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In the past century, we have witnessed the birth of Dolly the sheep, advances in in-vitro fertilization, organ transplants, and nutritionally enhanced food, all of which fall under the very controversial topic of cloning and gene modification. These dramatic advances in biotechnology have spurred many ethical debates as well as questions by many philosophers, researchers, scientists, as well as people in dire need of these advancements for medical reasons. On one hand, from a utilitarian perspective, bioengineering is essentially creating, the greatest good for the greatest number, by possibly eliminating life threatening diseases, malnutrition and prolonging human life. On the other, it provokes fear among humans that one-day bioengineering may advance so far, as to be able to clone human beings. Despite these fears, we can see how the genetic modification of food is a positive advancement in technology. Life can be prolonged and enhanced with cures for diseases, higher yielding crops and more nutritionally enhanced food, which benefits everyone globally. Genetically modified food is most frequently used to refer to crop plants created for human consumption using the latest bioengineering techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content (Curtis et al., 2004). Genetically modified (GM) foods that we consume are usually modified to grow in a more robust and sustainable manner.
Scientists generally agree that genetically modified foods can offer direct and indirect health benefits to consumers globally. Direct benefits can come from improving the nutritional quality of foods (e.g. Golden Rice), reducing the presence of toxic compounds (e.g. cassava with less cyanide), and by reducing allergens in certain foods (e.g. groundnuts and wheat). A statistical report from the UNICEF in the year 2004, globally finds that Vitamin A deficiency affects 127 million preschool children, compromising their immune systems and putting them at an increased risk for blindness. Severe iron deficiency anemia causes deaths of an estimated 50,000 women a year during childbirth. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy causes as many as 20 million babies annually to be born mentally impaired. On analyzing the data we can conclude that the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in children's diet is responsible for their impaired intellectual development, compromised physical and mental potential, and their poor health. Malnutrition continues to be a major public health concern throughout the developing world, particularly in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (World Health Organization, 2004). War, political instability, lack of infrastructure, poor economic conditions, poverty and hunger are some of the factors contributing to malnutrition in developing countries. The severity of the tsunami emergency highlighted the urgent need to provide multiple micro nutrients to children aged 6-59 months and to pregnant and lactating mothers during emergencies. It is absolutely critical that we find solutions to prevent human beings from suffering the devastating consequences of vitamin and mineral deficiency, especially in children. Part of the solution has been the use of genetically modified foods to feed the under-developed countries of the world and eliminate malnutrition.
The world population has topped 7 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years (Cohen, 2005). Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to` come. Based on the data there is a need to produce inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods to help feed the world's growing population and eliminate hunger in developing countries. The use of genetically modified foods has significantly improved nutritional value and helps to cope with malnutrition and health problems. These crops contain additional nutrients that are lacking from the diets of many people in developing countries. Based on the most recent estimates from UNICEF, sixty-two countries fall under high priority category, because of high mortality rates in children less than five years of age who are deficient in vitamin A. One solution to this problem is the introduction of Golden rice in their diet, which has been modified to provide enhanced levels of ß-carotene, in order to help prevent vitamin A deficiency.
Currently, there is a wide use of plants that can be genetically modified to produce vaccines or other medicines. Cholera is an infectious disease caused by a microbe that travels from the host to water and then continues to infect people. It occurs more rampantly in Africa and India although it still occurs around the world (Breithaupt, 2004). Even though there are vaccines, they provide minimal protection and they also have sensitive storage requirements. Currently research is paving the way for genetically modified rice that functions similarly to a vaccine and can also remain viable for well over a year when kept at room temperature. Together the Vibriocholerae (the cause of cholera) and Escherichia coli (a toxin-producing source of "traveler's diarrhea") - account for about three million infant deaths a year, mainly in developing nations (Langridge, 2000). Scientists are in the process of developing edible food vaccines using a potato, placing a high priority on combating diarrhea in the third world countries. These edible foods would basically act as a storage tool for delivering the vaccine. It is a very simple and non-invasive system, since it does not require needles or refrigeration, and has many advantages over traditional vaccines. This vaccine induces immunity against the bacteria and can thus prevent gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea associated with Cholera in people around the world. This would allow cheap and easy distribution of the vaccine, but research is still at an early stage.
