Genetically modified foods are becoming more popular as research is further developing them as a potential substitute for conventional crops. Both crops and animals are being carefully selected for desirable genes in order for farmers to produce products of the highest quality at the lowest possible cost to them. Genes are sections of DNA that code for characteristics. As with most new technological breakthroughs, there are many ethical issues associated with introducing genetically modified foods into the market. More importantly, the introduction of these hybrid crops could eradicate the severe food shortages found in much of Africa.
What is genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology?
Genetic engineering is the process of changing a living organism's genetic material in a way that does not naturally occur in order to change the organism in some way. Normally this process is done in order to benefit human kind in some way. Recombinant DNA (rDNA) is the process of combining two or more sections of DNA in order to create an entirely new DNA that does not naturally occur. Therefore the new cell can be called a transgenic cell because some of the genes of the cell have actually been artificially added from another cell.
2.1) What are genetically modified crops?
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Genetically modified crops are crops whose genetic structure has been artificially modified in such a way that would not naturally occur. These crops are modified to help better the crop somehow, usually its nutritional value, resistance or taste but it is not limited to this. By genetically modifying the plant, we are creating hybrid plants that will hopefully benefit humans for years to come. Another process allows exact copies of a plant to be made, therefore a whole crop will be identical and each plant will have the favourable characteristic. This process involves these following steps:
1 Mapping - A desired characteristic is found and isolated
2 PCR - The desired gene is removed and many copies are made
3 Transformation - The gene is added to the DNA of a new plant by means
5 A new "hybrid" plant is formed
2.2) Distribution and use
The first genetically modified product was created in 1994 which was a new tomatoe known as the "flvr savr". South Africa is the only country in Africa that cultivates genetically modified crops on a commercial scale and is responsible for 1% of the global produce of these modified crops. South Africa has said to have had a 30% increase in the amount of land used to grow genetically modified crops over the last year and a total of 1.8 million hectares is now been grown.
South Africa is experimenting with the following genetically modified plants:
The leading producer of genetically modified crops in the world is the United States of America which is responsible for 53% of the total genetically modified crops that are produced.
Graph showing the amount of GM crops being cultivated in different countries
The chart shows that Egypt and Burkina Faso also produce genetically modified however these are only experimental crops and they have not yet reached commercial sizes. Benin, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are also experimenting in the production of these crops. A total of 22 African countries are already receiving genetically modified foods as a part of international aid for the United Nations (UN). The food for these countries is collected by the UN from the various countries that produce the crops in a hope to end the food shortages in the African countries. The distribution and use of these crops is expanding at enormous rates as countries are beginning to see the potential benefits that they have. Before genetically modified foods are placed on the market, they have to be approved by government scientists and adequate labeling has to be in place.
However there are some countries that do not approve of GM foods and have banned or limited their use in their countries. These are some of the countries who do so:
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3) Types of GM crops
Soybeans can be genetically modified in order for them to be resistant to herbicides that are used to kill weeds and other plants. Alfalfa, rapeseed, corn, sugar cane and sugar beet can also be modified in order to be resistant to certain herbicides. By genetically modifying plants to be resistant to herbicides, farmers can use more effective herbicides that would have affected the plants before but due to their modifications, the plants become resistant to the herbicides and can grow healthily.
Squash, Papaya and sweet peppers have been genetically modified so that their resistance to viruses is increased and the crop has a better chance of survival. This can save farmers thousands of dollars as one virus can kill a whole plantation. The viruses may also affect the yield and look of the plant and/or its produce, resulting in its market value dropping. Viruses may also affect the nutritional value of the plant.
Corn and cotton are genetically modified to increase their resistance to insects that feed of the crops. By changing the genetics of the plant the insects that feed off the plants are killed because their process of protein synthesis may be compromised. This will result in insects learning not to eat the plant, and this will save the farmers money and allow for more food to be produced.
Tomatoes can be modified to lack polygalacturonase which will allow the tomatoes to have a longer shelf life. This will allow the tomatoes to be exported as they will last longer than usual. These modified tomatoes can also survive outside a refrigerator for much longer than normal tomatoes.
Sugar cane is genetically modified to have higher sucrose content. This makes the sugar cane much more valuable as the sugar extracted from sugar cane is comes from sucrose. This means that there will be more sugar produced from every unit of sugar cane.Golden rice
Normal rice compared to "golden" rice enriched with vitamin A
Rice and corn are modified so that they have more vitamins. An example of this is "golden" rice that is produced with higher levels of vitamin A.
4) Advantages and Disadvantages
By genetically modifying a crop, farmers are able to produce crops that have a higher yield than normal. This is a fundamental breakthrough because it will allow more food to be introduced into the market. One of the major problems leading to food shortages is the lack of fertile ground available. However, genetically modified crops are modified to be able to grow in soils that are less fertile than normal. Large parts of Africa experience severe droughts. Scientists have found a way to combat this by genetically modifying a plant so that it needs less water than normal to grow. This, coupled with their ability to grow in less fertile soil, will allow for much more cultivation to happen in African countries.
Scientists have been able to improve the nutritional value of crops. This allows for people to gain more nutrients without a substantial change to their diet. This is very important for Africa as much of the population suffers from poor nutrition. Scientists can also alter the crops genes so that they can grow in more extreme conditions. This means that crops will be able to be cultivated in areas of extremely high and low temperatures.
