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The Regulation of GM foods
In 1988, the FDA allowed the company Showa Denko to sell a product containing a genetically modified (GM) form of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body uses to synthesize proteins. Because the company had been selling tryptophan produced from non-genetically modified bacteria without ill effects, it was argued that the method of production was immaterial and did not require additional testing. In addition, the FDA did not require that the new tryptophan be labeled as genetically engineered. Within three months, 37 people had died and 1500 were permanently disabled from using the product (Fagan). A genetically modified food is derived from a genetically modified organism, one that has had specific changes introduced into its DNA by genetic engineering. GM foods are here to stay, but they must be regulated by the government so that human health risks are prioritized. The US produces the most GM food of any country and should therefore impose the strictest regulations to ensure the safety of public and environment. There are many potential health and environmental risks that I will address. The public is threatened by numerous potential health risks that are unknown to them. The environment is also at stake from the growing of GM crops. However, due to the world's increasing population, the food supply of the world must increase by as much as threefold. Because of the prevalence of GM foods in the US, the government must step in to impose strict regulations so that both people and environment are protected from harm.
There are many problems with GM foods. Before we embrace GM foods as a cure-all, we must be very careful to consider the consequences and this is where the government needs to step in. In 2000, thirteen countries around the world grew genetically-engineered crops commercially, and of these, the U.S. produced the majority. One researcher concludes that “68% of all GM crops were grown by U.S. farmers. In comparison, Argentina, Canada and China produced only 23%, 7% and 1%, respectively” (Whitman 13). Because the US produces so much GM crops, there are many concerns that must be addressed.
In the US, Allergies are a major concern with GM foods, especially if ingredients are not labeled on the packaged food. Many children have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is the possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. A proposal to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans was abandoned because of the fear of introducing an unexpected allergic reaction (Nordlee, Taylor, Townsend, Thomas, and Bush 688). Thorough evaluation and testing needs to be conducted to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers.
In the Showa Denko incident, the contamination was potentially caused when the company cut corners in its purification process. It took many months to discover that the poisoning was due to toxic contaminants in the GM tryptophan. The delay was due to the fact that the product was not labeled as genetically engineered. This is a prime example of what can happen because of penny pinching by the corporation and lack of regulation by the government.
The long term effects of the consumption of GM foods are still largely unknown. There have been no studies conducted that show that the use of GM foods is undeniably detrimental. However, GM foods must be assessed for direct health effects, allergenicity, nutritional or toxic effects, stability of inserted genes, and any unintended side effects that could result from the gene insertion. Only after the food in question has passed all testing, should it be allowed to be used for animal or human consumption.
In addition to the human health risks, the growing of GM foods presents many risks to the environment that cannot be ignored. Crops have been modified to grow in places where they couldn't have grown before. They have been engineered to withstand droughts, heat, and toxicity from metals and other contaminants. Consequently, more burden is placed on the soil and the earth which will eventually deplete and exhaust the land. Jonathan Rauch put it best when he stated that, “Farming does not go easy on the earth…to farm is to make war upon millions of plants (weeds, so-called) and animals (pests, so-called)” (513). By growing crops in more and more areas, we are potentially causing immeasurable harm to the environment.
Another consequence of growing GM crops would be the transfer of genes into non-target species. This would be a problem because it would create weeds or pests that are even more resistant to the herbicide or pesticide. If an herbicide resistant species cross pollinated with a weed plant, the resulting hybrid might also have the herbicide resistant gene. This would create a strain of weeds immune to the herbicide and would defeat the purpose of producing the GM strain in the first place (Whitman 30). The weeds might then cross into other fields and may pick up or pass along genes to other unintended species. These herbicide resistant weeds could potentially go unchecked and invade many crop fields.
What is the cause for the need for the prevalent use of GM foods? To simply put it, the human population is exploding. In the article “Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?” Jonathan Rauch explains the problem:
The United Nations, in its midrange projections, estimates that the earth's human population will grow by more than 40 percent, from 6.3 billion people today to 8.9 billion in 2050. Feeding all those people, and their billion or so hungry pets, and providing the increasingly protein-rich diets that an increasingly wealthy world will expect-doing all that will require that the world's food output at least double, and possibly even triple (Rauch 513).
Because of the need to triple the amount of food produced in the same amount of land, crops need to yield as much food as possible. Crops are being modified to increase yields, produce their own pesticides and herbicides, and even to grow in areas where it was once impossible to grow. A shortage of land already causes subsistence farmers in Indonesia and South America to slash and burn tropical forests. In addition, desertification and droughts caused by global warming will make situation even worse. The manufacture of biofuels from wheat, corn and other food crops will further diminish the supply of land for growing food. Improved yields from GM technology lead to better use of land and prevent the destruction of forests which contributes to global warming (Taverne 10). As Taverne adds, “By contrast, the environmentalist James Lovelock has estimated that if all farming became organic, we would only be able to feed one third of even the present world population” (10).
