to be an appropriate method of ensuring that there is increased food availability, better nutrition and general improvement in the agricultural sector. However, many issues surround this technology, mostly centering on safety, health, cultural, social, and religious issues.
Most of the concerns regarding genetically engineering foods can be cleared by conducting expansive research to establish clear grounds on such issues. Unless concrete research is conducted to substantiate the benefits and potential harms of genetically engineered foods, majority of people will remain wary of genetically modified foods. In the end, the full potential of genetically engineered foods will not be realized.
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Bakshi, A. (2003). Potential adverse health effects of genetically modified crops. Journal of Toxicology & Environmental Health, 6(3), 211-25.
Goodyear-Smith, F. (2001). Health and safety issues pertaining to genetically modified foods. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 25(4), 371-375.
Krierbel, D., D. & Epstein, R. (2001).The precautionary principle in environmental science. Environmental Health Perspective, 109(9), 871–876.
Smith, J. M. (2003). Genetically modified foods have serious health risks: The science behind the Anti-biotech Movement. Conscious Choice. Web.
Uzogara, S. T. (2000). The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology Advances, 18(3), 179-206.
W.H.O. (2013). 20 Questions on genetically modified foods. Food safety. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/
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