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Selective breeding is no new concept for people. Since the early years, we have been selectively choosing desirable traits in the food we grow. Nowadays however it is even more advanced; we have succeeded in genetically modifying our plants. No longer do plant breeders have to produce their flowering plants by just selecting the specific seed from a small pool of choices, we can create our own specialised seed instead. We have come so far that these foods are appearing on shelves all around us; soon none of our food will be organic anymore. There are many human health concerns as well as concerns for the environment. Although the main concern is the fact that organizations like the United Nations plan on using these GM foods to help relieve the food crisis in Africa, at this point in time however, it doesn¿½t seem like a workable solution
In the past 20 years the biotechnology industries have accomplished things science fiction writers and scientists could only dream about in previous years. New techniques have been used in plants to produce characteristics not naturally seen in their species. Genetic engineering is being used to produce genetically modified plants that are now used as food for humans as well as domestic animals. The main aim of modifying our food is with the hope that the changes will enable the plant to better resist damage from insects, or even be resistant to the herbicides which breeders apply to control the weeds.
How does genetically modifying food work?
Genetic engineering is the process where the genes from one species of organism are inserted artificially into organism of another species. The DNA in the inserted gene provides coded information for the host cell, which enables it to form new proteins that are not normally found in that species. This makes it possible to mix DNA of organisms that would naturally not be able to interbreed and therefore genetic engineering introduces new characteristics in the organism.¿½ For example, tomatoes are sensitive to cold, which shortens their growing season. Scientists then identified a particular gene which enables a fish to be able to resist the coldness in the water. They then inserted this 'anti-freeze' gene into the tomato, which has now extended its growing season, giving us better tomatoes.
How far down the food chain has genetically modified food spread?
What started as an experiment in the 1980¿½s; has recently accelerated rapidly and environmentalists are more than concerned about what this could all lead to. We are now genetically modifying commonly used and important crop plants such as corn and soybeans. These crops with their foreign inserted genes have in recent years started to appear as ingredients in foods in our supermarkets.¿½We are not aware of the extent of genetically modified foods that we as consumers consume because these foods are not labelled with the needed information.
Herbicide tolerant crops make up the largest portion of the genetically modified crop range.¿½ They have been specially inserted with genes that allow them to survive amounts of applied herbicides that otherwise would have been lethal.¿½
Since the official adoption of "biotech" crops in 1996 in South Africa, the amount of plantations of genetically modified maize, soya beans and cotton has increased to 1.8-million hectares. According to Lourie Bosman, President of Agri-SA, just over half of the maize produced in South Africa is being genetically modified. As there are no labels specifying they are genetically modified, we are blissfully unaware we are already consuming it. Genetically modified crops are mostly only engineered to be able to withstand environmental factors like drought, and to be herbicide tolerant which allows farmers to make use of herbicides without harming their crops. Field trials of drought-resistant maize have already been started in South Africa and this technology is anticipated to be commercially available for Africa from 2011 onwards.
What are the concerns for human health where GM food is involved?
The concerns that are related to the production of genetically modified foods are widespread. A lot of concern is being placed on the fact that there is very little known about the long term effects, there is also little effort been taken to regulate it is safely produced, and now there is increasing evidence that genetically modified food produced by growers in the United States will not be able to be sold in some other parts of the world. These foods were produced in the aim of helping reduce the food scarcity in third world countries like Kenya and Uganda, and now they are wasting money and time that could have been spent growing organic foods that other countries would not have been afraid of, and that they would actually allow to cross their borders.
Using genetically modified foods for human use could cause a lot of negative issues, like ordinary familiar foods can start causing allergenic reactions for humans. For example, an allergy to nuts is serious and can even be fatal.¿½Soybeans are being engineered to contain genes from a Brazilian nut and it has been found to still produce the allergic reactions in people with these nut allergies. Improper labels could be hazardous for people¿½s lives.
Also familiar foods using the Bt herbicides could become dangerous to human health.¿½ Seeing as the Bt toxin in bacteria is thought to be reasonably safe for humans because it exists as a protoxin which only becomes toxic for insects when it is activated in their digestive system.¿½ However, the process is not on without faults and it could happen that some of genetically modified Bt crops can produce the toxin in this toxic activated form.¿½Therefore when the toxin is included into our common foods like corn, we are at risk each time we are exposed to these foods.
Another issue is that genetically modified crops can indirectly cause antibiotic resistance, which ultimately would lead to difficulties in treating some human diseases.¿½ In the transplanting genes process there is a need for an indication as to which cells have actually taken up the newly implanted foreign gene.¿½Attaching a gene for antibiotic resistance is one of the ways currently being used.¿½ The antibiotics can then determine which cells survive, and are as a result carriers of the foreign implanted DNA.¿½ These resistant genes are then in the food chain, and leads to more disease causing bacteria becoming antibiotic resistant. This would increase the problem of disease in Africa, as basic antibiotics will no longer be efficient and could increase the countries already poor medical costs.
Are all countries on board?
As was said above, there are an alarming number of countries that have refused GM food entrance through their borders. Europe and Japan are on this bandwagon, and other countries like New Zealand are following their example. An article reedited by the New Zealand Herald says, "There are no proven market models for either farmers or food companies to gain benefits from GM crops.¿½ To date, only herbicide companies have reaped profits". The US, China, Canada, and Argentina, are the major producers of GM food and grow approximately 98% of GM crops, they are losing billions of dollars because of these problems and have been forced to backtrack and rethink their strategy. So far their new strategy has been to give GM food to Africa, a country with great need and who don¿½t have the resources that would have given them the ability to say no. They are hoping that in the process of charity, that the world will become comfortable with the idea of modifying food to certain specifications.
To conclude, it¿½s mostly unpredictable whether these altered genes will truly be able to cross into wild related species or into our ecosystem. Also it¿½s unknown how the Bt toxin will affect soil bacteria if it gets added to the soil through these GM plants. The Bt toxin can affect predators, other than the insects intended for, that are eating the Bt plants as well. The key point in deciding the extent of using this astonishing technology is that we have to look truthfully at the benefits of making use of it in our food. We then need to honestly weigh it against the serious concerns for human health, as well as in terms of protecting the natural environment and the impact it will have on the poor economy. The lack of required testing for any effects on human wellbeing as well as the environment should be our main priorities when we are challenging these companies that care more about benefiting themselves than anything else. In South Africa, it has already been agreed that the required labelling of these products are a necessity and that it should be monitored carefully. However, it is just a drop of water in the bucket, as far as all concerns regarding genetically modifying our food; there is still a long road ahead of us. Therefore my final deduction is that it¿½s not suitable for the unstable third world countries like Africa. The little cattle that these people have will also eat the GM corn, and the people will get milk from those cattle, as well as beef for food and supplement, we cant predict whether or not anything can be amplified through this altered food chain, therefore we should not put African people in harms way when we are trying, ultimately, to help them.