Genetically Modified Foods
Over the last few years, genetically modified foods have raised a contentious debate over their suitability in the U.S. market and in other parts of the world. For instance, the European environmental organizations have actively protested against the after effects of the genetically-modified maize pollen grains on organisms such as butterflies. In reaction to the above criticisms, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has done the best possible to organize meetings in different locations such as Chicago and Washington to acquire people opinion on the matter and kick of the process of setting up new regulatory procedures for the government’s endorsement of this kinds of foods. The deliberations of such meeting often revolve around the following details.
Genetically modified foods are also referred to as the genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They refer to plants created through the advanced molecular biology methodologies intended for purposes of human or animal use. The plants are developed in the laboratory with the intention of boosting particular traits that will enable the plant grow faster or survive better under certain conditions. The improvement may border on increment of the nutrient content or on enhanced resistance to certain herbicides. Initially, the process was achieved through interbreeding of the animal or plants to give rise to an organism with the desired traits. However, the time required and the inaccuracies involved by the entire process makes the initiative inappropriate. With genetic engineering, the desired trait can be improved rapidly and with the desired level of accuracy. For instance, the scientist can identify the gene responsible for drought resistance in a particular plant and incorporate it into another plant. The resultant plant will have gained the desired drought resistance trait enabling it to survive in dry weather conditions. Genes refer to the unique group of instructions that determine how a particular organism develops, grows and survives. They are contained in the DNA strand. The transfer of genes can be extended to occur between non-plant organisms and plants. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), a bacteria appreciated for its ability to generate proteins that are poisonous to insect larvae, have been incorporated in corn. This enables the corn to defend itself against insects by generating pesticides.
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There are different methods of gene-transfer. Among the most recognized is the use of soil bacterium as a go-between. Scientists apply Agro bacterium mechanism of naturally changing the genetic composition of a plant and causing it to have outgrowths. Instead of the outgrowths, they transfer their desired genetic composition to the plant. This method has been particularly useful in the development of plants, which take a longer period to grow such as tree species, whose alteration by the conventional breeding would be too slow. However, the method is often not applicable to a large number of cereal crops. Therefore, an alternative method has to be applied.
An alternative method is ballistic impregnation. It entails sticking the new DNA onto the tungsten particles and incorporating them into the plant tissue. In certain instances, the plant cells may take up the genetic composition of the metal pellets. To obtain the modified plants, the cells are developed into new plants through tissue culture. This method has been applied in the development of specific cereal crops. Alternatively, electroporation can also be used. This method works best with plants that do not have cell walls, for instance, pollen tubes. Pulses from a strong electric field are used to achieve the momentary appearance of pores in plant cells creating an opportunity for the entry of the surrounding DNA. The pulses used should form micro to millisecond pulses. Recently, a more advanced but similar method is used to achieve the same aim. Microscopic crystals curve holes into the plant cells, creating an opportunity for the new DNA composition to enter the cell. Alternatively, DNA is directly injected into the chloroplasts that have their own DNA. Since only female plants possess the chloroplast DNA, the resultant plants have the inability to transfer the genes to new plants through pollen grains.
The above techniques only result in a small proposition of the modified cells, acquiring the new DNA. To distinguish these successfully modified cells, marker genes linked to the DNA fragments before the transfer exercises are used. The present market genes permit the plant to grow in the presence of a certain herbicide or a particular antibiotic. However, studies to come up with alternative marker genes are ongoing. The process above may be complicated by the effect of undesirable genes, such as the excessive fruit-softening gene. To prevent this, antisense technology is applied in neutralizing the effect. The technology can also be used in checking the rate of viral infection (Hurtado and International, 2000).
The process of genetic engineering, as already perceived, is not always successful. In certain instances, the introduction of new genes to a plant can interfere with its normal operation. The introduced genes may fail to respond as per expectations or inhibit the normal functioning of the native genes. Scientists have often noted that certain modifications can lead to a reduction in the nutrient content of the resultant plant compared to that of the parent organism. For instance, an attempt by German scientists to boost the starch content in potatoes with the help of yeast and bacteria genes resulted in the reduction of the starch content instead. The result was due to the production of an unexpected compound.
A significant process that is often overshadowed by genetic engineering is that of genetic mapping. This entails the determination of the location and possible action of the plant gene to enhance the accuracy, with which the traditional plant breeding is conducted. The process fosters the quick and precise detection of the enviable characteristics of the plant under consideration. The process of identification can often be tedious and so the same gene may be used repetitively. For instance, the gene ‘pat’, which renders opposition to a specific weed killer, has been extensively used in more than six modified crops that are sold in the European and the U.S. market. Such plants include the GM maize, sugar beet and soya among others.
