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The safety of bioengineered foods has been controversial in recent years. There are both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the consumption of foods that have been genetically altered. This research paper will focus on information and studies on genetically modified (GM) foods and their effects, both positive and negative. Material presented here will include information on which governmental agencies have the responsibility of regulating and investigating the use of these foods. Studies will be discussed that offer data that displays benefits and side effects of human ingestion of GM foods. Considerations for consumer knowledge of GM products will be offered here, along with information on how these products affect the environment. An overall look at the impact that GM foods have on the U.S. will be offered throughout this paper.
GM foods are produced from crops where GM plants are used. These GM plants are derived from genetically modified organisms(GMOs) created by biotechnology. The World Health Organization has defined GMOs as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology" or "gene technology", sometimes also "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering". It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species." Genetic Modification is different from other techniques aimed at the outcome of specific traits because it does not have the ability to occur naturally. Selective breeding and hybridization are examples of these other methods. For instance, the tangelo fruit is a hybrid mixture of a Mandarin orange and a pomelo, and triticale is a cross between wheat and rye. This can also occur in animals and may take the form of a taller, faster, stronger, bigger, or more producing animal, like a racehorse bred to be faster by selecting the fastest male and female racehorses and breeding them. All of these examples could potentially occur naturally, whereas genetic modification must involve a laboratory or genetic engineer. Genetic modification occurs by taking an organism with a desired trait and isolating the specific DNA sequence that codes for that desired trait, then insert it in to the DNA of the GM organism. Just like a DJ splices songs together to make music, genetic engineers are taking DNA from one organism and incorporating it into another to achieve a desired outcome. One of the most commonly recognized GM foods is Bt corn. Bacillus thurigiensis, a bacterium, naturally produces the pesticide Cry1Ab protein (commonly known as Bt toxin). The toxin producing gene was taken from the bacterium and inserted in to the DNA of corn, and so the Bt corn plant was produced. This GM corn now contains the pesticide Cry1Ab protein, and itself displays the pesticide properties associated with the original organism.
Many GM foods exist today. Common GMO containing foods in the U.S. include: canola oil(rapeseed), corn, commercial milk, maize, papaya, peas, potatoes, rice, soybean, sugar cane, and tomatoes. Many of these foods are available at U.S. grocery stores, and are common ingredients in several processed food items. GM foods are widely offered, and commonly consumed. Based on information gathered in 2011 by the USDA on the consumption of genetically engineered crops, the Environmental Working Group(a not for profit agency) calculated that the average American consumes almost 200 pounds of GM foods annually. The increase in the use of GM crops in the U.S. over the past 12 years can be retrieved through the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Their 2012 records reveal that 88% of corn produced in the U.S. was genetically engineered. Larger percentages coming from crops of soybean at 93%, and cotton 94%. For the year 2000, these three crops had percentages that were significantly less; corn at 25%, soybean at 54%, and cotton at 61%. There are a number of reasons that GM crops have increased over the past several years. They have the potential to be very beneficial to both the food industry and consumers. However, these products do present risks to humans and the environment as well.
Several benefits are associated with the production and use of GMO crops. Since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in 1996, they have contributed to food security, sustainability, and climate change by increasing crop production, reducing pesticide use and carbon dioxide emissions, conserving biodiversity, and reducing poverty. GM foods are appealing in some way or another, and have been produced and marketed due to some perceived advantage to the producer and/or consumer. Crop sustainability is a major advantage to the farming industry, and GM crops are resistant to diseases or damages caused by viruses or pest such as insects. These engineered plants are also hardy; impervious to drought and extreme temperatures. Some GM crops are designed to be increasingly tolerant of herbicides that are used to kill unwanted plants such as weeds. Others created to raise the nutritional value of current staple crops or fresh produce. This aspect has been important in combating vitamin and mineral deficiencies, especially in third world countries where a varied diet is not typically available. GM plants and animals have also been used to produce pharmaceutical products used to treat an array of conditions. Recombinant bacteria has been used since the early 1980s to produce the human insulin that is now used by all patients suffering from diabetes. Transgenic rice has been used for the mass production of the bioactive human milk protein, lactoferrin.
