Genetic modification of crops and food stuffs is one of the major controversial debates in the world. There have been doubts on the safety of genetically modified foods especially in the area of human health and environmental degradation. Many people have fears that their health could experience unforeseeable effects by altering the genetic content of a plant. Genetic modification might have resulted to the growing of pesticide and herbicide tolerant plants but the new technology has dangerous effects on human health and the environment. Genetic modification of crops has led to reduced effectiveness of herbicides and pesticides, transfer of genes to species that are not targeted, and has caused harm to important organisms. It has also caused allergies to most people in different parts of the world and raised economic concerns. Though the supporters of the new technology argue that it has led to increased crop yields and alleviation of nutrition deficiencies, genetic modification has obviously caused more harm than good.
Genetically modified foods have been used widely in the 21st century and have splashed in the media lately. Public awareness groups and European environmental agencies have been frequently protesting against genetically modified foods and crops for years, and the latest controversial studies regarding the effects of GM corn pollen on sovereign butterfly caterpillars have prompted the issue of genetic engineering hence bringing it to the front position of public awareness in the United States. As a result, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has held three public meetings in Washington D.C., Oakland, California, and Chicago to importune opinions by the public and start the procedure of establishing an effective regulatory method for government sanction of genetically modified foods. GM foods have resulted to adverse effects especially in regard to environmental hazard, human health risk, and economic concerns. In respect to this, the government should discourage the growing of genetically modified crops and establish policies that ensure GM foods and crops are labelled (Institute of Medicine U.S. Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health 23)
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Genetically modified foods and crops refer to plants scientifically created for animal or human consumption using the most recent molecular biology techniques. Basically, these crops are modified in the laboratory to improve nutritional content. Traditionally, enhancement of plants nutritional content was achieved through breeding but such conventional crop breeding methods proved to be time consuming and not quite reliable in terms of accuracy (Ferry and Gatehouse 59). On the other hand, genetic engineering creates crops that rapidly exhibit the exact desired traits with great accuracy. For instance, it’s possible for a plant geneticist to cut off a drought tolerance gene and insert it to a different plant. Consequently, the genetically-modified plant will become drought tolerant after acquiring the essential gene. Surprisingly, it’s also possible to transfer non-plant organisms besides the plant-to-plant gene transfer.
The Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis, genes transfer to crops such as corn is a good example of non-plant organism’s genes transfer. Bt is a bacterium that occurs naturally and produces insect larvae lethal protein crystals. Moreover, the Bt protein genes are transferred into corn, making it possible for the corn to generate pesticides of its own for instance the European corn borer (Ferry and Gatehouse 60). Pesticide resistant rape plant is on of the genetically modified crops. Scientific researchers have introduced a foreign gene to the rape plant which gives the plant the capability to resist certain pesticides. Consequently, a farmer is able to safely spray his genetically engineered rape plants with pesticides and destroying harmful pests without killing the crops. However, there is a possibility that the introduced genes may be transferred to the pests hence making them resistant to the pesticide as well and the plant spray becomes ineffective (Institute of Medicine U.S. Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health 24).
In this context, it’s possible for rape plants to pollinate the navew weed which occurs in rape crop fields. The navew weed acquires resistance to pesticides after gaining the introduced genes from the rape plants. Another example of GM crop is the golden rice which has been genetically engineered to increase its nutrition content by introducing an extra amount of vitamin A. More precisely, golden rice contains the beta-carotene element which is converted into vitamin A by the human body. Beta-carotene is the element responsible for the orange colour found in carrots and the golden colour in this particular rice. However, for the rice to produce beta-carotene, two genes from daffodils and one from bacterium must be implanted (Ferry & Gatehouse 60).
The study on genetically-modified crops/foods is very important and adequate information is required to determine the possible downfalls of the new technology. Books by reputable authors will be used to gather sufficient information on the topic. Additionally, relevant articles touching on the current progress of the new technology will also be used to realize recent discoveries.
Natural breeding techniques have been used safely for the past numerous thousands of years. On the contrary, “Genetically modified plant technology abrogates reproductive processes that occur naturally, selection takes place at the single cell stage, the process is extremely mutagenic and more often than not breaches genera barriers even after being in use for about ten years. In spite of these differences, the assessment on the safety of genetically modified crops is often based on the “substantial equivalence” idea such that “In case a new crop or food is found to be considerably equivalent in nutritional and composition characteristics to an already existing crop/food, it may be regarded as harmless as the conventional food/crop” (Gordon 144). Nevertheless, a number of animal studies designate serious health risks linked to GM crop/food consumption including dysregulation of genes related to synthesis of cholesterol, accelerated aging, and protein formation.
