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Based on global population growth rates, the world's population is estimated to increase from 6 billion at the start of this century to 7.9 to 19.9 billion by 2025. The majority of this growth will occur in less economically developed countries (Garza and Stover 2003). Feeding the world's expanding population is a continuing problem for governments and despite a 3% increment in crop production per annum (The Pew Initiative 2004), chronic hunger reaps away the lives of 2400 people every day (Khush 2005). According to biotechnology companies, the key to developing sustainable agriculture is to mass produce genetically modified (GM) crops (Monsanto 2000). One such strategy is by modifying the genetic makeup of crop species, creating so-called transgenic cultivars. Cultivars with genes from other species are known as genetically modified crops and were developed in the 1990s. Genetically-modified (GM) food refers to crop plants synthesized as a result of recombinant DNA to enhance desired traits for human and animal consumption. Public fear arises as GM food poses a new wave of challenges which include potential risks towards human health and environmental effects. The huge potential advantages of genetically-modified food is worth the multi-million dollar investment of multinational countries as GM foods provide increased sales , the addition of higher nutritional values as well as medicinal values and therefore, GM food resolve the global food crisis.
Before genetic engineering techniques were introduced, foods were mostly manipulated through the use of yeast and fermentation. Gregor Mendel's genetic theory- laws of gametic purity and independent segregation were employed to produce "hybrids" through crossing of plant of one variety with a related plant to acquire desired characteristics. After the double helix structure of DNA was discovered and identified at Cambridge in 1953 by Watson and Crick, the door of genetic engineering was opened and GM products were marketed to the public two decades later. Scientists then discovered effective methods of getting new genes into plants by using agrobacterium, viruses and guns. Ever since "the first commercial GM food- Calgene's Favr Savr tomato were approved for sale in the United States in 1994" (Greiner et al. 2005), "the global area of GM crops increased significantly from 1.7 million ha in 1996 to 114.3 million ha in 2007" (James 2007). The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established to evaluate the safety of plants consumption. The authority announced that GM food should receive consideration for health risks as other new plants in 1999. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was organized in 1970 to conduct risk assessment of GM plants for environmental safety. There are hot debates in public and amongst professionals on whether the current regulations are adequate to ensure the safety of GM food or whether additional tests are needed.
The majority of public concern is about the possible hazards that might be brought about by genetically-modified food. One of the concerns is allergens in GM food, which are molecules that would be recognized by some people's immune systems as foreign substances but perfectly normal to non-allergic people (Nordlee. et al. 1996). Through the transfer of gene that codes for protein from the host to the new variety, allegenicity might be transferred. In the mid-1990s, Methionine- rich 2S albumin was inserted into a soybean from a brazil nut. Tests conducted showed that as the nut contained allergen and may harm human health, the project was abandoned to ensure no modified soy enters the human food chain. This proves that laboratory tests are reliable means in detecting the potential allergenicity. In the future, it would be able to delete specific genes from crops that will result in less allergenic foods. In addition, there is another issue related to the vectors or "marker" gene used for transforming plant cells that mostly involve genes possessing antibiotic resistance, for instance kanamycin resistance (Taylor et al. 2000). There are concerns that this resistance may be passed to human pathogens through bacteria Escherichia coli in the gut. In practise, the DNA carried by the vectors would mostly be digested once eaten and the kanamycin-resistance gene is ubiquitous in the environment. In response to all these concerns, alternative marker systems are developed to replace the antibiotic markers. Therefore, such concerns are not cause for worry because they can be solved through advanced technology and expanded knowledge.
The possible environmental harm posed by GM crops is the cross-pollination of herbicide- resistant GM crops with weeds that could pass this herbicidal resistance to weeds, thus creating the " superweeds". Herbicide-resistant crop plants such as "Roundup Ready" soybeans engineered by Monsanto company to be resistant to Roundup herbicide are intended to control weeds in soybean fields (Monsanto 2004). The first approval for unrestricted release of a GM crop in Britain was given by Department of the Environment Advisory Committee in 1994. (Taylor et. al. 2000). Rapeseed, for instance, could become a weed in hedgerows and would be impossible to be controlled by Basta. It could cross-fertilise with relatives such as wild mustard, and spread the resistance to wild plant. Other crops that are resistant to drought, diseases and other environmental stress could pass their resistance to weeds and the consequences are unbearable. Critics of GM crops like corn which was engineered to produce insect toxin Bacillus thuringiensis(Bt) point out that the few pests that have survived could produce resistant offspring. Moreover, the report has shown that Monarch butterflies were stunned and killed by consuming the pollen from the fields planted with GM crops on the leaves of milkweed plants. Follow-up studies showed that the pollen densities from Bt corn hardly reach damaging level on milkweed thus relatively harmless to monarchs. This focus on the fact due to application of pesticides, " $9 billion in United States, and billions of insects and other animals, including an estimated 67 million birds are killed each year."( Raven 2005). The solutions addressed to rectify the problem of "superweeds" are to create GM plants that are sterile which do not produce pollen and to plant non-GM crops around field of GM crops so that wind-blown pollen cannot travel beyond the buffer zone, thus no gene flow.( Buffers urged around Bt corn fields 2011)
"Biotechnology is in its infancy", at least this is what proponents and detractors of genetic engineering agree on. The three categories that are of most concern about GM food are the human health risks, environmental hazards and economic impacts. Detractors argue that genetic engineering is a Pandora's Box, the potential of biotech food is enormous, yet they are full of risks, we may pay for the errors in judgement in way unimaginable. Proponents states the gain in biotech companies' revenues, consumers are getting more nutritious and higher medical value food and global food crisis is resolved through hardier and higher yield of crops by farmers. Although people are concerned about the possible risks, genetic engineering offers great opportunities in medicine and food production advance and on balance, the risks appear slight and the potential benefits seem substantial.
