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In the past decade considerable progress has been achieved in the fields of genetics and genomics. Genetic engineering is a popular topic of environmental and public health research. Genetic engineering holds a promise to enhance and ensure continuous agricultural productivity of the most popular crops. Recent advances in biotechnology can potentially expand the pool of agricultural resources available to humanity. Increased herbicide and pest resistance are the major benefits and the greatest promise of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop resistance to pests. Soil conservation is an important benefit of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering leads to increased yields. Transgenic crops facilitate preserving natural habitats. Genetic engineering is one of the most reliable ways to improve the nutritional value of foods. Genetic engineering can potentially improve the quality of wine-making, brewing, and baking yeasts. Genetic modifications have proved to be extremely useful in biofuels production: genetic processes improve biomass characteristics and increase overall biomass yield.

Despite its benefits, genetic engineering is not without problems. Environmental and public health risks of genetic engineering reduce its utility and relevance. Certain genetically modified plant traits can result in the invasiveness of wild plants. Invasiveness of genetically engineered plants adversely affects soil fertility and animal populations. Contemporary biologists, ecologists, and farmers lack adequate instruments to predict biological invasiveness of genetically engineered plants. Genetic engineering may reduce the competitive strength of the newly designed plants. Engineered organisms may be genetically unstable.

Objectively, genetic engineering is associated with numerous economic benefits and serious drawbacks. Simultaneously, the real effects of genetic engineering on the environment remain unclear. Future research is needed to ensure that genetic engineering benefits the public and enhances the efficiency, productivity, and safety of commercial agriculture. In the conditions of population growth and food scarcity, such research will help to reduce the risks of genetic engineering and, simultaneously, expand the pool of available agricultural resources.

Pros and Cons of Genetic Engineering

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The end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty first centuries have been marked with the rapid advancement of genetic engineering technologies. Population growth and food scarcity turn genetic engineering into a promising source of agricultural, social, and economic benefits. In the past decade considerable progress has been achieved in the fields of genetics and genomics, turning genetically modified foods into an essential ingredient of people’s daily routines. Despite the growing body of literature, the advantages and potential drawbacks of genetic engineering remains poorly understood. The potential benefits of genetic engineering cannot be overestimated: increased pesticide and insect resistance, better yields and improved quality of soils are just some of the various genetic engineering achievements. Simultaneously, the effects of genetic engineering on the environment and public health raise the questions of safety and usefulness of genetically modified foods. Genetic engineering is associated with a number of benefits and costs, but future research is needed to ensure that genetic engineering benefits the public and enhances the efficiency, productivity, and safety of commercial agriculture.

Genetic Engineering: The Emerging Agenda

Genetic engineering is a popular topic of environmental and public health research. The risks and benefits of genetic engineering have been abundantly documented. Nevertheless, many pros and cons of genetic engineering remain poorly understood. This being said, a detailed review of various scientific arguments could help to create a more detailed picture of genetic engineering and its agricultural potential. Basically, “genetic engineering, or recombinant DNA (R-DNA) technology, offers many opportunities for improving agriculture and public health” (Pimentel et al., 1989, p.606). This type of technology crosses the boundaries of traditional plant and animal breeding and entails the transfer of important, desirable gene traits between absolutely different organisms (Pimentel et al., 1989). It is interesting to note, that in present day world nearly 90% of the entire food supply is provided by only eight livestock and 15 crop species (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996). In the meantime, the number of species inhabiting the biosphere ranges between 10 and 30 million (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996). In this sense, genetic engineering holds a promise to enhance and ensure continuous agricultural productivity of the most popular crops. Recent advances in biotechnology can potentially expand the pool of agricultural resources available to humanity.

