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Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms that have had their DNA altered through laboratory engineering to produce entities expressing a set of desired physiological characteristics (De Vendômois et al. 590). The history of GMOs can be traced back to ancient times when they were first improved via selective breeding. Although the breeding concept was adopted in the 18th century, it was not until the 1930s that the aspect of manipulating DNA was made public.
With the knowledge of DNA, scientists could produce organisms with their required traits, which could be aimed at enhancing their survival and production levels. In fact, the history of the subject indicates that such activities were performed in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to the large-scale applications of GMO technologies in firms. Traditionally, it was common for livestock and plant breeds to be altered and modified through interbreeding of specific species to develop offspring with desirable traits (Sanvido et al. 88).
However, genetic modification is much more complicated than that, since the technologies applied to enable scientists to alter the species at a molecular level. This is done through the introduction of genes even across species to get results that would have been otherwise impossible (De Vendômois et al. 590). This paper will focus on three key issues surrounding the GMO debate namely, labeling, safety and their feasibility in addressing food shortage issues in third world countries.
Proponents of GMO technology argue that it commenced centuries ago in simplified forms since even the ancient men discovered selective breeding. This enabled them to selectively breed wild varieties of grass, which resulted in the precursors of modern staples such as wheat and maize. Another evidence of genetic modification can be seen in the breeding of animal species by crossing domestic breeds to create dog verities from the wolf such as the Great Dane or Chihuahua.
Even in ancient times, people “made” breeds of animals that could be adapted to the harsh environment of their needs. For example, the mule has been used as a pack animal for centuries, which is a cross between a mare and donkey. It has the stamina of a horse and the endurance of a donkey making it more adaptable for long distance travel than the parent species.
In addition, while animals are rarely genetically modified, a robust fraction of the food they consume is GMO, which essentially transfers some of the characteristics to them. Despite the development of GMO technology, there has, however, been considerable debate over the health concerns of GMOs and this has brought about issues such as labeling of GMO foods (De Vendômois et al. 590). Labeling of GMOs was “introduced to give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and traditional products” (Herrick 286).
Therefore, when food is produced through GMO technology; it should be indicated on the label (Herrick 286). However, this has proven to be a highly complicated process that requires a great deal of regulation and planning, not to mention legal issues that must be addressed. There are two fundamental reasons why labeling of GMOs has been proposed and supported in many countries; these are transparency and freedom of choice (Herrick 290).
First, it is impossible for anyone to declare with absolute certainty that GMOs are either good or bad. If such was the case, the developers of GMOs, just like the opponents, would not need to spend so much time and money on testing their products for possible health risks. In addition, some of the perceived risks of GMOs may not be identified in a species until several years or decades are passed (De Vendômois et al. 590).
Therefore, in as much as there may be proof that they are not a threat to human health; there are no alleged proofs of the contrary by the opponents of the technology. Consequently, for the sake of transparency, it is critical that consumers are given the choice between GMOs and naturally grown products. The transparency issue should also be considered in line with the unintended consequences of the technology.
Even assuming that GMOs are perfectly safe for the sake of the following hypothesis there are still several concerns that might require GMOs to be labeled for the sake of transparency. For example, since around 99% of the agricultural products in the US are genetically modified, many of them have been altered to make them resistant to pesticides and herbicides. As a result, farmers tend to apply herbicides heavily since they have no fear of harming the crops.
The downside is that a lot of the products could be contaminated albeit on the outside especially if it is not thoroughly cleaned. In addition, the herbicides and pesticides will contaminate the soil and water in the farm harming the organism therein. When food is labeled, the consumer can hold producers responsible for their actions so, should they engage in unethical practices, they could be taken into account (De Vendômois et al. 590).
Again, it is worth noting that a major cause of the current health crisis, more so in the US, is because people do not appear to care what they eat anymore. Consequently, by labeling their products, GMO producers will empower consumers with the knowledge of what they are consuming so they can make informed choices. However, while labeling is mandatory in the UK and the US, the government does not support it on the basis that there is no conclusive evidence proving that they are any more or less harmful than conventional food.
Consequently, while in Europe, one can not always tell whether they are consuming GMOs or not, in America the producer is under no obligation to provide this information to consumers. While the US system has been criticized for not being transparent enough, it should be noted that even the products not labeled as GMO in Europe may be misleading.
For example, meat or milk produced by unmodified cows may be considered GMO-free, but given the possibility that the cow consumed GMO corn, this label could be incorrect. Therefore, irrespective of which side of the labeling debate one supports, he or she must concede that the matter is not as simple as it would appear given the deliberate or accidental interaction of the products before they are processed (Lewison 445).
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As aforementioned, there has been no conclusive proof that GMOs are indeed harmful to humans (De Vendômois et al. 590). However, there are myriads of safety concerns most of which are based on speculative albeit theoretically sound grounds. Scientists claim that “there are several potential health effects that could result directly or indirectly from the insertion of external genes into an organism” (De Vendômois et al. 590).
These include the creation of allergens, an increase in toxicity or resistance to antibiotics among others. It is important that one recognizes that although a great deal of research is put into the production of GMO, the science is still partly experimental since it is not possible at present to accurately predict all the possible outcomes of a product.
