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Genetically Modified Foods refer to foods obtained from crops whose genetic composition has been altered. This is done in two main ways: traditional selection and breeding, and use of scientific technology. Almost everyone in the world, including scientists, public officials, and religious groups, has been expressing concerns about the new way of confronting world hunger through genetically modified (GM) foods.
People have also been complaining about agribusiness because it only cares about making profit. Although GM foods are capable of resolving most starvation and malnutrition issues, as well as aiding in the protection and conservation of the environment, they pose various human health and environmental risks.
What Are Genetically Modified Foods?
GM foods are foods that are produced from crops that have been genetically altered through advanced molecular biology skills. Plants are genetically altered to increase their nutritional values to fight malnutrition around the world. Some plants are genetically modified to resist pests so that food security is available by ensuring good crops.
Before the advances in molecular biology skills, we were able to develop these qualities in plants by crossbreeding them, “marrying” one type of plant to another type. However, this still was not adequate because the world’s population increases by the millions per day and the creation of these hybrid plants is time consuming and not exactly successful. That is why genetic engineering is mostly used today instead of crossbreeding.
Genetic engineering cannot only alter plants to produce the desired outcome, it can do it precisely. One easy way to explain what scientists do is that they separate a gene from a plant that has the desired qualities and then insert the gene into the host plant’s gene. Any kind of genes can be used, an animal’s or a plant’s gene can be relocated to another plant. One of the most desired outcomes from a crop is the ability to grow tolerance to the effects of herbicide.
A good example of Genetic Modification Crop is the use of Bacillus thuringiensis genes in corn and other crops (Makoni and Mohammed-Katerere 303). Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occurring bacterium that generates a crystal protein that is toxic to caterpillars. When the gene of Bacillus thuringiensis is inserted into a corn gene, the corn becomes intolerable to caterpillars. In other words, the corn generates its own pesticide.
History of Genetically Modified Foods
The first ever genetically modified crops were produced in the 1980s. However, the earliest food to arrive in US supermarkets was Flavr Savr tomatoes, which were introduced in 1994. With a particularly solid skin, the Flavr Savr guaranteed a longer shelf life than nearly all other tomatoes (Zinnen and Voichick 31). Scientist had removed the gene that controls the softening of the tomato. Unfortunately, Flavr Savr tomatoes were discontinued due to their high market price.
Genetically modified foods make exaggerated promises for confronting a number of our greatest problems. Similar to all new technologies, the genetic modification of foods presents some risks, both recognized and unrecognized. Arguments surrounding GM foods usually focus on environmental and human safety.
According to the documentary film The Future of Food, a debate, whether the use of GM should be continued or discontinued, has been ongoing among farmers, giant biotech corporations, the government, and consumers. The genetic modification of Flavr Savr tomatoes is one example of how the government helped to introduce GM foods into the US market.
Before the tomatoes were brought into the market, Calgene had done several voluntary testing on rats that had consumed the tomatoes. They found lesions in the rats’ stomachs. Despite these findings, the government approved the tomatoes for sale in May 1994 (The Future of Food).
In 2001, Americans became aware that GM foods were part of their everyday diet due to the ingestion of genetically modified food by Grace Booth that sent her to hospital and late, she was diagnosed with severe allergic reaction. Since then, consumers have been active in the debate.
In 2002, a concerned mother in Oregon took the initiative to push for labeling of genetically modified products; however this campaign was defeated by the $4.6 million spent on the industry’s counter campaign. In 1992, the government helped promote GMO products again. Vice President Dan Quayle stated: “We will ensure that biotech products will receive the same oversight as other products instead of being hammered by unnecessary regulations.”
What he was actually recommending was that there should be no regulations at all on GMO products. GM food later was placed under the category generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The forces behind GM food received regulatory approval by claiming that the process is “substantially equivalent” to classical breeding practices and therefore should not be regulated.
There has been much corroboration between the giant biotech company Monsanto and the government. For example, Micky Kantor, who was secretary of commerce, also served as Board of Director of Mosanto and Lidia Watrud, an Environmental Protection Agency and also Monsanto researcher; and the list goes on and on. However, what truly allow farmers to go on producing GM corn are subsidies from the government.