Iron deficiency is one of the most pervasive nutritional problems in the world. According to the World Health Organization, between 4 and 5 billion people suffer from iron deficiency and an estimated 2 billion are anemic. Women and young children are most vulnerable, up to 50% of pregnant women and 40% to 50% of children under the age of five in developing countries are iron deficient. Iron deficiency and anemia take a huge toll on the lives and productivity of both adults and children alike. In some areas of Yemen, up to 80% of the population suffers from iron-deficiency anemia. It also has poor medical care and significant problems with malaria and intestinal parasites, both of which can exacerbate anemia (Nelson, 2001). Iron-folate supplements during pregnancy help prevent anemia in the mother, while folate prevents severe neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, in the fetus. Thus eliminating anemia must be approached from several directions like food fortification, genetically modified crops high in iron-folate supplementation, parasite eradication, malaria control and improving obstetric and reproductive health care. Folic acid fortification of grains is a cheap and very effective way to eliminate folate deficiency. The United States has required that enriched grains must contain 1.4 parts per million of folate, an action that was followed within months by a near tripling of serum folates in the population (Nelson, 2001). Genetic modification of wheat and corn crops enhanced with iron around the world offers the possibility of eliminating folate deficiency for 75% of the world's population (World Health Organization, 2004).
In industrialized countries like the United States, Great Britain, Canada and others, most people do not suffer from under-nutrition, but they suffer from over-nutrition. Obesity is a major health problem in adults and even in children. As we all know, we should avoid greasy fries and sugary sodas and follow a perfect balanced nutritional diet. If we can not take the junk food away from our diet, maybe we can take the “junk” out of food, but keep the taste in. now there are modified potatoes that absorb less fat when fried, forever changing the ever-popular fries from junk food to a more nutritional food. By altering the potato genes, to decrease the water content and increase the starch content the potatoes will soak up less oil. Some restaurants pay a premium price for high starch potatoes, because they make crisper and less greasy fries. Other possible ways to make a healthier fries is to produce genetically modified healthier oils. Scientists have already modified plants like soybean and canola to produce low saturated fatty oils. Future plants may provide even healthier oils which can strip away fatty deposits from our arteries and this will significantly decrease the rate of atherosclerosis (Knight et al., 2005). But what about that sugary soda with our fries? Scientists are working on that, by modifying the sugar beet to produce an enzyme that converts sugar (sucrose) to fructan. Fructan tastes like sugar, but we cannot digest fructan so it adds no calories. Scientists have also cloned the gene for a protein in an African plant that tastes a thousand times sweeter than sugar (Knight et al., 2005). We could get the same sweetness with a thousand times less sweetener and it is calorie free. These advancements in genetically modified foods can help eliminate obesity in industrialized nations.
Worldwide, Diabetes has become a very serious disorder that affects millions of people leading to increased health complications. It is a metabolic disorder that is caused due to the inability of the pancreas to produce insulin which, in turn, tries to regulate the blood sugar levels in the body (Morin, 2008). Diabetes causes a number of complications including cardiovascular disease, chronic renal failure and retinal damage which can further lead to blindness. The usual treatment of diabetes includes diet, exercise, as well as oral medications to maintain adequate blood sugar levels and insulin treatments. The insulin gene has been studied extensively to help a number of diabetics cope up with the disorder, especially for those suffering from Type 1 diabetes. In this type of diabetes, the body's immune system itself attacks and destroys insulin as well as the cells that produce the hormone in the pancreas. Without the insulin, the body is not able to convert sugar and other foods into energy that the body uses.
