Debates on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
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- Leif Swan
- Kisha Hawkins-Sledge
The debate of whether genetically modified foods are helpful or harmful has been getting more and more intense. GMO's were touted as essential product in feeding the world but Genetically Modified Organisms and crops are a controversial topic and the world is still hungry. GMO's have not been around long enough, and there is not enough research on the long-term effects of genetically modified foods to feel confident about their widespread use in our food supply. In recent years GMO's have gained a lot of attention from the media and proponents of organic food. We need to understand what GMO's are, what purpose they serve, and what makes them different from other food processes that have been used for centuries.
Many people have heard the term GMO but don't fully understand what it actually is. For a proper analysis of what genetically engineered food is, it must be defined along with its history and the terms necessary to understand the argument against its use. This will be followed by the analysis of the varying positions and valid concerns for and against GMO's and why I am not in favor of using GMO's for our food. In order to fully understand why GMO's are detrimental and unnecessary for society, we need to understand the risks and potential consequences to demonstrate why people find them so controversial. Finally, I will conclude with measures for increasing knowledge of GMO's and possible actions on proper labeling of foods that contain GMO's.
Food is an essential part of healthy living for any human being and animal. The consumption of food provides nutrition that is required in order for a living organism to produce energy to maintain and grow the natural body functions. Food has been obtained throughout history by hunting for live game, gathering plants, fruit, and farming. However, in developed worlds and society, most of our food is obtained from our grocery stores, which are supplied by the food industry. Less developed country’s are also important to the discussion of GM crops as they are victims of the bio-tech industry and food industry as well.
The food industry is involved in all facets of our consumption, from every step in the growing process, to the research and development of food, processing, slaughter of animals, and the packaging and marketing of food. As a complimenting component to the food industry, society has instituted the monitoring of food safety. Food safety involves preventing food born illnesses, insuring healthy ingredients, packaging, labeling and proper dietary standards. The oversight of the food industry is carried out by organizations like the Food and Drug Association and the World Trade Organization – WTO (About FDA).
Obtaining food is a complex process whether it is done by an individual, community or the food industry. Many factors affect the availability of food including the earth's climate, biological diversity, population, and water supply. The inability to obtain the proper caloric intake and the right amount of vitamins and minerals results in malnutrition. This is caused by a lack of nutrients from a proper diet and can lead to health issues and even death. Strangely enough, Americans have a problem with overeating while children throughout the world, even our own neighbors and people in our communities starve (Cunningham 157). This one of the issues that GMO's and GM crops were meant to address.
Science has long been intertwined in increases food production. Whether it was the hybridization of two plants or Louis Pasteur discovering that heating milk to a temperature of 161°F killed harmful bacterial that affected fermentation causing food to spoil, this “which contributed greatly to the improvement of food hygiene”(Campbell-Platt 86). GMO's are a culmination of our previous scientific advancements. Previously, the process for modifying food was selective breeding and hybridization and it has been with our food for centuries. Plants have male and female sex organs and hybridization is the process of creating a new plant organism with the traits of another. The simple way to accomplish this is to take the pollen, not the dust but the sticky string like masses, from one plant and use it on a different plant which results in a cross of the two (Iannotti). This process involves the selective breeding and growing of more beneficial fruits, vegetables and crops and the mating of similar but different animals such as a donkey and a horse or different breeds of dogs.
GM crops are altered by having genes with a specific purpose or feature added to their own DNA (Cunningham 169; Brittanica). Plants have been hybridized for centuries, but the process is slow and doesn't always produce the desired results. Modifying plants and crops at the genetic level is accurate and pretty much guarantees the successful creation of a transgenic plant (Thompson 3). These altered or new genes can do pretty much whatever is needed by the circumstance (Brittancia). Crops and fruits can be modified to resist spoilage, have thicker skin to prevent bruising, increases a crops ability to grow in a harsher or completely different environment that it would normally grow in, produce more viable fruit or grain and lastly be resistant to herbicides and pesticides. One of the greatest threats to crops is weeds and "dominant transgenic crops are engineered to tolerate high does of herbicides” (Cunningham 172). In addition genetically modifying crops allows them to become resistant to “drought, frost, or diseases” (Cunningham 172).