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Prevalence and Involved Plants
According to the United States Department of Agriculture and the FDA, over forty plant types exist that have fulfilled all of the national requirements for selling (Sforza).
Examples of these plants include cantaloupes and tomatoes that have customized ripening traits, sugar beets and soy beans that are anti-herbicides, cotton plants and corn with improved resistance to vermin, and potato plants with the genes of chickens and giant silk moths to increase disease resistance. However, not all of these products have been available in supermarkets or grocery stores until now. Still, the number of GM foods that are available in US supermarkets is large.
Even though there are only a few wholly genetically modified vegetables, fruits, and crops available, almost anything else that is sold in supermarkets contains at least some amount of genetically modified ingredients, unprocessed ingredients come from several places. How would you like to know that your potato was mixed with chicken and giant silk moth genes or that your corn contains the genes of fireflies (Zinnen and Voichick 35)?
Benefits of Genetically Modified Foods
GM foods do have several benefits. These benefits are directly related to human health and the environment.
The first benefit of a GM food is pest resistance. Did you know that the total loss from pests account for 65–80% of attainable yields (Oerke and Dehne). These crop losses due to insect vermin can be overwhelming. Insects not only create devastating economic losses for farmers but also create malnutrition or famine in developing nation.
Another argument in support of GM foods is that every year agriculturists use several tons of chemical insect killers. It is proven that eating food that is treated with high amounts of pesticides may cause potential health hazards to consumers. Finally, the use of these pesticides and fertilizers may contaminate the water supply. At the end of the farming season, the land is washed away by water, and this water carries all the toxic chemicals, resulting in environmental pollution.
Planting GM crops such as corn that is inserted with Bacillus thuringiensis can help in eradicating the use of these toxic chemicals and decrease the market price because the yield of crops (supply) will be greater. Hence, potential hazards, environmental risks, and world hunger could be reduced.
The second benefit of GM foods is that genetic modification provides herbicide tolerance (“Herbicide Use and GM Crops” 1). Usually, farmers spray vast amounts of weed killers rather than eliminate them through physical methods, such as digging. Weed killers are easier to apply and longer lasting.
Through the use of GM crop plants, which can resist potent herbicides, environmental harm can be diminished by decreasing the quantity of herbicides used. For example, Monsanto has produced a strain of soybeans genetically modified so that the more tolerant to herbicide effect. A farmer cultivating these soybeans only needs to make a single application of herbicides instead of several applications, thereby decreasing production expenditure and the risks of agricultural-waste overspill.
The third benefit is disease resistance. A wide variety of fungi, viruses, and bacteria exist that can lead to the loss of crops through infection. Biologists are trying to produce plants with genetically modified resistance to these infections.
This will in turn lead to a healthier environment because fewer toxic substances will be introduced into the environment for disease-resistance purposes. Disease resistant crops will result in high food production because of reduced losses of crops in the field and few costs of disease prevention. This will ultimately lead to sustainable food security in the world.
The fourth benefit of GM foods is cold tolerance (Liang and Skinner 145). Unpredicted frost can annihilate vulnerable sprouts. Plants that are modified are less susceptible to temperatures that typically would kill unmodified sprouts through the use of antifreeze genes. For example, a gene from fish that live in cold water has been introduced in several plants that include tobacco and potatoes.
This gene is antifreeze and helps these plants withstand extremely cold environments that would otherwise destroy them. These plants will increases food production, which in turn solves some of the world’s hunger problem. In addition, it will also lower market value because greenhouses are not needed.
The fifth benefit is salinity tolerance. Because the world’s population has increased and more land is used to build shelter than to grow food, farmers will have to cultivate crops in places formerly inappropriate for plant farming.
Hence, there is a need for developing plants that can endure long phases of drought or high-salt conditions from the groundwater. For example, a tomato species that grows in salty environments has been developed.GM foods will help to increase food production in the world and hence counter instances of hunger in many parts of the world.