Advantages of the GM foods
The present world population is growing at an alarming rate. Demographic statistics indicate that the current world population is about 6 billion people and is set to double in the next half of a century. The land available, however, does not increase in the same rate (Hurtado and International, 2000). Therefore, if unchecked, there could be a food shortage for future generations. GM foods offer a solution to this looming danger in the following ways:
Pest resistance: every year, millions of crops are lost through pest infection, leading to staggering losses to the farmers. Often, the result of this is starvation particularly in developing countries, where people depend entirely on agriculture as their source of livelihood. To put such occurrences at bay, farmers prefer to meet the costs of spraying their products with pesticides to ensure the rate, at which their products are destroyed, is checked. Consumers, on the other hand, are unwilling to consume products that have been treated with the pesticides for fear of the potential health risks associated with such acts. Moreover, the excess pesticides, used in the farms, can often get to water sources such as rivers leading to water contamination, which is again unhealthy for human and animal consumption. Therefore, the cultivation of foods such as B.t. corn goes a long way in countering the need for the application of the pesticides to the farm products. This does not only reduce the health risks, associated with the use of pesticides, but it also cuts down the costs incurred by the farmers in cultivating and selling the crops. Consequently, the market price of the commodities is considerably reduced.
Herbicide tolerance: for certain crops, such as wheat, the process of weeding through physical methods such as tilling is too tedious. Farmers, therefore, opt to spray herbicides that kill the weed and leave the plant to grow. The process is not only time consuming but it also results in the pollution of the environment besides increasing the production cost incurred by the farmers. Crops can be modified to resist the effect of one particular powerful weed and, hence, eliminate the need to use the herbicides. For instance, scientists in Monsanto have come up with a genetically-modified soybeans crop that resists the influence of herbicide termed as roundup. Once grown, the plant only demands the use of a single weed killer, rather than several that could increase the costs and further degrade the environment (Hurtado and International, 2000).
Resistance to diseases: many of the diseases that affect crops are caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria. Botanists spend numerous time and costs in research to come up with the most appropriate ways to develop plants that resistant to these organisms.
Adverse weather: certain locations are prone too adverse weather conditions such as extreme cold due to frost. Alternatively, other areas may be victims of such weather on occasional basis. Such conditions are often unfavorable particularly for seedlings and, therefore, appropriate measures have been developed to alter the situation. An antifreeze gene extracted from cold water fish is incorporated into plants such as tobacco enabling the plant to withstand very cold temperatures better than ordinary tobacco seedlings.
Drought resistance: there are various locations in the world that are unsuitable for plant cultivation. However, with growing rate of population increase, there may be a lead to extend the agricultural activities to these areas. Since the areas are too dry, genetic engineering can be used to modify plants with drought resistant genes such as those found in cacti. This will boost the plant’s ability to grow in high salt levels, especially during drought and, thus, offer alternative means of livelihood to people in these areas (Green, 2007).
Nutrition: a common occurrence in the developing or third world countries is the prevalence of malnutrition. This occurs mainly because the locals depend on one particular food crop as the main source of food, for instance, rice. Such food crops only offer a few nutrient combinations that are not sufficient to set off the malnutrition. Genetically modifying the rice to improve its nutrient content can greatly help alleviate the problem faced by these communities. Blindness, a condition that can result form the lack of vitamin A, is a prevalent condition in the third world countries. For instance, Swiss researchers have come up with a new strain of rice that contains a high content of vitamin A. Such a product could greatly assist the third world countries that depend on rice as a source of livelihood.
Pharmaceuticals: most third world countries do not manufacture their own medicines or vaccines. They are forced to import the drugs from the developed countries, which again require specialized facilities for their preservation. Since majority do not have the specialized storage facilities, the medicines and vaccines end up being helpful for a short period of time. In lieu of this, researchers have come up with edible vaccines that can be incorporated in plants such as tomatoes and potatoes. These plants reduce the complexity in the storage and administration of the vaccines.
Phytoremediation: so far, the paper only studied GM plants as food crops. However, GM foods can be grown for alternative purposes. For instance, contamination of the soil by heavy metal pollution can be neutralized by planting genetically modified plants such poplar trees.
Disadvantages of GM foods
There are numerous disadvantages that can result from the use of GM foods. First, alteration of the genetic composition of the plants may cause the plant to be harmful to an animal that depends on it as the source of its food. Secondly, widespread use of the genetically modified foods could make the insects to develop resistance to the new strains and, thus, lead to huge crop losses (Green, 2007). The genetic modification, especially between plant and non-plant organisms, could cause complications for people with medical issues such that doctors restrict to consume certain products such as meat. Similarly, the breeding process can result into the development of insect resistant weeds. Others could have allergic reactions in the body (Weirich, 2007).
Difference with other traditional foods
There is a general perception among the public to perceive the traditional plants as safer in comparison to the GM foods. Any foods developed through natural methods such as interbreeding are often considered as healthy. However, such a process could result in the alteration of the existent attributes of the plant in a favorable or unfavorable way. In such instance, the national authorities may be required to assess the outcome but there are many cases, when such incidences go unchecked. Therefore, plants, modified through the natural process, rarely face the strict assessment procedures (Santaniello et al., 2002).
GM foods, on the other hand, have to undergo the various assessment checks conducted by the national authorities that are meant to single out products that are liable to risk and, where applicable, make the recommended corrective measures. WHO assists the national authorities in the different countries in effecting these procedures.