“Genetically modified (GM) foods were first approved for human consumption in the United States in 1995” (Brittanica GMO). "Will GMO's help feed the world or lead to more disparity (Cunningham 173)?” When GMO's and GM crops were in development I remember reading science books that touted them as the answer to feeding the world. "The first application of GMO in food was the production of food enzymes" and enzymes perform numerous functions such as assisting in digestion, breaking down food, breathing air, healing, creating sugars and the rising of dough in yeast fermentation (Campbell-Platt 79). Enzymes are inside of all living organisms and they essentially increase chemical reactions. Monsanto defines GMO's and GM crops as biotechnology and defines that by saying "biotechnology is the science of changing the genetic makeup of seeds that grow our food to add new benefits" (Kneen 42). In fact "it is now possible to build entirely new genes and even new organisms” (Cunningham 172). One example of the beneficial success stories with GMO's is the "Flavr savr tomato" which was modified to "vine-ripen" and further reduced the tomato from spoiling and thereby increased flavor while it was being delivered to grocery stores (Campbell-Platt 79).
Health consequences of GMO's and GM crops have not been proved or disproved. Monsanto owns the patents to all GMO's on the market, to say they are a powerhouse is an understatement. Take for example the genetically modified cows produced by Monsanto. Monsanto set out to engineer cows that created a hormone naturally, rather than injecting the cows, that would increases milk production dramatically (Kneed 65). Eventually the rbGH treated cows were approved for use in the United States, but not in Canada or Europe which means the US cannot sell to them (Kneen 65). Hormones recombinant bovine growth hormone to increase milk supply (Kimbrell 21). However, "scientific research has shown that IFG-1-tainted milk survives the human digestion process" which has strong links to breast and lung cancer. The FDA didn't even bother "labeling rbGH derived products" (Kimbrell 22). “Transgenes survive digestion and can transfer to gut bacteria or move into the blood and organs, including passing through the placenta into the fetus and through the blood-brain barrier” (Natural Revolution). Hormones in GM milk are suspected of early puberty and growth abnormalities. Herbicides and pesticides pollute ground water and the environment. New types of GM crops and GMO's are financially unavailable to many which cause poverty for some and an economic boom to other farmers (Cunningham 169). The public often expects food to be 100% safe. The realization that this is never achievable can be a difficult concept to explain (Campbell-Platt 356). Even if a consumer tried to eat completely organic, "nearly all soybeans, more than one-quarter of all corn, and nearly 80 percent of all cotton grown in the united states are now GM varieties (Cunningham 173). Trying to stay clear of all GMO's in the food chain is "practically unavoidable" (Ruse 136). The European Union is even more restrictive in allowing GMO's to be present in their food supply and considerable analysis of GMO must take place before it is allowed on the market (Campbell-Platt 363).
The harm that may or may not be caused by genetically modified foods hasn’t been researched, just like cigarettes weren’t researched at one point. The common purposes of GM crops are to "avoid spoilage, fight off insects or protect against pesticides" Just like Newton's Third Law of Motion, "every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Changing the genes inside a food may cause the food contain proteins it normally doesn’t contain (Kimbrell18). GMO's and GM crops are so named because of the rearranging of genes and the adding or altering of genes from other crops or organisms. Taking genes from chicken and putting them in strawberries may sound farfetched but it's being done. We don’t know how that will affect us because "genetically engineered foods aren't systematically tested for these kinds of changes" (Kimbrell 19). The largest concern is for individuals with peanut and nut related allergies. Because "about a hundred people die each year from peanut allergies” (Altered Food – National Geographic). What if a gene from nuts is used in another food product that normally doesn't contain nuts? A scientist decided to see if individuals allergic to Brazil nuts would be allergic to soybeans modified with genes from Brazil nuts, and in fact people did have an allergic reaction to that gene (Kimbrell 26). Imagine pouring a glass of soy milk because you're lactose intolerant and all the sudden going into anaphylactic shock because the soybeans used to make your milk are spliced with Brazil nuts. Another example is demonstrated when "Australian researches found that peas, genetically engineered with a bean gene, triggered allergic reactions in research animals" (Kimbrell 26).
Antibiotic Resistance antibiotics are medicines used to treat infections such as diseases. Our body immune system can fight off infection on its own but often needs the additional help of antibiotics such as penicillin to aid in our defense. Antibiotics work by either destroying or slowing the growth of bacteria so that our own bodies can fight the infections off (What Are Antibiotics). Just as pests become immune to certain GM crops, the question of whether our bodies healthy bacteria will generate a resistance or immunity to the "antibiotic resistance genes" present in GM crops may prevent antibiotics from working in us (Kimbrell 19). Already the news informs us that people are suffering from over prescription of antibiotics for simple ailments, that cause a resistance to antibiotics for more serious illnesses.
