Genetically Modified Foods: Health, Effects on Ecosystems and Economic Viability

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23/09/19 Biology Reference this

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Genetically Modified Foods

Walking into a supermarket, have you ever wondered what genetically modified foods (GM foods) actually are and the difference between GM foods and non-GM foods? GM foods are defined as foods produced from or using “organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination” (World Health Organization 2014). Because of an increasing presence of GM foods in markets, I became interested in exploring the possible drawbacks of GM foods in the long-term. Therefore, I chose to analyze three different aspects of GM foods—health and safety, effects on ecosystems, and economic viability—in the long-term, to help myself and others make a decision on whether GM foods should be continued to be created and consumed.

         A goal of GM foods is to help increase the nutritional value of foods. A GM food known as golden rice aims to create β-carotene (beta carotene) in rice plants to help fight vitamin A deficiency. However, in the most recently created strain of golden rice, GR2E, β-carotene levels in the rice were so low that it would require a person to consume 3.75 kg of golden rice per day to receive the necessary amount of β-carotene (Wilson and Latham 2018). Considering that the research on golden rice has been going on since 1982, there is no telling how much more time and money will be needed for the research to reach its goal.

The consumption of GM foods is linked to a variety of health complications. Research has shown that the consumption of GM foods is linked to organ toxicity, allergies, immune system disorders, accelerated aging, infertility, and gluten disorders. In fact, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine is urging doctors to put their patients on GMO-free diets as a result of these harmful impacts (Dean and Armstrong 2009). For example, the presence of Bt-toxin, which is derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, in genetically modified corn leads to production of Bt-toxin that pokes holes in cell walls, which is linked to diseases including cancer and leukemia (Smith n.d.). As a number of potentially deadly diseases have been identified to be caused by consumption of GM foods in the short term, there is a strong possibility of the existence of other diseases that have not yet been identified that may prove deadly in the future.

          While people have claimed that extensive testing has been done to prove the safety of GM foods, the substantial equivalence with non-genetically modified products is not a proof of harmlessness. The chemical composition of food is an important indication—however, due to insertional mutagenesis or new metabolites, not all herbicide residues, unintended or unknown metabolites, and insecticide toxins are assessed (De Vendômois et al. 2010).

A bias can also be seen in the fact that the regulatory toxicological tests that were presented to authorities were done solely by the companies developing industrial products. Few studies have been conducted by independent groups, while many industry-funded studies have been conducted. Industries tend to only publish studies that help support their agenda—for instance, in the bisphenol A controversy, an analysis of all performed studies revealed that none of the industry-funded studies showed adverse effects of bisphenol A. However, 90% of government funded studies showed hazards at various levels and doses (Vom Saal and Hughes 2005). Therefore, as less biased studies have exposed serious risks in GM foods that cannot be tolerated in the status quo, GM foods therefore do not uphold long-term sustainability.

         Another goal of GM foods is to increase yield of crops to help increase food production around the world. Since 1987, several thousand experimental GE-crop field trials have been conducted, and at least 3,022 applications were approved for traits often associated with yield, such as tolerance to abiotic stress or disease resistance, in which at least 652 trials named yield as the particular target trait (Gurian-Sherman 2009, 3-4). However, the only transgenic food crops that showed significantly improved yield were varieties of BT corn. The conclusion that can be drawn is that of several thousand field trials, many of which have been intended to raise operational and intrinsic yield, BT corn is the only crop that has succeeded. As a result, future potential yields of GM foods should be carefully considered.

         In addition, Monsanto’s genetically-modified soybeans are both harmful for the planet’s ecosystem and not helping farmers produce greater yields. The crop is a leading cause of colony collapse disorder, which is also known as the bee death phenomenon, meaning that it is also a significant threat to the entire food supply. Without bees, 80 percent of all flowering plants and more than 75 percent of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown for human consumption would cease to exist (Huff 2014). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also admitted that there was no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with insecticides and when soybean seed did not receive any insect control treatment.