The fact that engineered crops are more resilient than traditional crops has led to an increase in yield. The hardier the crops, the less likely they are to succumb to insects, drought, and harsh temperatures, and the more likely an increase in production will occur. This should fuel the "supply and demand" concept and result in lower costs to consumers. This could be extremely beneficial to poor or developing areas. Aesthetic appeal is also something that has been marketed with GM foods. Some have been modified to be larger than their original counterparts, others brighter in color or generally more pleasing to the eye, and some increasingly shelf-stable. Engineered foods that have been modified to be resistant to pests and disease will less likely have blemishes or be deemed "unfit" for display in a commercial grocery store. For example, nobody wants to purchase an apple that contains wormholes.
GM foods have also been used to increase the nutritional content of traditional foods that are widely used. In the fight against micronutrient malnutrition, biofortification of foods occurred. Golden Rice was created to contain beta-carotene, and is used in third world countries where vitamin A rich foods are not widely available or accessible. Soybeans with enhanced oleic acid content have more monounsaturated fat aimed at improving cholesterol levels and possibly reducing blood pressure. Tomatoes are also available with increased concentrations of flavonoids that boost their antioxidant levels.
There are also concerns associated with crops that have been genetically altered. According to the American Dietetic Association's position paper on food and water safety, the food safety aspect of biotechnology is based on the allergenicity of GM foods. Their position paper on agricultural and food biotechnology has expired and is no longer available for viewing, but the abstract implies that the ADA was in favor of the new technology at the time it was posted. Concerns for dual effects resulting from GM plants have also arisen. Two nutritional studies explain that the insertion of a desired gene along with a promoter into another plant chromosome could trigger the expression of other genes previously present but not expressed. This could lead to the expression of a gene for a toxin or allergy. Based off that information, we could see someone with an allergy or intolerance to one type of food have that same reaction to a GM product that has that specific gene present. An example would be frost resistant GM foods such as strawberries or tomatoes that have been transferred a gene from an artic fish causing a fish allergy to someone who consumes it without knowing. The same biopesticide used in Bt corn has been found to cause lung inflammation in mice, which may contribute to the development of lung disease. One would hope the corn does not put off as much of the biopesticide toxin as the study tested on the mice.
There is a shared responsibility among agencies in the U.S. for regulating and monitoring the safety of GM plants and animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA), Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), Food and Drug Administration(FDA), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service(APHIS) are all involved in the regulation process for crop approval and genetic modification of animals used in GM foods. The FDA is responsible for biotechnologically-derived medical products. An example of this would be the previously mentioned insulin used for patients with diabetes that is produced by bacteria. The EPA is responsible for pesticidal plants and genetically-engineered microbial pesticides. An example of this is the Bt corn previously mentioned that contains the gene for pesticide resistance. The USDA is responsible for transgenic plants, such as the one that produces Golden Rice. APHIS is an agency under the USDA that protects and promotes the health of animals and agriculture while regulating genetically engineered organisms and managing wildlife damage. Together, these agencies determine if genetically engineered foods are ready to be introduced to the food market and deemed safe for consumption.
Other organizations that are involved and concerned with the safety of foods produced through genetic modification are: The World Health Organization, National Institute for Health, Office of Science and Technology Policy(White House Commission), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These organizations have a slightly smaller role in the regulation and investigation, but they are invested in the safety of GM foods. The World Health Organization has been stated as saying they will take an active role in regards to GM foods for two primary reasons: the public could benefit enormously from the potential of biotechnology to increase the nutritional content of foods, and there is vast need to thoroughly evaluate the potential negative effects on human and global health.