The sixth benefit is nutrition. Undernourishment is widespread in developing countries, where people living in poverty depend on a single crop like rice as the main food staple. One of the more recent innovations in the field of GM foods is the invention of golden rice, rice that has been genetically modified to contain beta-carotene.
Beta-carotene gives the grain a golden color. When it is consumed, the carotenoids transform into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A deficiency is a common cause of blindness and child mortality in underdeveloped countries. Other crops that have been genetically modified to increase their nutritive value include corn, cassava, bananas and sorghum.
They all have higher levels of minerals and vitamins compared to conventional types. Because the Rockefeller Foundation financed the creation of this rice, the organization is going to present rice seeds at no cost to any developing nation that needs them, with the aim of improving human health. Consumption of these biofortified foods could help improve the health of people in underdeveloped and developing countries.
The seventh benefit of genetically modified foods is their economic viability. The technology has been largely beneficial in developing countries where it is credited with creation of jobs and increased income. Genetically modified foods are high yielding and many employees are needed to handle the crops in all the stages of processing and storage.
For example, a recent study conducted in India revealed that Bt cotton, a genetically modified type of cotton, generates income that is 82% higher than the income generated by conventional cotton types. This gain in income contributes in the overall growth of the economy. Studies have shown that the income generated from Bt cotton, be it direct or indirect, raises the financial aggregate of India by $2 billion every year.
A large portion of this income goes to households that live below the poverty line. In china, income generated by Bt cotton is in the range of $1 billion dollars every year. Genetically modified foods are contributing significantly in alleviating poverty and growing the economies of countries such as Pakistan, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico and Burkina Faso.
The last benefit is in relation to pharmaceuticals. Vaccines and drugs often are expensive to manufacture and at times need storage environments that are not available in developing nations. Scientists are now trying to create harmless vaccines and drugs that will naturally occur in potatoes and tomatoes.
Bananas are also being genetically modified to cure hepatitis B (12 Bizarre Examples of Genetic Engineering: Banana Vaccines). Many fruits are now genetically modified by researchers to produce vaccines; however, banana is the most ideal. It will be easier to store these drugs and vaccines in the foods than to transport and direct vaccines injection, hence improving human health.
A key area of concern regarding GM foods is environmental safety. Critics and environmentalists are concerned about destruction to other species and the unintended effects of gene modification. Intended to fight pests, gene modification can disturb a range of balances in the environment. Studies reveal that pollen from B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn results in elevated death rates in Monarch butterfly caterpillars (Hellmich 1).
Monarch caterpillars use milkweed plants instead of corn as a host plant. However, the concern is that if pollen from B.t. corn is delivered by the wind onto milkweed vegetation in near regions, the caterpillars might consume the pollen and die. Sadly, B.t. contaminants kill several classes of insect larvae randomly. Currently, it is not possible to modify B.t. venom to destroy only crop-destructive pests and spare all other species right now, although in the future such advanced technology may be possible.
The rise of “excellent” weeds and “excellent” pests is also an area of concern. Crops that have been modified for herbicide tolerance and weeds might crossbreed as the windborne plant’s pollen migrates and thus create unwanted weeds (Tambornino 5). These enhanced weeds will likely be able to tolerate herbicides, so they will be more difficult to eradicate. Some farmers have decided to eradicate weeds by physical means.
GM foods also can carry a devastating effect on soil ecosystem. The chances for soil biota to be exposed to these genetically modified genes are high. Although there has not been a lot of research conducted in this area, it is proven that these B.t toxic remains active in the soil for 140 days more or less and it also affect insects.
These cause worries as these toxics can be passed on to other organisms that feed on these insects. This also would be a serious concern for poor farmers in developing countries who refused to use chemical fertilizers. It is because soil fertility will be reduced dramatically as these B.t toxins slow down the rates of decomposition and nutrient release that are done by soil organisms.
Another particular environmental hazard is the possibility for wild crosspollination to occur (“GM Foods Renewed Threat” 1). Other modified plants’ genes may intersect with normal crops placed beside GM crops. Related concerns involve the involuntary formation of new super pests that would be resistant to several insect killers. In a similar fashion that some bacteria grow tolerant to nearly all antibiotics in the human body due to the excessive use of antibiotics, GMO farming can result in pesticide-resistant “excellent” pests.