Scientific meddling in the food chain has caused many people in society to become worried about the safety of their food especially when new health issues such as "bovine spongiform encephalopathy (bse), avian flu and dioxin contamination" popped up at the same time as GMO's (Campbell-Platt 356). Biodiversity is a huge issue with the hybridization between weeds and GMO plants in fact "hybridization with wild relatives has been implicated in the evolution of more aggressive weeds for seven of the worlds thirteen most important crops... resulted in a new weed that devastated Europe's sugar production" (Ruse 327). Genetically engineered fish that grow faster than naturally occurring fish have the ability to wipe out the native fish in the mating process (Kimbell 42). In addition to the environmental damage what problems will we face down the line, sooner rather than later, when "500 species of insects, mites, and ticks are resistant to one or more pesticides” (Cunningham 173)? The majority, if not all, of GM crops are created by the company Monsanto since the company owns the patent. Monsanto also manufactures and distributes the herbicide Roundup and their GM crops are generally Roundup proof this is how Monsanto controls and dominates the market. Part of the problem with Roundup is when weeds become immune to it and this is what has been happening since 2001 with horse weed and now even more resistant weeds exist (Kimbrell 48). Bacillus thuringiensis also known at Bt is a pesticide commonly used that kills pest. Instead of spraying plants and crops with Bt over and over new crops such as corn have have been genetically modified to produce the pesticide on its own which we then eat (Kimbell 53). In addition "turning crops into pesticide producers may simply speed the day when pests develop resistance to Bt" (Kimbrell 48). Without an easy way to kill these weeds crops are killed.
Food products have nutrition labels attached but they should also have a label that informs consumers whether or not their food contains a genetically modified ingredient. If we at least have the information regarding the ingredients in our food, we increase our food consumption and purchase options. Humanity has the right to know what they are putting into their own bodies and proper labeling would further that right. Labeling GMO's is a controversial topic because many people want it, and many don't see it as necessary. “There have been NO long-term studies conducted on the safety of genetically engineered foods on humans” (LabelGMOs.org). As Peter Spence points out, there are numerous bugs, rodent hairs and possibly rodent feces mixed in with foods we purchase every day (Ruse 136). Even though the possibility exists that these things may be present in our food, there certainly aren’t any labels that point that out to the consumer. The problem with this issue is that people know what a few rodent hairs will do to their heath; probably nothing. When it comes to GMO's though, we don't know what GMO's will due to our health. Simply labeling a food "biotech" or "contains GMO" wouldn’t educate the consumer regarding any potential risks. When you buy cigarettes however, consumers are blasted with a large label indicate some rather graphic facts such as "Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease" or "smoking can kill you" (About FDA). The issue with labeling GMO's is that the FDA doesn't believe that GMO's are any different than the previous centuries of selective breed or hybridization of plants. The same thing can be said about cigarettes because at one time they weren't supposed to be addictive or bad for your health. In fact anyone who grew up in the 90's can tell you about the billion dollar court battles that tobacco companies lost while trying to argue that cigarettes didn't cause lung cancer. Oddly enough, we are all aware that cigarettes and tobacco are addictive, and that they cause cancer. It may be another 50 years before we know the true affects of GMO's but"the US food and drug administration has declined to require labeling of foods containing GMO's” because we have been creating hybrids for centuries and this is just a more specific way of doing what has been done before (Cunningham 173).
Very few farmers can afford to grow food organically, and even those that have tried and achieved some level of success, have often found themselves at the mercy of large corporations when they are sued for seeds that have been blown onto their land by the wind. Farmers in India are in a financial crises because of the cost of buying GM seeds. In addition the GM seeds they bought didn't live up to the hype including "low yields, drought and pests" issues that apparently they didn’t have before (Berlatsky 40). Further, GM cotton reduced beneficial bacteria necessary for the soil in India "a decade of planting with GM cotton could lead to total destruction of soil organisms" (Berlatsky 44).
Genetically Modified Organisms provide many convenient benefits for food and agriculture. However, the unknown factors and consequences of unregulated GMO's place humanity and our environment at a considerable risk. Humanity is always looking for the next big thing, the newer and better product or method. However, if in the pursuit of these desires we destroy our health and environment we may find ourselves without an escape. We reap what we sow, and if we keep sowing untested and unproven crops, we are only going to increases our suffering. Unfortunately for the masses, the cons outweigh the pro's in obtaining completely organic food. Even though research and a little investigation can provide information regarding whether or not the food we consume contains a GMO, so much of it does, that we are left with very few reasonable avenues in our food supply. Even though we are what we eat, what happens when all the food available to us is full of questionable ingredients? What will humanity eat when nothing is completely safe?
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