This paper deals with risks and benefits in genetic engineering. We must be aware of releasing of genetically altered organisms in the environment. It can cause to really terrible consequences like decreasing animal welfare, increasing human suffering, and it can lead to ecological disasters. From another side, growing population, starvation in developing countries, chemical pollutions and other problems, that we are facing in nowadays, can be solved with a new molecular technologies. There must be a compromise and we are to find it. We must proceed very carefully to avoid and prevent causing unintentional harm to the environment and human health as a result of our admiration, enthusiasm and flippancy.
GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) or GM foods are crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. In order to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content, those plants have been modified in the laboratories. Traditionally the enhancement of traits has been undertaken through breeding. Though conventional plant breeding methods are often not very accurate and can be very time consuming. The new technologies of genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create different plants very rapidly with the exact desired trait and with great accuracy. Let's see an example. Geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought-tolerance. Then it will be inserted into a different plant. The new GM plant will have drought-tolerance as well. Genes from non-plant organisms also can be used as well as genes form plants. For example, the use of Bacillus thuringiensis's genes in corn and other crops. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that makes crystal proteins that are mortal to insect larvae. Transferring crystal protein genes into corn enables the corn to produce its own pesticides against different insects, for example European corn borer.
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Fig.1 shows us the proportion of different opinions about the potential risks of environment and health. As we can see people do not have the general opinion about potential risks. Almost 70% of people are disagreeing and strongly disagreeing. 28% do not know, and only 5% disagree and 1% strongly agrees. So we can conclude that people do not really want to have GM foods on their tables. In 2003, the countries which have focused largely and have grown from 99% of GM crops in the world, from highest to lowest in the sequence are: the United States (63%), Argentina (21%), Canada (6%), Brazil (4%), China (4%), and South Africa (1%), as is evident from Fig 1. In some documents indicate that America and Argentina constitute 90% of the area of land planted modified crops in the world, 68% and 22% respectively (1).
Advantages of GM food.
Talking about risks, we may not forget about benefits that are brought by GMO. The world population is more than 6.9 billion people is predicted to reach 9.2 billion people in 2050 year. The major challenge, in the years to come, is going to be an ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population. Producing the GM foods promises to help in this need in a number of ways:
Pest resistance. Crop losses are really important expenses in a farmer's budget. It can be resulting in devastating financial loss for businessmen and starvation for people in developing countries. Usually farmers use large quantity of chemical pesticides every year. Because of potential health hazards, consumers do not want to eat food that has been treated with chemicals. And also pesticides and fertilizers can poison water supply and cause harm to the environment due to run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of chemicals. Therefor growing genetically-modified foods can help eliminate the using of chemical pesticides. Moreover it can help reduce the cost of crop, once it gets to the market (2, 3).
Herbicide tolerance. Often physical removing weeds (tilling) is not cost-effective. So that farmers spray large quantities of herbicides to kill weeds. That is expensive, time-consuming process, during which farmers must care about crop plant and the environment. Reducing the amount of herbicides is one of the benefits that we can take out of growing GM foods. Genetically-engineered to be resistant to very powerful herbicide, it could help prevent environmental damage. For example, a strain of soybeans genetically modified, created with Monsanto, was not affected by their herbicide product Roundup (4). So growing these soybeans which then only require one application of herbicides instead of multiple applications, limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off and reducing production cost (5).
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Disease resistance. There are many fungi, bacteria and viruses in a world that cause plant diseases. And another goal for plant biologists is to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to diseases (6, 7).
Cold tolerance. Sensitive seedlings can be destroyed by unexpected frost. The biologists introduced gene from cold water fish into tobacco and potato. So that there plants become tolerable to cold temperatures. Normally cold temperatures kill unmodified seedlings (8).
Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance. We are facing the process of growing world population. Today, more than ever land is utilized for construction houses and not for food production. Because of that farmers need to cultivate crops in unsuited for plant locations. Creating and growing plants that can withstand of high salt content in soil and groundwater or long time of drought would help people to grow crops in inappropriate places (9, 10).
Nutrition. In third world countries people rely on a single crop as rise. But, there is no adequate amount of all necessary vitamins, minerals and other nutritious. Theoretically and perhaps practically rice could be genetically engineered to contain more minerals and vitamins, so that we could alleviate the nutrient deficiencies. Deficiency of vitamin A leads to blindness and is a common problem in several developing countries. Scientists in Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for plant science have made a strain of Golden rice, which contains an unusually high amount of beta-carotene (vitamin A) (11).
Pharmaceuticals. Producing medicines and vaccines is expensive process and it requires special storage conditions, which are not readily available in developing countries. Scientists are working to develop edible vaccines in potatoes and tomatoes (12, 13). It will be easier to store, ship and administer these vaccines than regular injectable vaccines.