Food allergy is a major safety concern since it affects approximately 5% of children and 2% of adults in the United States, which has made it a serious threat to public health (De Vendômois et al. 590). Admittedly, there has been no confirmed report of allergic reactions to GM food. However, evidence suggests that some GM food could cause such complications, and this has resulted in some GMO developments being discontinued.
Another cause for concern is the matter of increased toxicity in plants. Many of the plants that humans consume have a certain level of toxins in them, which is usually harmless due to their quantity. Nonetheless, some scientists have expressed concern over the possibility of higher toxin levels resulting from the insertion of exotic genes in plants (Hill 268).
This could end up increasing the level of toxins making them harmful to humans and animals; in addition, there is a possibility of genes interfering with original metabolic pathways hence the production of more toxins (Tolin and Vidaver 572). As aforementioned, these effects have not actually been discovered in plants.
Nonetheless, similar impacts have been observed in cross-species breeding in which potatoes conventionally bred to promote disease resistance were found to produce a high level of glycoalkaloids (Hill 269, Hug 85). This has contributed to the health concerns pertaining to the safety of GMO products.
While GMOs can be modified to produce a specific nutritional advantage over conventional crops, they have been in some cases found to have lower nutritional quality than traditional counterparts. For example, “phytate is a compound in seeds and grains that can be digested by birds, but not humans” (Tolin and Vidaver 569).
Therefore, when the seed species have been modified for mineral production, the consequence could be an increase in phytate production, which would make it inappropriate for human digestive systems. Another possible threat is resistance to bacteria since in the recent past there has been a marked increase in the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which evolved because of mutation (De Vendômois et al. 590).
However, it is not known what kind of resistance can occur since no one has ever observed a case where bacteria incorporated new DNA from human or animal digestive systems (Tolin and Vidaver 569). In addition, the “antibiotic bacteria used by biotechnologists are also found in nature so the process cannot really incorporate new resistance” (Finke and Kim 40).
This notwithstanding, the FDA has been encouraging them to minimize and gradually phase out the use of antibiotic-resistant genes since it is still not known exactly what they portend. However, despite the safety concerns, some companies are attempting to show that GMOs are not just beneficial to the farmers, but the consumers as well (Keese 128).
One of the main justifications for the development of GMO food is that it provides an opportunity to enhance food security in third world countries (Clark 48). A growing body of evidence suggests that GMOs do indeed result in increased farm yields as well as environmental and even personal health benefits by reducing the levels of malnutrition because of increased food quantities (Clark 48). When they were “first commercialized in 1996, six nations around the world planted around 1.7 Million hectares of the GM crops” (Clark 48).
This went up to 148 million in 29 nations, 19 of which were in the developing world. GMOs quickly became the fastest growing crop technology in modern agriculture (Sanvido et. all 88). South Africa, which is one of the biggest economies in Africa, is among the nations that have benefited in terms of food security from the production of GM crops.
The success stories in this and many other nations have contributed to fuelling the claims that GMOs can make a significant contribution to increasing food security in other countries, such as the Philippines and India (Finke and Kim 37).
In the Philippines, for example, Monsanto, a biotechnology firm, developed a genetically engineered strain of rice that had been infused with genes from viruses and daffodils that were used to make it produce beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A (GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines).
The idea was to use the rice, which is a staple in the country to provide the population with a readily available source of vitamin A normally found in greens and meat that are out of rich for thousands of the nation’s poor. It is estimated that over a million children die each year as a result of vitamin A deficiency, while over 350,000 go blind from the same (GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines).
The rice was deemed as Godsend since its consumption would save many lives in the country. However, this has resulted in controversy since there are many people who are opposed to the idea that GMO food is the best way to solve the food shortage. Some opponents argue that food shortage is not a matter of quantity, but access. In addition, the GMOs being experimental resulted in further opposing since the consumers cannot be 100% sure that there will never be negative impacts in the future.
This negative attitude was demonstrated in the Philippines after plots that had been planted with this rice variety were vandalized by protesters. They were of the opinion that GMOs were being used to take advantage of them and make the nation dependent rather than self-sufficient. One of the issues that fueled the controversy is the fact that more money was used to advertise than produce the rice (GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines).
This creates the impression that Western firms may be more interested in profit than anything else. In a televised debate on the incidence of vandalism on rice fields, Miles O’Brien, speaking for the GMO producing firms, argues that such actions only undermine developments that could potentially save millions of lives (GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines).
At the end of the day, there is no sure way of knowing if GMOs are as harmful as the opponents’ claims they are. Nonetheless, it is also quite a challenge for the proponents to prove that society has nothing to fear about GMOs. Therefore, in most cases, people simply have to make decisions based on their opinions or needs since there has so far been no clear-cut answer.
The development of GM technology is inevitably going to keep expanding with scientific advancement, and there is little doubt that the level of consumption will keep increasing. Ideally, the developers, governments, and society will work in collaboration to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm so that GMOs can be utilized for the good of all humanity.
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GMO debate grows over golden rice in the Philippines. Ex. Prod. O’Brien Miles. New York, NY: PBS Video. 2014.
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