The increased adoption of GM foods has increased the use of weed-killing herbicides, which is harmful to the planet’s ecosystem, as weeds have become more resistant. Research conducted by Federico Ciliberto of the University of Virginia spanning 14 years shown significant increase in the use of herbicides in plants such as soybean, which had the adopters of GM crops using 28% more herbicides than non-adopters (Newman 2016). Because weeds are developing resistances over time, more and more herbicides must be used to destroy them, leaving more traces of the harmful chemicals that herbicides contain.

Furthermore, commonly used chemicals have found to be harmful. For instance, polyethoxylated tallowamine (POEA), an ingredient used in Roundup, a top-selling weed killer, has been found to be deadlier to human placental, embryonic, and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself. In addition, the EPA considers glyphosate, which is the main chemical associated with herbicides, to have low toxicity when used in the recommended doses, but with the buildup of weed resistance, the greater doses of herbicides used could have higher unsafe levels of toxicity, leading to environmental and health issues (Gammon 2009). As a result, there is potential for increased production of GM foods to lead to ecological collapse in the long-term.

         Another goal of GM foods is to help farmers gain more income through a more stable crop. A study following annual income of farmers globally from 1996 to 2012 found that many farmers, especially in developed countries, benefited from lower costs of production (Brookes and Barfoot 2014). However, small-scale farmers have trouble seeing economic gains because of the price of seed and lack of access to credit, because they often need institutional support, such as access to affordable markets, and may need assistance in “improving soil fertility, increasing nutrient availability, and optimizing plant density” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016).

Additionally, GM foods are currently monopolized by large corporations. Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow AgroScience own 80 percent of the U.S. corn market and 70 percent of the soybean business for GM foods (Roseboro 2013). Specifically, new genetically engineered plant technologies and resulting GM plants and seeds have been patented, because patented seed costs are controlled by corporations focused on maximizing profits. Farmers contracted with Monsanto must pay numerous fees in addition to the higher cost of genetically modified seeds that farmers are required to buy fresh, annually.

Furthermore, GM seed prices have been steadily increasing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average per-acre cost of soybean and corn seed increased 325 percent and 259 percent between 1995 and 2011, respectively (Roseboro 2013). Non-GM seeds are also withheld from farmers, so they end up facing decreased options at significantly higher prices. As a result, the goal of helping farmers’ income has proven to be not viable both in the short-term and the long-term.

In addition, while people claim that eliminating GM foods would restrict valuable genetic research, preventing scientific progress, complex contracts and ambiguous patents by large agricultural corporations prevent this scientific progress in the first place (McIntyre et al. 2009, 6-7). Especially in developing countries, patents drive up costs and restrict experimentation by individual farmers while also undermining local practices for securing food and economic sustainability. Moreover, there is particular concern regarding present intellectual property rights instruments, because of concerns that they may inhibit access to assets of vital importance to the independent research community, specifically in view of the need for analyses and long-term experimentation on climate change impacts. Therefore, even if GM foods are not eliminated, the mere cost of trying to conduct research is already inhibiting potential research from occurring, preventing scientific progress.

There are still too many unknowns when it comes to genetically engineering our food, meaning that there is no way to properly predict long-term effects consuming GM foods may have. A study has revealed that 5% of a host’s genes had their levels of expression changed after just one foreign gene was inserted (Smith n.d). This change is in addition to any changes that may be present due to deletions and mutations in the host genes. 5% is a massive change, which may contribute to a wide variety of adverse health-related side effects that have yet to be discovered. Given that the study of genes is still ongoing, this 5% could affect genes that display pleiotropy or polygenic inheritance, thus inadvertently giving rise to other unpredictable impacts on health.

         The safety of GM foods for consumption, ecologically, and economically are assessed differently by country and by local conditions (World Health Organization 2014). This makes it important for consumers to conduct to research on what national policies are in place to determine the safety of GM foods. Furthermore, unless some world standard is specified for regulating GM foods, there is no way to properly conduct studies to try to determine the long-term effects GM foods may have.

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