The potential risks associated with GMOs
Most concerns about GM foods can be categorized into three parts: human health risks, environmental hazards and social concerns. A large numbers of people do not know about potential risks of genetically modified organisms to the environment. And also citizens of the European Union do not know much about it, if we look at Table 1. So we can see that people, who were surveyed, were of different level of knowledge and they had different opinions. Large proportion 59.4% of all those people believes that GM plants could negatively affect our environment. This view diversifies according to the level of knowledge. Large proportion around 28.7% of them does not have information or does not know about the dangers of GMO to the environment. Moreover, the very low percentage had the opposite point of view that a genetically modified organism is not a threat to the environment.
Loss of biodiversity. The loss of biodiversity in our nature is one of the most important environmental issues, and also farmers are really worried about the changes that happen in the environment,. "This has raised fears in the last century which encouraged the breeders and farmers to make intensive efforts to collect and store seeds from all varieties of major crops in America and some European countries. And then the uses of genetically modified crops are likely to adversely affect biodiversity" (14).
Unintended harm to other organisms. Last year in Nature was published a study, that shows that pollen from B.t. corn became a reason for a high rate of death in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Milkweed plants are consumed with monarch caterpillars, not corn. Pollen from corn can be blown by the wind onto milkweed fields, and the caterpillar could consume the pollen and die. Even though that study was not guided under natural conditions of field, the final results seem to support this point. It is unfortunate that B.t. toxins kill a lot of species of insect larvae inarticulately. It is impossible to create a B.t. toxin which would kill only crop-damaging pest (15, 16).
Reduced effectiveness of pesticides. Many people are concerned that insects can become resistant to B.t. in any kind of crops, that have been genetically modified, and create their own pesticides, as some mosquitoes developed resistance to the pesticide DDT, which is banned now (Table 2).
Gene transfer to non-target species. There is a possibility that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the resistance genes into the weeds. So those "weeds" will be herbicide tolerant as well. Also introduced genes may cross into non-modified crops located next to genetically modified crops. The defense of farmers against lawsuits filed by Monsanto is an example of the possibility of interbreeding. Monsanto claimed that some farmers bought Monsanto-licensed GM seeds from unknown sellers and did not pay royalties. The framers' claim was that their unmodified crops were cross-pollinated from GM crops located a couple fields away.
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"There are several possible solutions to the three problems mentioned above. Genes are exchanged between plants via pollen. Two ways to ensure that non-target species will not receive introduced genes from GM plants are to create GM plants that are male sterile (do not produce pollen) or to modify the GM plant so that the pollen does not contain the introduced gene. Cross-pollination would not occur if harmless insects such as monarch caterpillars were to eat pollen from GM plants, the caterpillars would survive" (17, 18, 19). Creating buffer zones around GM crops is another solution (20).
Human health risks
Allergenicity. There are many children in Europe and the US who have developed life-threatening allergies to different foods. It is possible that a new allergen may be created by introducing a gene into a plant and can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. The offer to insert a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans was rejected and abandoned, because of the possibility that it may cause unexpected allergic reactions (21).
Unknown effects on human health. Introducing genes into food plants may have negative and unexpected effect on human health. There was an article published in Lancet that examined the effects of GM potatoes on the digestive tract in rats (22, 23). By that study there were discovered tangible differences in the intestines of rats fed unmodified potatoes and rats fed GM potatoes.
Horizontal gene transfer. "Horizontal gene transfer is the transfer of genetic material between cells or genomes belonging to unrelated species, by processes other than usual reproduction. In the usual process of reproduction, genes are transferred vertically from parent to offspring; and such a process can occur only within a species or between closely related species" (24).
Antibiotic Resistance. The role of antibiotic resistance genes is to identify and trace a trait of interest, which has been introduced into plant. So that we can make sure that a gene transfer was successful. There has been raised concern in sociality that new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria will emerge. Some opponents of genetic engineering claim that there is a possibility of rising diseases that are resistant to treatment with common antibiotics. The possibility of transfer from plants to bacteria is considerably less than the risk of normal transfer between bacteria, or between bacteria and us that normally occur within our alimentary tracts. In any way FDA advises food developers not to use marker genes that encode resistance to clinically very important antibiotics.
Concentration of Toxic Metals. New genes added to crops can easily remove weighty metals (mercury for example) from the soil and store it in the tissue of the plant. "These products represented the risk of contamination of foods containing high levels of toxic metals also environmental hazards connected with the treatment and throwing the metal parts of the contaminated plants after harvest" (25)
Production of New Toxins. A lot of organisms make the toxic substance. For example, for plants, this kind of substances helps to preserve motionless organisms from predators in their environment. Sometimes there are inactive pathways foremost to toxic substances in plants. "Addition of new genetic material through genetic engineering could reactivate these inactive pathways or otherwise increase the levels of toxic substances within the plants" (26).