Human health concerns
GM foods have raised controversies all over the world over their potential risks on the health of human beings. Scientists argue that the before the sale of the GM, the potential risks on people’s health are assessed through several methods. The products are initially tested for toxicity, and then, for their probability of causing allergenic reactions. The products are checked to ensure they do not contain certain components that have undesired toxic nutritional properties and the gene introduced is stable (Santaniello et al., 2002). The nutritional advantages that may result from the genetic modification and the undesired effects from gene insertion are determined.
There are numerous concerns raised as pertains to human health. They include the following (Freedman, 2009):
Allergenicity: getting genes from foods that are considered allergenic is discouraged, unless in situations when the trait isolated is proved to free of the allergenic properties. Though the conventional foods are not usually tested for allergenicity, all GM foods have to undergo the test as per the set standards. Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) and World Health Organization (WHO)are charged with responsibility of ensuring all the GM foods that go to the market meet the above standards.
Gene transfer: genetic transfer of bacteria to the GMOs, especially through the intestinal walls, can result in adverse health complications. This can only occur if the transfer is possible and the bacteria under consideration are harmful to humans. However, research by leading WHO scientists has identified the likelihood of transfer as relatively low and, thus, permitted genetic engineering ignoring antibiotic resistance (Freedman, 2009).
Outsourcing: this refers to the shifting of the genes of the GMOs into the traditional crops or other related wild species. It can result form the mixing of the two crops consequently affecting the food security. For instance, traces of a maize strain intended for consumption by animals was found in maize intended for humans. The most advisable procedure is to ensure the separation of the two crops. A lot of effort is being made to ensure the GM foods that are sold in the market do not result in any harmful effects on humans whatsoever.
In analyzing the environmental risks, associated with GMOs, the crop and the recipient environment are put into consideration. The GMO is evaluated based on its attribute and their overall effect on the surrounding environment. Unintentional effects that could result from the insertion of the gene are also evaluated. The concerns checked include: possibility of the GMO’s genes insertion into other wild crops; the exhaustion of the gene in the soil after the modified plant has been harvested. The environmental safety aspects of the GMOs are dependent on the surrounding.
The process of introducing the GM foods to the market is not as easy as it may be thought to be. There are numerous costs involved to the extent that the producing companies have patented the crops. However, patenting could consequently lead to the increase in the food prices that the farmers in the third world countries may not benefit from the initiative. They would go a long way in increasing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Non-profit companies such as Rockefeller foundation should sponsor such initiatives to prevent the increase in the prices of the foods.
The patenting process may also prove to be difficult since once the product is sold the farmers can use a portion of the harvest as seeds for the next season. This will prevent the patenting company from making any future sales. Genetic engineering companies such as Monsanto have researched on the possibility of introducing a ‘suicide gene’ that ensures the harvested product cannot be used as a seed the next season. This would, however, prove a complex venture for the farmers in the third world countries.
Prevalence of the GM crops
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined more than forty plant strains that have passed the GM standards for commercialization. Some of the plants include tomatoes that depict modified ripening characteristics, sugar beet that exhibit resistance to herbicides and cotton strains that are resistant to insect pests. Though not all plants are readily available in the market, the U.S. grocery industry has a considerable number of genetic foods already in circulation. While only a few genetically modified fruits are sold in the supermarkets, the processed products rarely contain large quantities of the GM foods.
Statistics from the USDA and ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) indicate that more than ten countries were already growing genetically modified foods by the year 2000 with the U.S. being at the lead. So, beans are the most widely grown GM foods, followed closely by cotton and potato strains. Over the last five years before the year 2000, the rate of GMO growth has increased more than twenty five times.
Regulation of GM foods
Though governments all over the world work to ensure they regulate the assessment process of the GM plants, the strategies used by each state are dependent on the political, social and the climatic environment of that country. For instance, before 2001, the health testing of GMOs was voluntary but since April that year, the government shifted its stand and made the process compulsory. Though the supermarkets in the country offer both GM foods and the conventional foods, consumers are biased to the consumption of the traditional foods.
By the same time, India had no set up policy that governed the production of the GM foods. Moreover, the foods were yet to reach the market. However, there are measures that have been instituted lately requiring that all the GM foods pass a particular procedure. Given India’s nature of wealth distribution and demographic details, GM foods are perceived as the most readily available source of livelihood (Freedman, 2009).
Countries like Brazil, on the other hand, have banned the importation of GM foods from other countries. However, the farmers have opted to smuggle the GM foods for them to be favorably placed in the grain-exporting business. In the United States, the governing of the GM foods at different stages complicates the entire process. The EPA is charged with responsibility of ensuring the GM plants are environmental friendly, USDA determine safety in growth of the product, while FDA determine whether the plant is safe for human consumption. These are all measures to ensure the plants are consumed without having adverse effect on the life of humans.
GM foods labeling
There is a contentious debate on whether the GM foods should be labeled for easy identification by the public. Agricultural institutions agree that the labeling of the products should be a voluntary action that will be dependent to the market forces in the market. However, activists believe that the public should be aware of what they are consuming. Since it is clear that a majority of the people prefer the traditional products, they should be informed to make the appropriate decisions (Weirich, 2007).
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