The Modified Food Products Biology Essay

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Genetically modified food is a term that refers to food products that are created by using the latest biotechnology [1] techniques. The modified food products consist of desired traits such as improved nutritional content (Whitman 2000).

The era of GM foods began with the introduction of Flavr Savr, a genetically modified tomato created by Calgene, a California based company (Chapman 2006). Through genetic engineering, the tomatoes were made to ripe at a slower rate and thus preventing premature softening, while still allowing the tomato to retain its natural colour and flavour. [2] 

Almost 20 years have passed and currently GM foods are much more widely available throughout the world, as shown in figure 1 below. The United States Department of Agriculture stated that there are over 40 types of GM plant varieties available (Chapman 2006). The top two most widely grown crops are soybeans and corns, followed by cotton, canola and potatoes.

Figure 1: Global status of GM crops in 2006. (Source: James C, 2008)

Although successes have been proved and seen worldwide, controversies revolving GM foods never subside. As the common saying goes- fear of the unknown makes one's imagination run wild. These words perhaps best explain why GM foods have made a big splash in the news since they were first known to us. (See figure 2) Controversies regarding GM foods mainly revolve around its safety profile and ethical issues.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_v2GFIISzHOU/R-s6B3E5L9I/AAAAAAAAAKU/gNj1KjK64Mc/s400/Genetically%2BModified%2BFood.jpg

Figure 2: A media cartoon portraying the uncertainties and potential hazards of GM foods.

(Source: CartoonStock, 2011)

Benefits of genetically modified food products

As mentioned previously, people are divided about the benefits on GM foods. While scientists claim that GM food products are superior to conventional crops in many ways, many citizens still view them with much caution. This section will look at some of the important benefits of GM food products compared to natural food products.

2.1 Resistant food products

Crop losses from pests and extreme weathers can be devastating, causing severe starvation and financial losses. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of undernourished people in the world remains at a staggering 930 million in the year 2010. (See figure 3)

Figure 3: Number of undernourished people in the world.

(Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011)

Researchers claim that GM crops which are made to be more resistant against pests and extreme weathers will be able to ease the pressure of hunger across the world as they can produce a significantly larger yield. Besides, consumers are not willing to consume food products that are treated with pesticides due to significant health hazards. As GM crops are resistant to pests, it helps to eliminate the need to apply pesticides, making GM food products safer to be consumed (Whitman 2000).

In addition, the introduction of weather resistant crops can bring benefits to mankind as crops can be grown in different weather conditions. For instance, strawberries can be genetically modified to grow in frosts. Other foods that grow in cold climates could be engineered to grow in hot climates such as Africa where much of the continent does not have enough food.

2.2 Nutritious food products

As discussed previously, malnutrition is extremely common in third world countries where impoverished people rely heavily on a single crop for the main staple of their diet. (See figure 4) A single crop rarely provides adequate amounts of essential nutrients to prevent malnutrition. The genotypes [3] of plants can thus be altered to contain additional vitamins and minerals in order to alleviate nutritional deficiencies. An example would be "golden rice" containing high levels of vitamin A that is used to prevent blindness due to vitamin A deficiency (Whitman 2000).

Figure 4: Undernourishment in 2010 across the world (in millions).

(Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011)

2.3 Pharmaceutical food products

Pharmaceutical [4] products such as medicines and vaccines are often costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions which are not widely available in all areas. According to Daniell et. al. (2001), researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. Pharmaceutical GM foods will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines. Scottish scientists, on the other hand, are working on genetically modified chickens to lay eggs that are capable of producing anti-cancer drugs (Biotechnology Online, 2010). Apart from that, scientists also believe that plant derived medicines are associated with a lower risk of causing allergic reactions among patients.

Possible harms of genetically modified food products

Almost everyone, from environmental activists to even scientists themselves has raised concerns and skepticisms about GM foods. Most concerns fall into 2 categories: safety profile of GM foods and religious and ethical concerns, which will be elaborated under this section.

3.1 Unsafe and unhealthy food products

There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have a negative impact on human health. There is a possibility that GM foods can cause anaphylaxis, a severe life threatening allergic reaction. A primary research conducted by distribution of questionnaires [5] echoed the previous statements. In this research which recruited 59 samples, more than half of the participants (56%) expressed their concerns over the safety of GM foods. Furthermore, 41% refuses to consume GM products due to safety concerns. (See figure 5)

Figure 5: Responses among participants of primary research. (Source: Huan NB, 2011)

However, large scale studies from reputable organizations such as the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine have rebutted the idea of ill health effects of GM foods. Their reports concluded that no adverse health effects attributed to GM foods have been documented in the human population (Key S et. al., 2008).

3.2 Unethical food products

To certain groups of people, GM food products are perceived as unethical as it violates the law of nature. Crierie & Greig (2005), in their writing about the bioethics [6] discussed about various ethical dilemmas associated with GM food products. Such issues are highly controversial and politicians, philosophers and scientists often lock horns over such topics, as summarized in table 1 below:

Category

Examples of issues

The "Law of nature"

Should we (humans) 'mess with the nature' by using transgenic techniques?

