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Genetic modification of food may seem like a new concept; however, the process actually dates back centuries when wild plants, such as wheat, barley and lentils, mutated into domesticated species through years of cultivation by hunter-gatherers. Ancient farmers also used a process called selective breeding to domesticate maize into what we now know as corn by simply choosing which kernels to plant to get larger plants and better tasting kernels that were easier to grind. The process of genetic engineering was developed in 1973 and while farmers have continued to use selective breeding with their crops throughout the years, it was not until 1992 when genetically modified food crops were first approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Technological advancements have allowed the process of genetic modification of food to extrapolate from the experimental farming techniques of ancient farmers to the scientifically engineered process we have come to know today. However, despite scientific testing and U. S. Department of Agriculture approval, there is still opposition by some to the genetic modification of food for human consumption.
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Genetic modification is known by several interchangeable terms. In addition to genetically modified (GM), the process is also called genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified organism (GMO). “Underneath the varied terminology, however, all these words describe the same thing: taking a gene from one type of organism and adding it to the DNA of another in order to introduce a new trait that does not naturally occur in the species.” (Thompson, 2015)
“In the Federal Register of May 29, 1992 (57 FR 22984), FDA published its “Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties” (the 1992 policy). The 1992 policy clarified the agency’s interpretation of the application of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to human foods and animal feeds derived from new plant varieties and provided guidance to industry on scientific and regulatory issues related to these foods. The 1992 policy applied to all foods derived from all new plant varieties, including varieties that are developed using recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) technology.” (FDA.gov, 2018)
After gaining approval from the Department of Agriculture, the first genetically modified whole food to be commercialized and introduced in grocery stores was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. The expectation was that “the ripe fruit would remain firm longer, perhaps even allowing it to be transported to market after vine-ripening. Transporting vine-ripened fruit would avoid the practice of picking green fruits and artificially ripening them by ethylene treatment, which gives a ripe tomato color but not the full array of vine-ripened tomato flavors.” (Bruening et al, 2000) Unfortunately, the profitability of this product was never realized due to the high production and distribution costs.
Following the introduction of the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, research and experimentation proceeded for other crop foods and by 2001, 26 percent of corn and 68 percent of soybeans planted in the United States were of genetically modified varieties. These crops “were designed to produce higher yields than their conventional counterparts. They were also crafted so that they were more resistant to pesticides – chemicals applied to kill bugs or weeds.” By 2003, almost 75 percent of all the processed food in the United States contained genetically modified ingredients. (Hillstrom, 2012)
The United States is not the only country that has embraced the technology of genetically modified food. Other countries, such as Britain, Finland, South America and Romania, to name a few, support genetically modified foods as well. “By 2008, in fact, eight countries (the United States, Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, and South Africa) accounted for 98 percent of the 125 million hectares (308 million acres) of land devoted to GM crop production. Of this total, 57 percent of GM croplands were located in North America, 32 percent in Latin America, 6 percent in India, and 3 percent in China.” (Hillstrom, 2012)
Figure 1 – Global Area of GM Crops, 1996 – 2009 (Hillstrom, 2012)
Despite such a high percentage of genetically modified crops being produced for human consumption, some countries such as Japan, New Zealand, Austria, Hungary and Greece are still wary and concerned regarding their production and use and have banned cultivation of genetically modified crops in their respective cities. Environmental organizations argue that the unpredictable effects of commercial release of hundreds of thousands genetically modified organisms could affect the ecosystem.
Likewise, some consumers in countries where genetically modified crops are grown and sold share these concerns regarding the production of genetically modified crops.
One controversy surrounding genetically modified foods is the fear of creating new food allergies endangering consumers with products that contain proteins from another animal or plant that the consumer is allergic to. This controversy is supported by a reported increase in allergy rates for nuts, shellfish and other foods where genetically modified foods are being produced.
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Another concern arises from the use of genes from viruses and bacteria to genetically modify food. It is argued that antibiotic-resistant genes could transfer their resistance to bacteria present in the digestive system creating new disease-causing bacteria that is resistant to the usual antibiotics.
Religious concerns are also present regarding the production and use of genetically modified foods, claiming the process is unethical and goes against the rules of nature. One argument in support of these religious concerns is that genomes could be augmented with prohibited foods causing religious practitioners to unknowingly break dietary laws of their respective religion. For example, Jewish people do not eat pork so a tomato genome augmented with a pig gene could be prohibited because the tomato is contaminated with a pig gene.
Supporters of genetically modified food for human consumption argue that the benefits of genetically modified food could be far-reaching and vastly outweigh the drawbacks by reducing food costs, producing more nutritious foods and perhaps most importantly, reducing, or potentially, ending malnutrition and hunger in poverty-stricken parts of the world.
Both pros and cons of genetically modified food for human consumption raise valid points. In 2015, Newsweek Magazine stated that a Pew poll found that 88 percent of U.S. Scientists thought GMO technology was harmless, while only 33 percent of consumers agreed.
“By the year 2050, the number of people on Earth is expected to increase to 9.2 billion from the current 6.7 billion (Population Division, 2007). If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, farm workers will be at increased risk for disease, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation.” (Ronald, et al, 2008) People all over the world are starving today due to climate change, drought, natural disasters and various other reasons. If we cannot provide for the people living in the world today, how will we be expected to provide for an increased population of tomorrow as our natural resources deplete?
According to the 2015 UN DESA report, it is projected that the world population will reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100. As natural resources begin to dissipate, more countries, and consumers alike, may begin to embrace genetically modified food for human consumption as the alternative could mean going without food in some populations due to continued rapid growth. Improvements to the design of genetically modified crops are still being made. Over time, these improvements could decrease consumer opposition. One important fact to remember is that genetic modification of food is not the first technological foray scientists have made in the food industry. Selective breeding has occurred for centuries. Eventually the skepticism from experimentation and new discoveries is quelled and the unnatural becomes the normal and a whole generation will never know what came before.
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