Pros of Genetic Engineering

The benefits of genetic engineering are too numerous to be listed in one paper. It is clear that increased herbicide and pest resistance are th major benefits and the greatest promise of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop resistance to pests (Pimentel et al., 1989). Consequentially, the amount of pesticides used in crop production can be reduced (Pimentel et al., 1989). The effects of pesticides and herbicides on the environment are well documented, but with the help of genetic engineering these effects can be successfully managed. In 1998 alone, 8.2 million fewer pounds of pesticides were used on cotton, corn and soybeans, compared with 1997 (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). Certainly, the adoption of genetically engineered crops is not the only factor of pesticide use in agriculture: variations in the amounts of pesticides and herbicides used are also attributed to changes in weather, differences in cropping approaches and technologies, and even consumer preferences. However, genetic engineering can become a promising source of sizable benefits in agriculture: in 1998, due to the adoption of genetically modified crops, the amount of pesticides used in the U.S. decreased 1% (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). 

Genetic engineering can increase the efficiency of pest control. Of particular interest is the Bt toxin gene. The latter was developed from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium, and was later introduced in more than five dozens of crops (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996). Plants that possess the Bt feature exhibit remarkable pest resistance qualities (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996). Engineered Bt makes plants resistant to beetles and caterpillars; the gene is officially approved for use as an insecticide (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996). Compared to 1995, in 1998 the growing usage of Bt corn in Europe led to considerable reductions in acreage affected by agrochemicals (Wolfenbrager et al., 2000). The issue of insect resistance is of great importance in trees. Raffa (1989) discussed the rationale for genetic engineering in trees and claimed that the use of insecticides in forests was ineffective, infeasible, and damaging to the environment. The use of pesticides in forestry is associated with considerable costs: many forests occur in inacceptable, immense territories, and trees demand huge vertical coverage which must sustain over more than one growing season (Raffa, 1989). In this sense, genetic engineering of trees and its benefits are compatible with the benefits of conventional insect control strategies. These, however, are not the only benefits of genetic engineering.

Soil conservation is an important benefit of genetic engineering. Herbicide-resistant crops facilitate a productive shift from conventional to conservation tillage models of agriculture (Wolfenbrager et al., 2000). With the help of genetically engineered crops farmers can eliminate all types of preemergent herbicides that damage the soil and, instead, use postemergent herbicides (Wolfenbrager et al., 2000). For example, glyphosate is a popular postemergent herbicide that guarantees relevant protection of crops against insects and pests and causes little damage to the soil. Genetic engineering promises to reduce the scope of soil erosion and increase its organic matter (Wolfenbrager et al., 2000). Genetic engineering leads to increased yields. Transgenic crops facilitate preserving natural habitats (Wolfenbrager et al., 2000). This is particularly the case of the developing world, where agriculture makes up a lion’s share of countries’ productive capacity. Finally, genetic engineering is one of the most reliable ways to improve the nutritional value of foods.  

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Genetic engineering can potentially improve the quality of wine-making, brewing, and baking yeasts (Dequin, 2001). Professional farmers realize that even the slightest changes in crop quality can profoundly alter the taste and characteristics of the ultimate product. Genetic engineering benefits wine-makers as it allows modifying only one characteristic, without affecting other properties (Dequin, 2001). Genetic engineering is of particular relevance in flocculation – the process that involves “asexual aggregation of cells into flocs and their subsequent removal from the fermentation medium by sedimentation” (Dequin, 2001, p.578). Previous attempts to reconstruct the flocculation process have failed, but genetic engineering can become an excellent solution to the current flocculation problems. Genetic engineering has proved to be extremely useful in biofuels production: genetic processes improve biomass characteristics and increase overall biomass yield (Sticklen, 2006). In biofuels manufacturing, genetic engineering can be used in three different ways. First, plant genetic engineering can help to decrease the lignin content and, subsequently, reduce the costs of pretreatments (Sticklen, 2006). Second, genetic engineering can be used to increase the production of endoglucanases, β-glucosidases, and exoglucanases that are responsible for converting cellulose into glucose (Sticklen, 2006). Third, genetic engineering can be used to modify photosynthetic pathways of plant growth, leading to increased plant biomass (Sticklen, 2006). This is how genetic engineering can benefit the humanity.