Economic concerns

Who should own the life forms i.e. should genes be patented?

Will such technology create unethical and unfair situations where large companies monopolise the industry?

Religion

If a GM plant product consists of genes transferred from animals, will it offend those who are vegetarians due to his/her religion?

Table 1: Examples of ethical issues that can arise due to GM food products (Source: Crierie A & Greig D, 2005)

Recommendations

Mandatory labels, such as the one showed in figure 6 below, should be made on food products containing genetically modified components so that consumers will be able to make an informed choice. This step helps to alleviate some ethical issues surrounding GM foods.

Figure 6: An example of informed choice, by providing GM status labels (red circle) on all food products. (Source: Huan NB, 2011)

Final words

The benefits and harms of GM foods have been discussed in previous sections. Although at this moment it is still difficult to ignore the possible harms of GM food, it is optimistic to say that GM food products do provide more benefits than harm to mankind. Further researches are much needed to investigate and eliminate potential harms of GM foods, thus improving its safety profile and abolish public fear.

Glossary

Biotechnology

An area of science which is concerned with the application of techniques to use other organisms for human purposes.

Genotype

All the genes present in the cells of an organism.

Pharmaceutical

Of or relating to medicinal drugs.

Bioethics

The consideration of whether or not the application of certain biological techniques is good or bad or should or should not be used in society.

Appendix

Year

Event(s)

1994

The first genetically engineered food product, the FlavrSavr® tomato, receives US Food and Drug Administration approval.

1995

Australian Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) allows unrestricted, commercial release of a GM blue carnation in Australia.

1997

Researchers at Scotland's Roslin Institute clone a sheep named Dolly, from an udder cell of an adult ewe.

1998

40 million hectares of GM crops are planted globally: predominantly soy, cotton, canola and corn.

2000

'Golden rice', a genetically modified variety with genes added which produce a vitamin A precursor, is created.

2001

A single gene from Arabidopsis is inserted into tomato plants to create the first crop able to grow in salty water and soil.

2002

Researchers sequence the DNA of rice, the main food source for two-thirds of the world's population. It is the first crop plant to have its genome decoded.

2003

Japanese researchers develop a biotech decaffeinated coffee bean.

US Environmental Protection Agency approves the first GM rootworm-resistant corn.

2004

Australian researchers use gene mapping techniques to identify genes for tenderness and toughness in beef, allowing breeders to select stocks containing the 'tender' gene.

2005

USA researchers test GM drought-resistant tomatoes, salt-tolerant oats, and high-calcium potatoes.

Herbicide-tolerant GM corn approved for use as food in Australia.

2006

US researchers test flood-tolerant rice, and identify a gene that increases the protein, iron, and zinc content of wheat kernels.

Herbicide-tolerant GM alfalfa grown in the US.

2007

United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) conclude that food products derived from cloned animals are as safe to eat.

Scottich researchers genetically modify chickens to lay eggs capable of producing drugs that fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

2008

GM drought-tolerant wheat developed in Victoria returns yields up to 20 per cent higher than non-GM control crops.

The GM food timeline (Source: Biotechnology Online, 2010)

Appendix

Questionnaire:

Taylor's College Subang Jaya

Questionnaire: Genetically Modified Foods (GMF)

Name : Huan Nai Bin

Subject : English as second language (ESL)

Programme : South Australian Matriculation (SAM)

Date : 29.03.2011

I'm Huan Nai Bin, a student from Taylor's College Subang Jaya, enrolled in the SAM programme. For my ESL studies, I am conducting a questionnaire for my investigation. In order to get some ideas and comments, I shall be very much grateful if you could kindly answer and complete the questionnaire below. All your particulars and answers will be kept strictly private and confidential. Thank you.

__________________________

HUAN NAI BIN

Student ID number: 1101G11548

Part 1 (For each question, put a 'tick' in the box against your answer)

Gender

( ) Male ( ) Female

Age group

( ) 15-20years old ( ) 41-50years old

( ) 21-30years old ( ) 51years old and above

( ) 31-40years old

Highest educational level attained

( ) Primary

( ) Secondary

( ) Tertiary and above

Profession (please state below)

_________________________

Part 2 (For each question, put a 'tick' in the box against your answer)

Are Genetically Modified Foods (GMF) safe?

( ) Yes ( ) No

Do you think that you will consume GMF?

( ) Yes ( ) No

Do GMF have to be labelled?

( ) Yes ( ) No

Do you think that GMF will be more expensive?

( ) Yes ( ) No

Part 3 (For each question, answer the following questions by writing in the spaces provided)

Define in your own words the term GMF.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What are some of advantages and disadvantages of GMF?

Advantages : ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Disadvantages :

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who should be held responsible?

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Can you accept GMF? Why? ( ) Yes ( ) No

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

-End of the questionnaire-

-Thank you-

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