Labeling. Some consumer groups argue that foods derived from genetically engineered crops must carry a special label. For example, in the United States of America, these foods currently must be labeled only if they are different nutritionally from a traditional food. There are two regulatory approaches for labeling of GM food that exist:
â€¢ Voluntary labeling - that is driven largely by market forces, with no legislative requirements to declare the use of GMOs in food production; and
â€¢ Mandatory labeling - that requires declaration of characteristics imparted to a food by the use of gene technology itself in food production.
"Standards commonly require a declaration of health and safety characteristics brought by the GM commodity, and identification of the use of gene technology in the food production. The most frequently legislated requirement is for the words 'genetically modified' to be used in association with the name of the food or the relevant ingredient" (27).
Terminator" technology. "Genetic use restriction technology (GURT), colloquially known as terminator technology, is the name given to proposed methods for restricting the use of genetically modified plants by causing second generation seeds to be sterile. Some stakeholders expressed concerns, that this technology might lead to dependence for poor smallholder farmers" (28).
So finally we have identified a list of possible potential dangers that may occur because of releasing or using Genetically Modified Organisms. And now we are facing a question: how probable are these harms to happen? And the answer is, for sure, depending on how well we understand the GMOs and how they interact in the environment. Risks must be assessed one by one as soon as new applications of GE are inserted. The government inspects applications for sanction, in order to guarantee that new agriculture biotechnology products are safe tor the environment, human and animal. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (a joint FAO/WHO body answerable for developing the guidelines, standards, codes of practice and recommendations that constitute the Codex Alimentarius, the international food code, Codex, or CAC) adopted the following texts in July 2003: Principles for the risk analysis of foods derived from modern biotechnology; Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants; and Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods produced using recombinant-DNA microorganisms. The last two texts are based on the Principles and represent methodologies for leading safety assessments for foods derived from recombinant-DNA microorganisms and plants, respectively (29, 30, and 31). The premise of the Principles dictates a premarket assessment, based on a case-by-case basis and including an evaluation of both straight effects (from the inserted gene) and unpremeditated effects (that may emerge as a consequence of introducing of the new gene).
Principles of the Codex safety assessment for Genetically Modified foods require investigation of:
direct health effects (toxicity);
tendency to provoke allergic reactions (allergenicity);
specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties;
stability of the inserted gene;
nutritional effects associated with the specific genetic modification; and
any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.
Issues to be considered
Analyzing risk assessment of Genetically Modified plants and products, we should take account of the following:
the characteristics of the donor and recipient organisms;
the genes inserted and expressed;
the potential consequences of the genetic modification;
the potential environmental impact following a deliberate release;
the potential toxicity and allergenicity of gene products and metabolites;
the compositional, nutritional, safety and agronomic characteristics;
the influence of food processing on the properties of the food or feed;
the potential for changes in dietary intake;
the potential for long-term nutritional impact.
The main goal of the safety assessment is to think over if the Genetically Modified food is comparable to the traditional duplicate food or not, i.e., that the Genetically Modified foods have all the risks and benefits, normally associated with the traditional food. Comparisons with traditional foods have an acceptable standard of safety.
"Such a comparative approach focuses on: the identification of similarities and differences between the GM food and an appropriate comparator; and a characterization of any of the identified differences in order to determine if they may raise potential safety and nutritional issues" (32). Every particular gene, which is about to be inserted, should be chosen and considered very carefully in view of the quantity of information that is required for the risk assessment. There are some strategies available, which can be applied at early stages in the development of Genetically Modified plants. Those strategies can be considered to be the best for avoiding some unidentified risks in the environment and reducing the potential identified risks (33). One and probably the most important of the general purpose is to diminish environmental exposure and the possible risks from the transgenes and its products.
There are three principle ways that can achieve this:
avoid or minimize superfluous expression of the transgene;
avoid or minimize the inclusion of superfluous transgenes or sequences;
avoid or minimize the dispersal of transgenes in the environment.
Genetically-modified foods have a potential to solve a lot of the world's malnutrition problems and starvations, to preserve and protect the environment by enlarging yield and reducing reliance upon chemical herbicides and pesticides. There are a lot of challenges ahead for governments and scientists, especially in the areas of food labeling, safety testing, regulation and international policy. People think that we cannot afford to ignore a technology that has a really big enormous potential benefits. People feel that genetic engineering is one the unavoidable wave of our future. However, we must proceed very carefully to avoid and prevent causing unintentional harm to the environment and human health as a result of our admiration, enthusiasm and flippancy.