The fact that genetically modified crops are more resistant to viruses and insects means that less toxic chemicals will be needed to make sure that the plants are healthy and productive. Because fewer toxins are needed, there will be fewer pollutants in the environment. Because less herbicides and pesticides are used, the farmers do not need to spend money on hiring labour to apply the chemicals.
The time that the crops take from planting to reaping can also be reduced through genetic modification. This means that more crops can be grown in one season, further increasing the amount of food available for people. This will also cause food prices to drop as there is more on the market
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Many of the genetically modifies crops that have been released in the market have not actually been scientifically tested for side effects. These crops have not been on the market long enough to judge if they have serious side effects or not. Research shows that by changing the genetics of the plants people might actually develop allergies to the plants and may become severely ill if the plant is consumed. The genetically modified plants may also be toxic to animals and insects. Therefore by introducing the genetically modified plants, the whole balance of the ecosystem could become disrupted. Roundup ready plants have been proved to cause miss-carriages in animals and research is suggesting that it may also cause miss-carriages in humans as well
Genetically modified crops may end up being cross pollinated with non-genetically modified crops through natural pollination. This can cause problems as we will not be able to tell which are normal crops and which ones have been genetically modified. The fact that many farmers do not label their foods as genetically modified is also a problem as people will not know if the food they buy is natural or not. Since the genetically modified plants are superior to other plants, they may threaten biodiversity as the other plants will not be able to compete with the genetically modified crops.
When a plant is genetically modified it become genetically identical to the other plants that have been genetically modified. This is a major problem because if a disease or virus is able to kill one plant, it can kill all of them. This may cause huge problems as a whole crop can be killed so easily.
Genes from the plants may be passed on to weeds and insects in the area. This will lead to the weeds and insects also have an advantage over nature and they may prove very hard to get rid of. These genes could spread rapidly giving way to a breed of "super-weeds" and "super-bugs" that could have a devastating impact on the environment.
There are many other health risks that are still unknown as there has not been enough research on the side effects of the GM crops.
Scientists are needed in order to genetically modify a plant. These scientists are generally located in first world countries and very few can be found in third world countries. Therefore the third world countries farmers are dependent on the first world country scientists to provide them with the genetically modified seed. This can easily lead to the third world country farmers being exploited by the first world countries. This may also lead to other problems as some farmers may not be able to afford the seeds and it will be impossible for them to compete on the market with farmers who have used genetically modified foods.
Farmers also often do not label their crops as genetically modified and this compromises peoples right of free choice as they may have made a personal decision not to eat genetically modified foods and they end up eating them as the foods are not labeled properly. A very strong ethical issue pertaining to the genetically modified foods is that the process is not natural.
The research needed to experiment with genetically modified foods is very expensive and a lengthy process and there is no guarantee that the particular thing being researched will even work. The fact that genetically modified foods may be cheaper than normal food may sway people's opinion of whether or not to consume them. This is affecting people's will for free choice as, to some; it's an option they cannot refuse. Normal organic foods will become more expensive as it will be done on a smaller scale.
Impact on health
The modifications done to these plants may cause allergic reactions in animals and humans. They may also contain harmful toxins in order for them to become more resistant to insects and weeds. These toxins could affect us if we consume the plant or they may be passed into waterways affecting people who haven't even eaten the plant.
Due to the toxins that the crops may contain, soils may become toxic. These toxins may take many years to break down therefore affecting whatever grows in that land for years to come which may cause plants and animals in the area to die. The fact that super weeds and super bugs may occur is a huge concern. These new breeds can cause huge environmental impact. The new plants could affect natural vegetation as insects and bugs will have to attack them as they can no longer eat the crops.
Introducing the genetically modified plants into society may cause a social divide between the people who support them and the people who do not. People may also have conflict over this issue due to their religions as some religions will embrace it but some will view it as people trying to play God. Conflict between first and third world countries may occur as the first world countries may begin to exploit the third world countries. The third world countries will also want to store the seed as their ancestors have done before them, however the first world countries will oppose this as they will want the third world countries to keep on buying the seed from them. GM crops may also result in a lack of food security for third world countries as they will not be able to have a seed store. Many of the GM products are not labeled which violates our rights.
6) Personal view
The positives of genetically modified crops outweigh the negatives. Genetically modified crops have the potential to solve the hunger problems in African countries. Although the research is expensive, it is worth the money and with more extensive research the negatives of the modifications can be further reduced. The genetically modified crops are far superior to organic foods in many aspects. The fact that they can be grown in more harsh conditions with less water is suitable for Africa as those conditions are ever present. Because of their ability to be produced in such large numbers at a lower cost of farming, the cost of genetically modified foods will be lower than food prices today. Africans should embrace this movement because of the potential it has to solve the problem of hunger that many Africans face. With proper supervision, the first world countries will not be able to exploit the African countries. Eventually the African countries will not have to depend on the third world countries as they will learn how to modify the plants themselves. Although the crops carry an environmental risk, with proper supervision, these risks can be made minimal and not pose as a real threat. Small subsistence farmers may also find the GM crops useful as they will be able to get much higher yields to sustain their families and although the seed may be expensive now, the cost should start to decrease. Genetically modified foods have the potential to make Africa a better place.
My research done for this project has influenced my viewpoint dramatically. This is due to the fact that I did not have a wide knowledge on the topic before I started the project. My religious beliefs have had a minor impact on my project however it did not affect my final decision. The media has affected my viewpoint tremendously as it made me aware of worldwide hunger especially in Africa. Due to this I have a strong viewpoint that it needs to be corrected and I see genetically modified foods as the only solution