One such case study involves a legal suit brought by Monsanto. The corporation filed a patent violation against the farmers who they alleged were producing GM crops without using Monsanto GM seeds and paying Monsanto reimbursement (“Percy Schmeiser Stands Up to Monsanto”). However, it was found out later that the farmer’s crops had been polluted by another farmer’s GM crops planted a few miles away.
Another concern that GM foods bring with them are the chances of new allergies being produced (Tambornino 5). Data shows that almost a quarter of Americans show an adverse effect to one or more foods. Opponents of GMOs say that adding genes to plants can bring about extra food allergies and thus have adverse health effects.
Several children in Europe and the United States have experienced acute allergies to peanuts and other foods. Again, the suggestion to integrate a genetic material from Brazil nuts into soybeans was dismissed because of the fear of causing unanticipated allergic responses.
Several people are concerned that if one of the genes from a nut were transmitted to a new food crop, people with an allergy to nuts could unknowingly eat the allergen and suffer potentially dangerous effects. Therefore, the modification of genes from known allergenic foods is rejected unless it can be verified that the end product is not allergic. Developed foods usually are not examined for allergenic characteristics.
So far, genetically modified foods in the market have had no allergic consequences. However, because of the fear of having allergic reactions to food, the European Union (EU) decided to ban most imports of GM food. Recently, the EU banned contaminated honey with trace amounts of pollen from genetically modified corn from general sale (Phillips).
There is a rising fear that introducing “alien” genes into crop plants might have unanticipated and harmful effects on human health. The latest studies show that there are significant differences in the guts of rodents that consume genetically modified food and rats that consume unmodified food (Tambornino 5).
This study was done by Arpad Pusztai. After the trials, he found out that the all the rats are underweight but this is expected for a potato – based died. Disturbingly, upon dissection he found out that the rats that have been fed by GM potatoes have lower organs weight and depressed immune system.
This has been confirmed by him that the changes found in those rats were due to the DNA construct used regularly for making GM foods. However, most scientists say that GM foods do not pose human health risks. Therefore, a broad assessment of GM foods may be needed to ensure that GM foods will not harm people with food allergies. Classification of GM foods and foodstuffs will obtain new significance.
In conclusion, genetic modification can create plants that produce products with the desired features quickly and precisely. However, genetically modified foods have a large variety of impacts on human beings and the environment. A key area of concern regarding GM foods is environmental safety. The production of GM foods can kill other species, such as Monarch butterflies, and it can create wild crosspollination (i.e., the superweed).
GM foods can destroy the balance of nature and create a death cycle in which normal crops are modified to have higher tolerance to pests, and, because of their higher tolerance, pests become even more tolerant and hence stronger methods are required to control them. Surely, people just want what is best for everyone. Producers want to make profits, and consumers want a safe environment.
However, consumers should be the top priority here because they are the ones who fund the production of GM foods. It all falls in the hands of the consumers. Even if the government decides to fund the production of GM foods, what can it do if people reject the foods? How can producers keep insisting on producing GM foods as they watch their own environment deteriorate? At some point, the value of life will outweigh money. Until then, the selling of GM foods should be stopped until the science is perfected.
Currently, the risks and benefits of GM foods are almost equally balanced. The benefits and risks counter each other. However, there are still risks in GM foods. Scientists have said that they have not found any health concerns in humans when they consumed GM foods, but GM foods have had some effects on rodent test subjects. Researchers found that the rodents fed GM food showed significant differences in their stomachs from rodents that were fed non modified food.
Despite these concerns, GM food is still widely available in supermarkets. Are you willing to risk your family’s and your health by consuming these products? Throughout the years, the secrets of GMO have been buried by Monsanto. If GM foods are safe, why is Monsanto trying so hard to conceal GM ingredients or to cover up the fact that these GM foods are harmful to rodent test subjects? Now that the truth is out, it is up to you to decide what to believe and what changes to make.
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