Currently, diabetic patients inject insulin subcutaneously which enables the hormone to go straight into the bloodstream. There has been a recent study that is aims to produce insulin capsules in the future using lettuce plants, which can be cultivated cheaply and this may be possible with the help of genetic engineering. This research will help prevent diabetes even before the symptoms of the disorder appear or effectively treat diabetes in its later stages (Daniell, 2007). This study has a greater significance in the advancement of diabetes treatment as an alternative means of introducing the insulin hormone in the body. By genetically modifying the insulin hormone into the plant cells of a parent plant, the cell walls would be able to help prevent the insulin from degrading. Insulin would then be released as the plant cells reach the human intestine, where the bacterium begins breaking down the cell walls. Eventually when insulin is produced from lettuce, it can be administered in capsules and would be a more convenient approach for the treatment of diabetes, rather than injecting insulin daily (Daniell, 2007). This development would be welcomed by millions of diabetics worldwide and can help reduce the costs of treating diabetes dramatically.
Indirect health benefits of genetically modified foods can come from reduced pesticide usage, lower occurrence of toxins in plants causing insect or disease damage, increased availability of affordable food and the removal of toxic compounds from soil. The topic of poverty is one that is saturated with emotion and challenges. On a global scale, poverty affects hundreds of millions of adults and children every single day (Qaim, 2003). The issue of how to reduce or ideally, alleviate poverty is a complex one that has virtually endless factors and opinions. Genetically modified foods are among one of the proposed solution to an issue that will likely require a great number of solutions to successfully improve its outcome. A major benefit cited for the use of genetically modified foods to reduce poverty is that they can significantly improve product yields. By improving yields, a greater number of starving people can be fed and will have access to the genetically modified foods. Not only that, but these massive yields could still be produced more economically than conventional crops with smaller yields, thereby allowing consumers to better afford the foods as well. However, it is a positive step that people are discussing poverty and searching for ways to reduce this devastating global issue that influences everyone. For populations that tend to survive on only a small number of staple foods, this would allow them to improve their nutrition without the challenges and costs of introducing new foods to the diet. Genetically modified foods are seen as a way to prevent and treat malnutrition by working with the current staple foods of a country.
When it comes to genetic modification of the plants, the soybean initially comes to mind. Genetically modified soybean is one of the most widely cultivated plants in the world today. Genetically modified soybean is an important crop because its by-products are used to develop other side products. Soybeans are used as feeds and supply the proteins needed by livestock to grow worldwide. Soybeans are also found in oil mills, where the oil is extracted and further refined for edible use. Other by-products from soybeans are processed to become essential food ingredients and additives. Most processed foods today may likely have a soy by-product as an ingredient in one way or another (Manavalan et al., 2009). According to the 2004, World Health Organization statistics the world's leading soybean producers are the United States (33%), Brazil (27%), Argentina (21%), and China (7%).
Some plants are modified to be resistant to bacterial, fungal or viral invasion. Examples include research on sweet potatoes to improve viral resistance and bananas modified to resist the Black Sigatoka fungus. If untreated, the fungus can reduce banana yields by as much as 70% (Schmidt, 2005). Many crops have been modified to withstand environmental stresses like drought, heat, frost, acid or salty soil. Scientists have isolated genes from plants that can survive prolonged water stress in desert conditions and introduced it into the rice plant. This modification in rice produces a sugar that protects the plant during dehydration, allowing it to survive periods of drought. In addition to food crops, there has been on going research in plants ranging from production of attractive flowers that bloom longer to trees that can clean up mercury contamination in soil. Some of these methods can also be used to preserve endangered plant species. Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically modified to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil via phyto-remediation. Some microorganisms can be used in the environment as biological control agents or for the bioremediation of environmental damages like oil spills (Whitman, 2000). Nowadays, foods are being developed to contain more vitamins, minerals, protein and less saturated fat. For example, fruits and vegetables with higher levels of antioxidant vitamins are produced to help reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease.