We have already discussed the impact associated with human consumption, what about the impact that these genetic modifications are having on the environment? One study aims to assure us that GM plants can be destroyed before or if they contaminate the food supply. This study used field tests to demonstrate that GM plants could be completely destroyed by a single spray of contact herbicide, which was known to be only half of the recommended dose for weed control. What if these plants are not destroyed before they cross-pollinate with another native species and have the opportunity to create a new and more resistant plant? According to another article on anti-biotic resistant corn seeds sold to farmers by mistake, this is a real possibility. This article makes a good argument that the genes from these seeds distributed by mistake run the risk of flowing from crops to microorganisms and spreading problems of antibiotic resistance. In agreement that there are environmental risks, one study brings to light the idea that large-scale growth of GM plants can have adverse effects on the environment that will indirectly affect human health. Common concerns addressed include: GM plants will sexually hybridize with non-GM plants through pollen transfer, GM plants run the risk of becoming invasive weeds, and the conditions required to grow GM plants will negatively affect local wildlife populations.
Consumer knowledge on GM foods is heavily related to opinion and personal experiences. People, in general, do not like change, so the introduction of new types of foods can be seen as unwelcome. According to one study, a background questionnaire on predispositions to new foods found that young better-educated men are most receptive to new foods. This study used focus groups to gather information on participant knowledge and opinion of five key themes: trust/distrust, safe/unsafe, natural/artificial, pleasure/necessity, and past/present. It determined that trust and distrust was a large concern, and the subcategories of contradictory information, suspicion, and unknown after effects of GM products established that distrust for the participants. Other research has shown that most consumers are concerned with the allergenic and long-term toxic effects of GM foods. People with certain food allergies are apprehensive when it comes to accepting GM foods, as they are unaware of their content and afraid it may lead to a bad reaction.
One major concern for consumers, especially those with food allergies, is the fact that the law does not require labeling of GM foods. A push to require disclosure of GMOs on food labels has occurred recently. California's Proposition 37, that would require the addition of labels to all foods made from genetically modified crops, was fought by agricultural businesses and food manufacturers. Enormous amounts of money were spent on this suggested law. 25 million dollars spent to campaign against the proposition, while less than two and a half million raised by supporters. It seems that food manufacturers and agricultural businesses are buying GM products in to the food market. Labeling for genetically engineered foods would be expensive and it would be time consuming to test foods for GM ingredients. However, authorization and labeling regulations for GM foods would facilitate international trade. Currently the U.S. is more progressive in the use of GM foods, and other countries are more strict about their use. A policy would also be required to set up a minimum standard threshold allowed for traceability in products that did not require labeling, much as food allergies are currently regulated. Many shoppers feel they have the right to know what the food they are purchasing contains.
Several studies and articles are concerned with the use of GM foods, and came to the conclusion that more research and longer, more extensive studies are needed before accurate deductions can be made on the safety of GM foods and the impact on human health. Standardized procedures and reproducible studies showing there is no harm will quell the arguments that these foods are dangerous.
Implications for RDs about GM foods are plentiful. After reviewing the previous information, you can see how extremely relevant GMO foods are to RDs. These foods will affect all RDs, no matter what area of dietetics they practice. It will impact all of their future clients and patients, and they need to be good sources of information for them to access. The increase in allergies and intolerances will require a deeper analysis of dietary intake, so a closer look at the consumption of GMO containing foods may become necessary. What could be causing the reaction to food. As mentioned earlier, the widespread use(almost 200# a year consumed by Americans, and 88% corn and 93% soybean GM). Topic used by public health dietitians looking at epidemiological studies in the future, etc.
In conclusion, there really is no convincing evidence on the safety of GM foods. As discussed, there are many potential benefits to foods produced by genetic engineering, but research thus far calls for more research when it comes to safety. Large, reproducible studies that encompass long-term, repeated exposures to relevant concentrations of GM products prior to food market introduction need to be completed. Positive results of such studies will put consumers at ease with these relatively new foods, and allow for higher production volumes. More lengthy studies on environmental impact are also needed to be sure damage to the current food chain does not occur. The impact of GM foods is large, especially in the U.S., but more studies are needed to ensure that the impact is a positive one for consumers and the environment.