GM foods sound like a great solution. Growing nutrition-rich, herbicide and pesticide resistant foods may seem like a miracle cure, but we must be careful to consider the repercussions. The European Union (EU) and the United States differ greatly when it comes to the regulation of GM foods. In the EU, “if a GM product is intentionally used in a food, then this must be properly reflected on the label” (Rowlinson). The traceability of a GM food is another significant issue to consider in EU laws. A GM food is only used when it is concluded to produce no harmful effects on humans or environment. An environmental impact assessment is conducted to make sure that there is no detrimental impact that resulted from the growing of the GM crop. Clear and accurate records are an important part of the manufacturer responsibility when developing a GM product (Rowlinson). Proper labeling and traceability are important for people to make informed choices. By comparison, the U.S policy on the regulation of GM foods is very lax and appears to continue to be.
In the US, the regulation of GM foods is very confusing because it is overseen by three agencies that each have jurisdiction. The EPA, USDA and FDA all oversee different aspects of GM foods. The EPA presides over environmental safety, the USDA tests whether a plant is safe to grow, and the FDA given the power to regulate where or not a plant is safe for consumption (Winston 62). In the current state, “a genetically-modified ear of corn sold at a stand is not regulated by the FDA because it is a whole food. A box of cornflakes however, would be regulated by the FDA because it is a food product” (Whitman 36). This makes strict regulation of GM foods difficult because of conflicting interests between the agencies. A separate agency should be created whose sole purpose is to regulate, test and study GM foods for human and environmental risks. It should be this agencies sole purpose to regulate all aspects of a GM food, from its growth, impact, and use.
I propose that the US implement similar policies as the EU to ensure that the human health and environmental risks are addressed. This is not unreasonable as the US grows much more GM food than the entire continent of Europe. The new agency should enact higher standards by which GM foods should be graded. Only if a GM food is found to be just as safe as a comparable conventionally grown product, should it be allowed to be sold to consumers. In addition, it should be tested for potential health hazards. It would be the new agency's job here to ensure that these potentially hazardous foods are produced to the strictest requirements. In the twenty years since the Showa Denko incident occurred, the US still has no policy regarding the labeling of genetically modified foods. The labeling of GM foods should be the least that the government can do to ensure that the public can make an educated choice regarding its use. To enact such policies would require the top levels of government for approval. We, as consumers can do our part by voicing our concerns to our state representatives and senators. As individuals, we can raise awareness to people and together raise our voices so that we can be heard. We can successfully create change for the good not only for ourselves but for the future billions of people.
The world is growing and it must be fed. GM foods are currently the most powerful weapon we hold. However, we must be careful about yielding this double-edged sword. Though we may be able to feed more people, we must be careful not to cause ourselves or the planet greater harm. Human health and environmental concerns should be the greatest priority. Our government should be the primary enforcers of this new technology. The highest of regulations and standards should be imposed. Undeniably, GM foods hold the key to feeding the world in the upcoming decades. According to Jonathan Rauch, “Biotechnology has huge potential benefits and huge risks, and we need to address both as we move forward” (518). A lot of environmentalists would say instead, “before we move forward” and I agree with this. This is a big difference because the population growth will happen in the coming decades. I do not dispute the fact that GM crops have huge potential, and I do believe that they will be a big part of our future as the population continues to grow. However, we must tread cautiously lest we create a larger problem than the one we began with.
Mark L. Winston. Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press Cambridge, 2002.
Jonathan Rauch, Beyond Words: Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?. New York: Longman 2009.
Deborah B. Whitman. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” April 2000. 22 Nov 2009 < http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php>.
Julie A Nordlee, Steve L. Taylor, Jeffrey A. Townsend, Laurie A. Thomas, and Robert K. Bush. “Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans.” New England Journal of Medicine March 14 1996: 688-692. 22 Nov 2009 < http://faculty.washington.edu/sstrand/Brazil_Nut_Allergin.pdf > .
Dick Taverne. “The Real GM food scandal.” Prospect November 25, 2007. 23 Nov 2009 < http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2007/11/therealgmfoodscandal/ >.
John Fagan. “Summary of the Tryptophan Toxicity Incident.” November 1997. 22 Nov 2009 <http://www.nemsn.org/Articles/summary_tryptophan%20Fagan.htm>.
John Rowlinson. “Europe's Approach to GM Foods.” Genetically Modified Food 2009. 28 Nov 2009 < http://www.geneticallymodifiedfoods.co.uk/europes-approach-gm-foods.html >.