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Much as new technologies grow by leaps and bounds, genetic modification of food has followed a similar trend. This is in part, motivated by profit making intentions or the need to fight the increasing human problems of hunger and malnutrition in the world. Even though this scientific development has and will continue to increase food production, its incision has sparked much controversy by many folks who fear that genetic modification of foods pose potential health risks which are not fully understood by its proponents. Although many think that genetically modified foods can lessen world hunger and malnutrition, skeptics contend that GM crops could pose unique health risks.
Genetically modified crops are those which have been triggered to produce high yields or resist certain adverse conditions by having genes from either related or unrelated organisms integrated into their genetic make up. Unlike conventional breeding, in genetic modification specific genes are identified, isolated, copied, and introduced into other organisms or plants in direct and controlled ways. As a result, genetic modification changes the organism's genes to function in way that will allow desired characteristics to be achieved. It is possible for instance, to genetically modify tomatoes so that they stay fresh for a long time. Similarly, rice can be genetically modified to produce higher vitamin content. A scientist genetically modifies a plant, by inserting a foreign gene-for instance, a pesticide resistant bacterium gene-into a plant's own genes so that such a plant also acquires those traits which help it stay longer without going bad. For both its benefits and potential health risks, genetic engineering is a serious topic of controversy in today's scientific world.
Ever since, the European community has singled itself as the most anti-GM foods. Their objection to genetically modified foods (GMF) does not only show in Consumer attitudes and decisions regarding GM food but it also shows in the trade barriers and strict regulations imposed on any foods entering Europe by the government. These regulations require that Manufacturers must clearly label all foods, be it GM foods or those intentionally recommended to be modified for some reasons, so that the genetically altered food must not, in any way, mislead the consumer, present any health risks to the consumer, or differ from the food it is intended to replace in a way that it may pose health problems.
Compared to Europe, the regulation of food is of less priority in North America in general. There is huge investment in both agriculture and technology in the United States. Because agricultural products make up a large portion of the United State's exports, profit is a major driving force for these continuing efforts. In addition, the increasing demand for food as a result of the growing population invites the need to produce more food at a faster rate which, also, requires better biotechnology to be put into practice. Since manufacturers are not enforced to label their products, the public remains unaware of what the food they eat constitutes and oblivious to buying GM food from any store without knowledge.
The issue of genetic modification of foods has been and will continue to be so controversial that it has created divisions among people in society with many saying that GM foods are safe to eat while others believe that GM foods may present potential health risks. In a biotechnology industry-based conference, the speaker Tommy Thompson had identified himself as one of the proponents of GM foods who assured his audiences that, "mandatory labeling would only frighten consumers and play into the hands of those who exploit fear rather than deal in fact" (Kim 8). However, in their focus group study, Beckwith et al were able to discover those within the public who apparently seem against GM foods. They found that, most participants have the general view that, even though proponents of GM foods may be aware that there may, indeed, be potential health risks associated with GM foods, they seem to ignore and dismiss this notion to the fear that, public sentiment would turn against and contribute to the downfall of the biotechnology industry should there be labeling and open debates in place to educate the public (Beckwith et al 104). Furthermore, GM food skeptics also firmly assert that, if nothing is done now, once GM foods are released into the public, it cannot be recalled and that once genetic modification is done, it can never be reversed if unanticipated negative effects occurred due to mistakes (Beckwith et al 102). Much as this appears a two side's issue of controversy, pundits like McCullum et al offer alternatives with completely diverging points of views. In their article, McCullum et al pointed out that difference in peoples' perception of science (325) as well as cultural differences (324); are some of the issues that dictate how society views genetically modified foods.
Generally speaking, because of the unique and unknown nature of genetically modified foods, cross- species gene transfer, as well as the complicated process of genetic modification, there may be unknown long term consequences. The fact that there has been no labeling of genetically modified products, in countries like the United States where GM food and feed produced in huge volumes, means that little attention is being paid to critically scrutinize GM food for related diseases. Even worse, deregulating genetically modified foods have enabled them to filter into the market system to the extent that potential health risks cannot easily be traced as such, presenting a grave danger to human life. In their focus group research, Beckwith et al discovered that participants have the general concern that, "once a GM food was released, there is no way to recall it if unanticipated negative effects occurred" (102). These concerns, according to Beckwith et al call for the precautionary principal, which states that, "when any activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically" (99), not to be ignored. This precautionary principal gives us the idea that, "prevention is better than cure" because if we continue to ignore scientific facts and rely on what we think is good for our desires.
Even though supporters of GM foods argue that the process of gene transfer is accurate and precise, the process involved is, in fact, so complicated and fortuitous that it can damage normal cells and cause adverse health side effects. Although proponents of GM foods such as Jefferson preach that, genetic engineering have made it possible to transfer genes between any organisms to meet desired goals, such as producing frost resistant strawberry by inserting cold-resistant genes from a fish living in cold sea (33), opponents argue that because this is a process that may not practically happen in nature, there is a feasibility that, "unexpected results from combinations of genes from different species" may occur (244), as such, any weaknesses may result in new toxins and health adverse side effects that cannot easily be traced and understood (Lessick 244). In a focus group study aimed to find out the public's perception of plant biotechnology, participants collectively acknowledged that, "even with additional testing, full scientific knowledge was unlikely and thus the potential for mistakes existed" (Beckwith et al 102). For instance, some scientists contend that unintended introduction of allergens in food may present possible allergenic reactions. In particular, Metcalfe argues that, if by mistake genes coding for glutens have been transferred to an allergic individual, it will create a problem for those with gluten-sensitive entropy or celiac disease (Metcalfe 1110). However, to make matters worse, Metcalfe reported that, any attempt to avoid the transfer of genes that codes for known allergens by screening up regulated genes to determine if they code for proteins with allergenic potential, to determine if a modified food is allergenic, has so far been inevitable because characteristics of a protein with known allergenicity that would distinguish this protein from a protein unlikely to be allergenic are not known (Metcalfe 1110).
Furthermore, opponents of GM food also argue that over production and consumption of single nutrients may be hazardous. From the fact that some food crops are genetically engineered to overproduce single nutrients, probiotic bacteria are genetically modified to serve the food industry and as vectors for gene therapy, and animals are genetically modified to have increased meat and milk production (M-W. Ho et al 70). In one of their research findings, M-W. Ho et al, argued that over production of single nutrients by genetic modification could be a public health hazard. Citing the specifics of their research findings, M-W. Ho et al contents:
Many nutrients are known to be toxic in overdose (89), so food crops overproducing any single nutrient could be a public health hazard, and genetically modifying probiotic bacteria may turn them into pathogens pre-adapted to invade the gut, and should be strongly resisted if not banned (90,91). Foods derived from GM animals are likely to be contaminated with potent vaccines, immune regulators and growth hormones, as well as nucleic acids, viruses and bacteria. (M-W. Ho et al 70)
To sum up, although genetic modification can indeed alleviate world hunger and fight malnutrition, the consequences of burying evidence of scientific research in controversies, over production of single nutrients, the complicated process of gene transfer, and over dependence on highly flawed studies that claim to find no effect without a full accounting of the possible adverse impacts are inevitable. It is just a matter of waiting and observing irreversible future consequence to do its worst on us, if proponents continue to undermine evidence of research findings and pay less attention. Much as I acknowledge that genetic modification is a good tool in the scientific world to end world hunger and malnutrition, I begin to wonder, if we should end hunger by causing genetic mutations we have anticipated or end world hunger safely through implementing appropriate scientific principles?
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