These are just some of the benefits promised by genetically modified foods and organisms globally. The debate over its benefits and safety, however, continues. Do we really need to fear mutant weeds, killer tomatoes, and giant corn and will the benefits be delivered? Some people believe that genetically modified crops are unnatural and we should expand sustainable organic farming instead of Green and Gene Revolution technologies. Organic foods are not the same as genetically modified foods. Organic farmers battle insects by rotating crops and using friendly ladybugs. They mulch and weed instead of spraying herbicides and they use manure instead of synthetic fertilizers. Organic farming is appealing, but it cannot feed the world. Most organic farms are small and cannot mass produce food for huge populations. In general, organic farming does not produce comparable yields per acre, so it uses more land and costs more. Also, using uncomposted manure can increase the danger of bacterial contamination in food. Many farmers in the developing world are “organic”, but not by choice (Frewer et al., 2003). They are subsistence farmers with few resources, who can barely grow enough food for themselves. Often, they cannot afford animals that produce manure for fertilizer. They have no means to fight the plant diseases and pests that destroy their crops. Alternatively genetically modified crops are useful tools for these farmers.
In the United States, food regulatory authorities require that genetically modified foods receive individual pre-market safety assessments (Curtis et al., 2004). This means that an existing food is compared with its genetically modified counterpart to find any differences between them. The assessment investigates for toxicity using similar methods compared to those used for conventional foods, tendency of modified foods to provoke any allergic reaction, stability of the gene modified and any other unintended effects.
Future envisaged applications of genetically modified organisms are diverse and include medication delivery via edible foods, bananas and potatoes that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B and Cholera, metabolically engineered fish that mature faster, fruit and nut trees that offer yield years earlier, foods no longer containing properties associated with common intolerances, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties. While their efficacy in commercial production has yet to be fully tested, the next decade may see exponential increases in genetically modified product development as researchers gain increasing access to genomic resources that are applicable to organisms beyond the scope of individual projects. Safety testing of these products will also, at the same time, be necessary to ensure that the perceived benefits will indeed outweigh the risks and costs of development. Plant scientists, backed by results of modern comprehensive profiling of crop composition, point out that crops modified using genetically modified techniques are less likely to have unintended changes, than are conventionally bred crops (Singh et al., 2006).
Genetically modified food seems to have already changed the world today. They have a tremendous potential to solve world's hunger, malnutrition problems, help protect and preserve the environment by increasing crop yields and by reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides. China itself is expected to have half of all its fields growing genetically modified foods within next five years (McMichael, 2001). Scientists have gained a vast knowledge of genetic modification and are now able to turn the impossible into the possible. Genetically modified foods have brought a lot of commercial benefits; increased crop quality, harvesting quantity, pest resistance, herbicide resistance, nutrient supplementation, edible vaccines and more. Not only have the crops improved, but more crops are produced in less space, perhaps even solving the world's overpopulation problem. Although the benefits of genetically modified foods seem fantastic, like a Pandora's Box it might seem beautiful on the outside, but could be deadly on the inside. Genetic modification may cause serious consequences to our future, as well as next generations to come. Yet there are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling all of which are required for this new technology to truly be impressive. The use of genetically modified crops, in appropriate circumstances, has shown great potential by significantly improving health of malnourished, micronutrient deficient and hunger related issues in developing countries. The possible costs, benefits and risks associated with a particular genetically modified crop can only be assessed on a case by case basis. It is important for the consumer to ask the question: How does the use of a genetically modified crop compare to other alternatives? If consumers are well informed and educated, they are capable of making healthy choices. There is an ethical obligation to explore the potential of genetically modified crops responsibly. Many scientists feel that genetic modification of food and organisms is the inevitable wave of the future and we cannot afford to ignore a technology that has such enormous potential benefits. However, we must proceed with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to human health and the environment as a result of our enthusiasm for this powerful technology.