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Scientists have discovered how to make changes to the genes: the chemical building blocks of all living organisms. With the development of genetic engineering technology, in the field of agriculture, scientists can make crops more resistant to pests and herbicides and engineer them suitable for different climates and environments. Altering food sources is not a new concept; farmers have been using selective breeding and crossbreeding to alter crops for the production of the best taste, size, and appearance. Nonetheless, these processes are rather complex and can take years or even decades to get the desired outcome and traits. Farmers who want new plants with specific characteristics, therefore, began to look for genetic technology as their solution. Genetically modified crops have grown commercially in the world on a scale that has increased steadily over the years and are now commonly accepted. Although there are certain benefits GM crops and foods bring, many people express their concern over their safety, possible long-term consequences, and their impacts on the biodiversity of the traditional crops.
Today’s biotechnology is mostly identified with applications in agriculture based on scientists’ knowledge of the genetic code of life; therefore, fully understanding the science behind GMOs and the role of geneticists are important. Since the late 19th century, the time when Gregor Mendel discovered that characteristics in pea plants could be inherited, scientists were eager to “[improve] plants by changing their genetic makeup” (Thompson). Geneticists’ abilities to identify the genes and alter the genetic structure of different living things have led to many medical advances and changed the way humans grow food. Geneticists make these changes in several ways, such as removing an undesired trait from appearing by switching off the gene or inserting a small portion of DNA from one organism into the DNA of another organism. Biotechnologists can insert specific genes into a host organism’s DNA and introduce new phenotypic traits that may be beneficial to survival. The science of manipulating genetic information heavily depends on plasmids, the small circles of exogenous DNA that carry their own genes for specialized functions. This transformation technique using plasmids is widely used in genetic engineering and allows bacteria to take up introduced foreign DNA of the plasmid from the environment and express the foreign gene. Scientists use bacteria that naturally infect plants with plasmids to deliver their own lab-created plasmids. All these methods create plants that contain carefully selected genes, turning conventional crops into genetically modified organisms.
Traditional way vs. genetic engineering
Farmers have selectively cross-bred plants to raise crops with more desirable traits. Unlike selective breeding, which requires many generations of parents and offspring to produce the desired results, genetic engineering is very quick. Altering the genes in a laboratory can be done in a few weeks or days because genetic engineering only requires the data from one generation. In recent decades, therefore, genetic engineering techniques that create GM crops have rapidly accelerated the process of developing new and better crops.
No one can argue that most of the crops that people buy in supermarkets sprout from genetically engineered seeds. Senator Donna Nesselbush acknowledges that “in an average grocery store, roughly 75 percent of processed foods contain genetically modified organisms” (Emery). Unless people have been eating foods labeled 100 percent organic GMO-free foods, most of them, for sure, have GMOs in their body system already. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson agrees with Senator Donna Nesselbush and says, “practically every food [people] buy in a store for consumption … is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons … You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it’s not as large, it’s not as sweet, it’s not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables, and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them” (Brian). Many people already accepted genetically modified crops as their food sources, and only a few seek for the traditionally grown organic crops. However, instead of just buying GMOs because of their common acceptance, it is vital to understand both positive and negative aspects.
There are several advantages to creating and planting GM crops. One of the main benefits of this technology is the creations of plants that are more resistant to certain pests, diseases, and herbicides. It can allow crops to produce a substance that will deter pests from eating them and make crops resistant to weed killer sprays, reducing the amount of time and money farmers spend on killing weeds and pests. Farmers, therefore, lose less product by preventing the harm caused by the outside environment and physical factors, and the production of food becomes more efficient. Refer to the figure below which shows the percentage of genetically engineered corn in the United States and the percentages of the use of insect-resistant gene, herbicide-tolerant gene, or both.
Figure 1. Genetically Modified Corn Varieties as a Percentage of All Corn Planted in the United States by The U.S. Department of Agriculture
According to the graph above, The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 76% of the corn planted in 2014 was both insect and herbicide resistant, up from 1% in 2000 and approximately 93 percent of all corns produced in the nation is genetically modified.
Another benefit in which genetic engineering on crops can bring is the improved quality and quantity of crops. Genetic engineering, by modifying genes, can give crops the advantages of faster growth, bigger yields from less land, and better flavor.
Some GMOs are created to address world nutrition problems and are designed to solve specific problems. Genetic modification enhances the nutrients and vitamins in a specific crop, which is especially beneficial for people in the developing world. For example, a genetically modified rice called golden rice provides people with more vitamin A, a necessary nutrient that many people in Africa and South Asia lack in their diets. Genetically modified foods, thus, can help people who do not have nutritional foods that contain vitamin A stay healthy. The consumption of more vitamin A also helps prevent major health conditions, including blindness.
Genetic engineering can also allow plants to grow better in an environment with tough conditions and weather, especially where organic crops, cannot survive. If genetically engineered crops were to be grown in former areas of famine or in an area with no or low precipitation, the crops will help feed large numbers of starving people in places such as Africa.
Along with improving nutrition and alleviating hunger, genetic modification of crops may also help the conservation of natural resources and improve waste management. The continued adoption of GM crops has helped the environment as well as the farmer, opines Clive James, founder of The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. In 2010 alone, “GM crops helped reduce CO2 emissions by 19 billion kg, the equivalent to taking approximately nine million cars off the road” (Khush).
Despite those potential benefits listed above, many people view GM crops with suspicion as GMOs techniques have raised concerns and spurred controversy. Since their genes are altered, some people wonder if they are healthy, harmful, or safe. Farmers, seed companies, scientists, and consumers may have different perspectives.
Most scientists and distinguished international scientific organizations such as “the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization” have offered volumes of compelling and internationally accepted scientific data that demonstrates the safety of GM foods and no significant difference than those harvested from conventionally raised crops. The US Department of Agriculture and other government agencies that oversee food safety also approved the new crops because they would have no effect on human or animal health. Nonetheless, much of the general public fears that this food might pose unknown health risks (Emery). Many consumers and those who keep an eye on food safety worry that GMOs pose an unnatural threat to our health and the environment. These opponents say that GMOs have been linked to depression, allergies, and even cancer since the introduced genes might make the plant produce unexpected substances which could be toxic or cause allergies.
It can be possible that there are dangerous impacts on the genetically modified organisms themselves and on those who consume foods produced from genetically modified organisms. Some studies indicate that certain genetically modified foods have negative effects on the digestive systems and cardiac health of rats that consume those foods in high quantities. Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that “more intensive herbicide used to protect GM crops can slowly disrupt normal body functions and include diseases such as Parkinson’s and various forms of cancer” (Benbrook). New genes put into food plants and animals could possibly damage the human body, and new genes that are intended to have certain effects might also have other, unexpected effects. These unexpected effects can cause the plant to produce extra amounts of its natural chemicals that might be poisonous if produced in larger amounts.
Potential problems range from the relatively minor – increased possibilities of allergic reactions to certain foods, for example – to the potentially devasting – the complete skewing of the balance of an ecosystem. Some anti-biotech activists argue that these organisms will contaminate their wild cousins with GM pollen and drive native plants extinct. The cultivation of insect-resistant plants could lead to the reduction or even destruction of certain insects species that naturally feed on those plants. A change in the insect population could have a disastrous impact on certain bird species that rely on the affected insects as their foods source. Also, alternations in the balance of the bird population could have further reaching consequences, all the way up the food chain. An ecosystem is a delicate thing, and the ripple created by genetically altering one variety of soybean will translate into a shock wave of unforeseen repercussions in the long term.
Regarding all the negative consequences that consuming genetically modified crops can possibly result in humans, it is important to not conform to society and think about it thoroughly before a person goes to a grocery store. Prince Charles of Wales delivered a speech at the 50th anniversary of the Soil Association in 1996, discussing his hesitations regarding GMO technology:
At the moment, as is so often the case with technology, we seem to spend most of our time establishing what is technically possible, and then a little time trying to establish whether or not it is likely to be safe, without ever stopping to ask whether it is something we should be doing in the first place.
Things can go wrong and often do. The rewards may be great, but there could be dangers involved that we cannot even imagine until they happen.
The European Union (EU) made labeling GM products a requirement in 1997. Soon after, many countries in the EU made laws limiting the sale, growth, and testing of GM foods. More than 60 countries have strict restrictions or bans on the number, type, and use of GM products that can be grown and consumed. However, as countries realize the economic value of GM crops and scientists support their safety, more EU countries are allowing them to be grown.
GMOs are still very new; scientists have been unable to look at their long-term effects. Therefore, rigorous specifications are necessary to ensure the safety of these products for human. Clearly, we must carefully study and regulate GM crops to ensure that these risks do not outweigh the benefits. More advances are made each year using genetic technology. New medicines, healthier crops, and tastier foods are becoming available all the time. As geneticists learn new ways to combine and alter genes, their discoveries will change the way people live and eat. GMOs can be extremely helpful for farmers and provide presumably healthy and safe food for people to eat. However, GMO technology must be used with care, and scientists must continue to learn more about it to determine if it has any effects on consumers.
- Thompson, Larry. “Are Bioengineered Foods Safe?” US Food and Drug Administration, FDA Consumer Magazine, 2000, permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps1609/www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2000/100_bio.html.
- Prince of Wales. “A Speech by HRH The Prince of Wales on the 50th Anniversary of The Soil Association.” The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, Clarence House, September 19, 1996.
- Stallard, Brian. “What Do We Really Know of GMOs? Tyson Wags His Finger at Critics.” Nature World News, July 31, 2014, www.natureworldnews.com/articles/8329/20140731/what-really-know-gmos-tyson-wags-finger-critics.htm.
- Franchino, Vicky. Genetically Modified Food. Michigan, Cherry Lake Publishing, 2008.
- Rissman, Rebecca. Genetically Modified Food. Abdo Publishing, 2016. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,cpid&custid=csl&db=e700xna&AN=978901&site=eds-live.
- Khush, Gurdev S. “Genetically modified crops: the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.” Agriculture & Food Security, September 7, 2012, agricultureandfoodsecurity.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2048-7010-1-14.
- Benbrook, Charles. “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.-the first sixteen years.” Environmental Sciences Europe, 2012, www.enveurope.com/content/24/1/24
- Emery, C. Eugene, and Mark Reynolds. “Sen. Donna Nesselbush: Three-Quarters of Processed Foods Have Genetically Modified Organisms.” Politifact, Poynter Institute, 22 Mar. 2015, www.politifact.com/rhode-island/statements/2015/mar/22/donna-nesselbush/sen-donna-nesselbush-three-quarters-processed-food/.
- Sheldon, Ian M., et al. Genetically Modified Food and Global Welfare. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,cpid&custid=csl&db=e862xna&AN=400667&site=eds-live.
- Bond, Dave. Genetic Engineering. National Highlights Inc, 2017. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,cpid&custid=csl&db=e862xna&AN=1930285&site=eds-live.
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