Religious organizations, Environmental activists, professional organizations, public interest groups, and other government and scientist officials have raised their concerns about genetically modified foods/crops. Agribusiness pursues profits showing minimal concern for possible environmental and human health hazards as well as economic concerns.
Reduced pesticide and insecticide effectiveness; most insects and pests are likely to develop resistance to Bt just like some mosquito species have developed resistance to DDT pesticide which has already been banned from the market. In addition, there is a possibility that insects and pests may develop resistance to pesticides produced by genetically-modified crops. This will eventually lead to destruction of large amounts of crops both in the field and in the store.
Harm to other organisms: In reference to a laboratory study published last year, 2009, pollen from Bacillus thuringiensis corn caused a high rate of deaths in monarch butterfly caterpillars. These caterpillars do not consume corn but milkweed plants, but there is a possibility that pollen from Bt may be blown by wind onto the neighbouring milkweed field and hence the caterpillars will consume them and die. Even though the study wasn’t conducted on natural field, the results are likely to support this viewpoint. Unfortunately, Bacillus thuringiensis toxins indiscriminately kill many insect larvae species, its impossible to produce a Bt toxin that only kills pests that are crop-damaging and remain safe to other insects (Heller 227). However, this study is under re-examination by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA, and other non-governmental research agencies. Interestingly enough, data from recent studies suggests that data from the original study may not have been accurate. Currently, the debate on the results of these studies is still on-going, and the possible risk of harm to organisms that are not targets will need further evaluation (Institute of Medicine U.S. Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health 50).
Gene transfer to non-target species: Another major concern is that crops modified for herbicide tolerance and field weeds might cross-breed, hence leading to the transfer of the resistance genes from plant crops into the adjacent weeds. The resulting weeds will be "super" and are more likely to become tolerant to the herbicide as well. Other new genes may cross into non-engineered plant crops adjacent to GM crops. The interbreeding possibility is shown by the farmers’ defence against labelling of GM foods. A good example is the Monsanto case, where the company has filed exclusive rights intrusion lawsuits against GM crops farmers (Gordon 144).
The only possible ways through which GM crop farmers can resolve these environmental hazards is by creating male sterile plants. This will ensure that non-target species do not receive new genes from GM crops. On the other hand, the farmers can modify the GM crops in a way that the pollen doesn’t consist of the introduced genes. Consequently, there would be no possibility of cross-pollination and harmless insects would survive after consuming pollen from GM crops (Ferry and Gatehouse 121).
Another probable solution will be creating buffer zones around GM crop fields. For instance, non-GM corn can be cultivated to surround a Bt. GM corn field, although the non-GM corn should not be harvested. Harmless or beneficial insects would take refuge in the non-GM corn, and pests can be allowed to wipe out the non-GM corn field without developing resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides. The wind-blown pollen will not cross over to weeds or other crops since the buffer zone wouldn’t let it. Nonetheless, this planting method maybe unpractical if large buffer zone acreage is required (Ferry and Gatehouse 150).
Human health risks
Allergenicity: Allergy emergence is one of the most common human health threat posed by genetically modified foods (Puszta 2001). In the event of genetic modification, a protein with allergic effects could be transferred to a different crop. Additionally, allergic effects could be exacerbated through the biotechnology process, and new proteins that become allergens could be created in GM crops. For example, lots of children and grown-ups in Europe and the United States have developed allergies that are life-threatening to foods such as peanuts. There is likelihood that plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. A good example is the Brazil nut-to-beans genes transfer proposal that was rejected because of its possible allergic reactions. However, GM foods may require extensive testing in order to avoid possible consumer harm through allergies (Gordon 144).
Unknown effects on human health: Transferring or introducing alien genes into food crops may result to unexpected negative effects on human health. An article recently published in Lancet scrutinized the effects of genetically-modified potatoes on the digestive system in rats. This study argued that there were significant differences in the intestines of GM potato fed rats and those of rats fed naturally cultivated potatoes. Until now critics argue that this results, like the monarch butterfly data, is faulty and doesn’t hold up to scientific examination. Furthermore, the gene transferred into the potatoes was lectin, a snowdrop flower already known to be poisonous to mammals. The research scientists who produced this variety of potato decided to use lectin gene just to test the methodology, because these potatoes were not intended for animal or human consumption (Gordon 143).
Introducing GM foods to market is a costly and lengthy process, and certainly agri-biotech companies aspire to ensure a cost-effective return on their investment. Several new plant genetic-modification technologies and GM crops/foods have been unapproved and patent breach is a great concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are concerned that patenting the new plant varieties is likely to raise seed prices so high such that small-scale farmers and third world nations will be unable to come up with the money for GM crop seeds, thus increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. People are hoping that in a compassionate gesture, more non-profits and companies will offer their products at a fair cost to poor countries (Ferry and Gatehouse 172). Enforcement of patent may turn-out to be difficult, as the farmers’ contention that they unwillingly grew Monsanto-modified strains when their crop plants were cross-pollinated. Introducing a "suicide gene" into GM plants would be an excellent way of contesting possible patent breach. These crop plants would be feasible for one planting season and would produce seeds that don’t germinate since they will be sterile. Farmers would have to purchase a fresh supply of planting seeds yearly. However, this would strain farmers financially especially in third world nations where they cannot afford to purchase seeds every year (Ferry and Gatehouse 173).
In contrast, genetic-modified crops have been known to exhibit pest resistance. Insect pests can cause serious crop destruction and loss, hence resulting in distressing financial loss for farmers and prolonged starvation in third world countries. Most farmers buy and use many tons of insecticides and pesticides yearly. Moreover, pesticides can cause potential health hazards and excessive use can contaminate water sources and the environment. Cultivation of genetically-modified crops can eliminate the need for pesticides hence minimizing on costs. However, this method may harm pests that are important for crop growth processes such as pollination. Apart from this, genetically-modified plant crops exhibit herbicide tolerance. Considering that physical weed removal may not be cost-effective for certain crops, farmers are forced to spray large quantities of herbicides to destroy weeds which is expensive and time-consuming. Cultivating plant crops that are genetically-modified to resist a powerful herbicide might help in preventing environmental contamination by minimizing on the herbicides used.
Despite the risks involved in genetic-modification of crops/foods, the biotechnology industry continues to claim that genetically-engineered crops can feed the entire world by producing higher crop yields. Nutrition Malnutrition has been reported to be a major problem in developing countries where poor people depend on crops such as rice as their key staple food. Nevertheless, such foods do not contain sufficient amounts of nutrients necessary to prevent malnutrition. If such crops were to be genetically-modified to contain extra minerals and vitamins, deficiencies of nutrients could be alleviated. However, an up to date report by Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed twelve academic studies and indicated that GM foods form a small percentage of the worlds’ produced food. Bt. corn proved to be the only exception since a high yield in GM corn was reported. As a matter of fact, the report further sated that the significant increase in crop yields was as a result of improvements in traditional breeding (Institute of Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health 101).
Genetically-modified foods/crops may be the potential solution to many of global malnutrition and hunger problems, and to aid in preserving and protecting the environment by minimizing dependence upon chemical herbicides and pesticides, and increasing crop yield. Nevertheless, there are several challenges ahead for farmers and national governments, particularly in the areas of, international policy, regulation, safety testing, and GM food labelling. Needless to say, genetic-modification is the inevitable future wave and that the society may not afford to ignore this technology though it has several dangers which outweigh its benefits to both the consumer and the farmer. However, members of the society must carry on with caution to avoid causing environmental hazards and unintentional harm to human health as a result of enthusiasm for this new technology.
Considering that GM foodsposeserious healthrisks in the areas of allergy, reproductive health, metabolic, and immune function, farmers ought to adopt the precautionary principle. This principle is the key European Union environmental regulatory tool and health policy which has formed numerous international agreements. The precautionary approach is to be applied by nations in accordance with their capabilities in protecting the environment. In case of serious threats of irreversible damage, presence of limited scientific certainty should not be utilized as a reason for postponing gainful measures to prevent degradation of the environment. Bearing the precautionary principle in mind, physicians should educate the public, patients, and the medical community to avoid genetically-modified foods if possible and offer educational materials on health risks arising from GM foods. Moreover, the scientific and medical community should gather information related to health effects resulting from the consumption of GM foods. This may include conducting research on safe and effective methods of considering GM foods effects on human health. Lastly, implementing long term labelling and safety testing methods of genetically-modified foods/crops will be an important factor.
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