In general, sales or revenues accruing to the multinational companies from GM researches conducted. Crops have undergone genetically modification to help to deal with age-old agriculture problems: weeds, diseases, pests, weather as well as the condition of the soil. Every year, substantial number of crop lost due to insect pests, this results in devastating financial loss and famine in developing countries. Recently, broadleaf plants have been genetically engineered to be resistant towards "Roundup", a powerful and biodegradable herbicide. For instance, "Roundup Ready" corn, a Monsanto product engineered to withstand the "Roundup" herbicide ( Raven 2005) In addition, some biotech varieties make their own insecticide by borrowing a gene from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis , or Bt for short. This Bt toxin gene encodes a protein considered to be harmless to human but lethal to certain insects, including European corn borer, the toxin will attack the digestive tracts of corn borer caterpillars and deaths will occur within a few days ( Belk 2007). Another example will be the fungus gene, called the Bollgard gene after its discoverer, code for toxins to kill wide range of insects, including cotton weevil and the Colorado potato beetle, both notorious agricultural pests (Evers 2006). This practise means farmers can cut down on the usage of toxic chemicals, less soil will be tilled to control weeds, as a result river-clogging runoff can be reduced. Each year, farmers in the U.S. use approximately 275 million kilograms of herbicides. (Paoletti et. al., 1996). From the applications above, GM food seems to be eco-friendly and, in addition it enhances the processing value, thus achieving higher yields.
The other advantage of GM food over conventional food is that GM food contains higher nutritional values as well as medicinal values. White rice which is the staple diet for most of the countries especially asean, is low in protein, very little iron, and virtually no vitamin A. In 1999, a team of scientist of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology led by Ingo Potrykus, and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany proclaimed they had synthesized "golden rice" by inserting two daffodil gene and one bacterial gene that enable the rice to produce beta-carotene which is building block of Vitamin A (Schneider 2009). According to the World health Organization, 100 million and 140 million children suffers from vitamin A deficiency. " Golden rice" which is rich in beta-carotene was viewed as potential solution to blindness and probably deaths among the developing countries that depends on rice as their staple food (Schneider 2009). Apart from that, transgenic animals also are sources of medically valued protein. The most successful approach is by using mammary glands to produce the desired protein. A company named PPL Pharmaceutical is commercially manufacturing AAT milk which is useful in combating emphysema ( Taylor 2000). Other examples of GM products by transgenic goats are CFTR protein used to treat cystic fibrosis, TPA protein to ease heart attack. Camel can produce human collagen which can repair bone, cartilage and skin. Even bullet-proof vests, medical supplies, and equipment for use in space can be extracted from spider silk protein from goats (Evers 2006). The uncovered potentials of "pharming" of drugs are overwhelming, they will surely be of benefit to modern medicine.
Genetic Engineering can help address the global food crisis. This technology offers crop varieties that resist pests and diseases and increase crop yields. Most importantly, GM crops can be cultivated on land that would otherwise not support farming. Food plants like potato and grapevine has been genetically engineered to resist disease. Genes of bees and moths are inserted into potatoes to protect them from potato blight fungus. (Allen 2002). Grapevines are made resistant towards Pierce's disease with silkworm genes. (Allen 2002) Plants created that can withstand drought , soil with high salinity, or high level of aluminium sand iron now can survive in unfavourable conditions, this implies that locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation can be used for agriculture activities especially lands in third world countries. The knowledge that biotechnology companies have developed in the production of profitable crops can be easily transferred and applied to help developing nations. In Philippines, 15 percent to 24 percent of the average yield can be gained by cultivating herbicide tolerant corn and insect resistant corn. Insect resistant cotton has also led to yield increases more than 50 percent in India (Mitchell 2009). Cold tolerance plants such as tobacco and potato are introduced with antifreeze gene from cold water fish so that the plants seedlings can survive even in the winter (Belk 2007). As the population increases, it is imperative to cultivate GM crops in order to feed worldwide population.
In conclusion, GM foods provide increased sales, contain higher nutritional values as well as medicinal values and GM foods may resolve the world's food shortage problem. Although biotech foods hold great promise to eliminate world hunger and improve the lives of many, it remains to be seen as they carry risks. The biggest mistake would be to reject blindly the promise of the benefits this technology .Until now there is no evidence to suggest any specific harmful environmental effects from transgenic crops worldwide nor any evidence of the harm of transgenic crop ingredients consumed by humankind (Jaffe 2004). Governments should carry out more safety testing, international policies, food labeling and regulations in order to allay public fear towards GM food. If GM foods are tested thoroughly, then the critics fears should be allayed.