Cons of Genetic Engineering

Despite its benefits, genetic engineering is not without problems.. Environmental and public health risks of genetic engineering reduce its utility and relevance. The difficulties associated with genetic transfer are at the heart of the genetic engineering debate. Simply stated, genetic engineering can result in the transfer of novel DNA sequences to other genera and species (Pimentel et al., 1989). The growing commercialization of genetically engineered plants is believed to pose a serious threat to the environment. Certain genetically modified plant traits can result in the invasiveness of wild plants (Snow & Palma, 1997). As a result, genetically modified plants increase the need for weed control (Snow & Palma, 1997). Invasiveness of genetically engineered plants adversely affects soil fertility and animal populations (Snow & Palma, 1997). Pesticide resistance is another area of public concern: commercialization of genetically engineered plants leads to the fast selection “for insect pests that are resistant to these pesticides, thereby shortening the useful lifespan of environmentally friendly pesticides” (Snow & Palma, 1997, p.88). Certainly, few genetically engineered plants become invasive, but genetic engineering by itself produces changes that enhance other organisms’ ability to transform into an invasive plant (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). Contemporary biologists, ecologists, and farmers lack adequate instruments to predict biological invasiveness of genetically engineered plants. Fecundity-survival comparisons alone cannot ensure the validity of such predictions (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). The multitude of factors affecting newly introduced species and their evolution do not allow for an effective and truthful assessment of invasiveness risks. 

Genetic engineering may reduce the competitive strength of the newly designed plants. Engineered organisms may be genetically unstable (Pimentel et al., 1989). For this reason, when placed in the native habitat, the engineered plant may experience a serious competitive disadvantage against the unchanged plant (Pimentel et al., 1989). Genetic instability means that the newly designed plant will be quickly excluded from the native habitat; the process of natural selection will hardly favor a plant that lacks genetic stability. Eventually, the modified plant will transform into a pest (Pimentel et al., 1989). In this case, genetic engineering will become absolutely disadvantageous and even dangerous to the environment. Statistically, almost 50% of current pests were once harmless organisms (Pimentel et al., 1989). The Colorado potato beetle is one of the brightest examples of such transformations. The beetle used to feed on wild sandbur but, with the introduction of genetically engineered potatoes, the beetle came to feed on the new organism (Pimentel et al., 1989). With time, the beetle turned into a pest, leading to increased use of new pesticides (Pimentel et al., 1989).   

Genetic engineering is responsible for numerous indirect effects on the environment. For example, animal species may suffer the effects of bioaccumulation, when they consume prey items with pesticidal proteins (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). New viral-resistant plants can lead to the development of new viral diseases, through heteroencapsidation and recombination (Wolfenbarger et al., 2000). Unfortunately, empirical evidence to support and predict these transformations is scarce. Objectively, the real benefits and drawbacks of genetic engineering remain unclear. Future research is needed to improve the scientific and empirical knowledge of genetic engineering and its implications for human and environmental health.

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Objectively, genetic engineering is associated with numerous economic benefits and serious drawbacks. Simultaneously, the real effects of genetic engineering on the environment remain unclear. The probability of environmental problems following a single release of the genetically engineered plant is difficult to predict (Pimentel et al., 1989). Previous successful releases of genetically modified plants may create a public picture of safety, but these perceptions are highly misleading. In reality, the more confident the public is that genetic engineering is safe the more likely problems are to occur. The effects of genetic engineering on the environment vary greatly in their severity (Pimentel et al., 1989). The situation is particularly difficult with exotic plants, which may either displace native species or place additional pressures on the native ecosystems (Pimentel et al., 1989). The environmental consequences of even the most popular genetic engineering systems and modifications are yet to be defined. For example, the consequences of the massive use of Bt toxins in the major crops have to be defined and analyzed (Paoletti & Pimentel, 1996).  

In this paper, the pros and cons of genetic engineering were presented. Genetic engineering is associated with a number of benefits and costs, but future research is needed to ensure that genetic engineering benefits the public and enhances the efficiency, productivity, and safety of commercial agriculture. In the conditions of population growth and food scarcity, such research could help to reduce the risks of genetic engineering and, simultaneously, expand the pool of available agricultural resources. 

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