What are the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modifying food crops? Can developing countries or countries struggling with famine profit from these techniques?Does it affect the surrounding environment? These are all questions that have kept scientist biologist and ethicists busy. Religious groups would also like to have there say in it. Can genetic engineering help society, or will it be a burden for our future generations, because it has disastrous effects on our environment.
Approximately 10,000 years ago the first crops were consciously planted. In the Middle East, wheat and barley were planted, the early farmers in Peru cultivated potatoes and beans and in the Indus valley the ancient civilization there started sowing their fields with rice. How they figured this out we don’t know it was probably a long process of trial and error and a fair bit of luck. This early agriculture consisted out of four stages: sowing the seeds, caring for the plants, harvesting, selecting and keeping back some of the seeds for the next generation. Although these people that had settled down to farm had improved their life styles considerably, they still wanted a higher crop yield and a bigger variety of crops. This lead to certain techniques. Some that they understood like crop rotation, but others that have only been recently been explained by modern DNA research. These early farmers unconsciously crossed for example certain types of walnuts together, so that they were not poisonous anymore.
Wild walnuts contain cyanide and the concentration in wild walnuts is enough to kill a human. These early farmers also tried to get bigger seeds and fruits of their crops and make them more resistant to diseases. Of course they booked some progress, but not a lot. Nowadays scientists are still trying to genetically modify crops using new techniques which involves cutting and pasting the DNA with enzymes. So is it only good that, because of the work of these scientists we will have stronger and healthier crops or are there also disadvantages to genetically modifying crops?One of the obvious arguments against genetically modifying crops comes from religious groups. They think that experimenting with DNA and genes is messing with the natural order. They believe that “God” created everything and meant it to be created that way.
These religious groups can not prove that “God” meant it to be like this, so it is not valid evidence. Never the less they still make a point. If you genetically modify a crop in Area A these crops will of course also pollinate. When they pollinate there seeds will be carried by animals and the wind to the areas lying around them, Areas B, C, D and E. So if the grass in Area A was genetically modified than the seeds may carry and affect the grass in Areas B, C, and D and E which have normal natural grown grass. This of course could affect the ecological system that was in place in Areas B, C and D and E. There are certain genetically modified crops that yield infertile seeds, but these have not yet been approved and been given free.
An advantage of genetically modifying crops is obviously that farmers, who are in most countries struggling financially, can get a higher crop yield. Not only by making crops resistant for certain diseases or pests, but also by making them resistant to the herbicides which are used to kill the weeds. The first reason stated has already been used. The European corn borer used to destroy about 7% of the annual yield of corn on the world. Since they added the gene that produces the Bt protein, which causes the corn borers to die of hunger, the annual yield in the USA has risen 5-10% in all areas. More interesting though is if scientists could make the crops resistant to herbicides. This would especially be financially attractive for farmers, since they don’t have to hire in people to do the weeding and they don’t have to pay all kinds of environmental taxes. The farmers sometimes have to pay these taxes, especially in Western countries, because of the biodegradability of these herbicides.
Biodegradability, which I mentioned in the last paragraph, is one of the most important arguments of the group for using the special herbicides and modifying crops. They believe that the herbicides that are used now affect the ecosystem in a disastrous way. The term biodegradability means how good the environment is able to digest the herbicides. Some herbicides that are used now also affect the animals in the area. This is bad for the ecosystem, because the natural balance will be affected.
So if through genetic engineering they can modify the crops so that they are resistant to these herbicides this might contribute to raising the biodegradability in the ecosystem. This is because the products they use to make these specific herbicides are general better for the environment. Also farmers can use less herbicide if the crops are resistant to them. They can spray a rough coat of their fields without having to worry that it will also hit their crops. For the consumers it would also be a good move, because of the higher crop yield the food prices would go down. The water supplies would also benefit, because there would be less toxic groundwater, which is caused by the herbicides seeping into the soil, pumped into them.
Biologists are very worried about the loss of bio diversity, because of the genetic engineering of foods. Also medicine developers are worried that certain types of crops will be lost, because scientists are changing the genes of these crops. Medicine developers would like to keep and preserve as many different types of crops, because in the future they might be able to make medicine out of them. They would like to do this through using the genes of plants that are resistant to a disease and putting it in a human virus cell. By injecting these cells into humans these humans would become immune to it. So in principle the medicine developers are not against genetically modifying products but they would not like to lose any plants that might be of value for them in the future.
Biologists are less interested in the healing qualities of these plants, but purely in the bio diversity. They would like to retain as much different species and types of plants to keep the natural order in balance. What, however, is more important is that if crops are genetically modified the original crops can not cross pollinate with other species of the same plant. This might lead to just one type of from example corn crop. This in the future could become a big problem, because if the climate changes the crop will not be able to cross pollinate with another crop and thus not adapt to the changing climate. This is a big issue, because with the global warming getting worse each year a climate change in the future could be disastrous. Biologist and ecologists have though started creating vaults in which all different types of plants are being preserved to maintain the bio diversity.
An advantage of genetically modifying crops is that people in developing countries can get a higher crop yield and maybe even have two harvests per year. With this advantage though comes a big advantage. The companies that develop the techniques and sell them are all Western companies and there are only a few. So if African countries want to get these genetically crops they have to pay these companies. This will give these companies indirect access to the food supplies of Africa and other developing countries. If the companies also consider the poor companies in the way they handle genetically modifying these crops and selling them would contribute to making the world a better place. It is, however, more likely that they might unconsciously handle in favour of their own companies and profit.
Another important issue is if crops that have been genetically modified should be labelled or not. Most people prefer to know what has been done to the food they’re eating. It is the same with organic eggs. People would like to know if the chickens that laid the eggs are having or had a good life. Most people are not against the fact that the crop is modified, they would just like to know it.
There are many advantages, but also many disadvantages with genetically modified crops. There are ethical ones which come from religious groups. They believe you should not mess with “God’s” creations. A disadvantage is that genetically modified crops can cross pollinate with other normal crops in the areas around them. An advantage is that farmers and especially farmers in poor countries can get a higher crop yield and maybe have more than one harvest a year.
A disadvantage though is that the companies that modify the crops could handle unfairly and would have control over their food supply. There might also be a loss of bio diversity. I think that genetically modifying crops is a good idea. It does have to be controlled properly though. There should only be certain areas where it should be allowed and foods that are made with it should be labelled. I also believe that the companies that produce these modifications should share the technology with other less rich companies to prevent a monopoly. Plants could also hold many products that could produce medicines in the future. So overall I think that crops should and can be genetically modified, but there should be strict regulations and the bio diversity should be preserved.
Department of Agriculture, South AfricaISAAAhttp://www.geocities.com/gm_crops/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_crops#Genetic_modification_of_plantshttp://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/gm-foodGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondANW course bookhttp://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0111sp.htmhttp://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml