Our ancestors first cultivated plants some ten thousand years ago. They domesticated animals later and then selectively bred both plants and animals to meet various requirements for human food. Humans discovered natural biological processes such as fermentation of fruits and grains to make wine and beer, and yeast for baking bread. Manipulation of foods is not a new story, therefore. The latest agricultural discovery uses genetic engineering technology to modify foods.
Farmers and plant breeders have been changing crop plants to improve characteristics such as size, resistance to disease and taste. Plants which grow well, have a higher yield or taste better are selected and bred from. This is still the most widely used technique for developing new varieties of a crop, and is limited by natural barriers which stop different species of organisms from breeding with each other. Genetic modification is very different to these traditional plant breeding techniques. Genetic modification is the insertion of DNA from one organism to another, usually by molecular technologies. Genetically Modified Foods (GMF) are animals or plants that have had genetic modification. This changes the characteristics of the organism, or the way it grows and develops.
Jim Maryanski from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, had the following to say in an interview published on the FDA’s website.
There are hundreds of new plant varieties introduced every year in the United States, and all have been genetically modified through traditional plant breeding techniques–such as cross-fertilization of selected plants–to produce desired traits. (Robin)Current and future GM products include:a)Food that can deliver vaccines – bananas that produce hepatitis B vaccineb)More nutritious foods – rice with increased iron and vitaminsc)Faster growing fish, fruit and nut treesd)Plants producing new plasticsIn so many respects, genetic modification is perfect for today’s society. It would help agriculturalists overcome all headaches associated with growing large crops, and basically tailor the food growth industry to mass consumption by the general population. The famous frost-resistant tomato example is perfect in illustrating this point.
With a tomato that resists frost, the season for growing them would be longer and therefore a farmer would be able to produce more tomatoes in one year than they were able to do in the past. Gene technology not only gives us the potential to select the exact characteristics we want in an organism, but it also enables us to cross species barriers. For example, we can take an insecticide-producing gene from a bacterium and insert it into a plant, making the plant resistant to insect attack. This new-found ability to cross species barriers is what makes gene technology such a powerful tool. Producing enough food for the world’s population without using up all the available land is an enormous challenge. One solution is to develop crops that yield more with fewer inputs; that are more resistant to diseases; that spoil less during storage and transport; that contain more useful nutrients; and that can grow in agricultural land that has been degraded. Gene technology gives us the potential to do this.
Genetically modified foods have been available since the 1990s. The principal ingredients of GM foods currently available are derived from genetically modified soybean, maize and canola. The first commercially grown genetically modified food crop was a tomato created by Calgene called the FlavrSavr. Calgene submitted it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for assessment in 1992; following the FDA’s determination that the FlavrSavr was, in fact, a tomato, did not constitute a health hazard, and did not need to be labeled to indicate it was genetically modified, Calgene released it into the market in 1994, where it met with little public comment. Considered to have a poor flavor, it never sold well and was off the market by 1997. However, it had improved solids contents which made it an attractive new variety for canned tomatoes.
Transgenic crops are grown commercially or in field trials in over 40 countries and on 6 continents. In 2000, about 109.2 million acres (442,000 km²) were planted with transgenic crops, the principal ones being herbicide- and insecticide-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Other crops grown commercially or field-tested are a sweet potato resistant to a US strain of a virus that affects one out of the more than 89 different varieties of sweet potato grown in Africa, rice with increased iron and vitamins such as golden rice, and a variety of plants able to survive extreme weather.
Between 1996 and 2001, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 30, from 17,000 km² (4.2 million acres) to 520,000 km² (128 million acres). The value for 2002 was 145 million acres (587,000 km²) and for 2003 was 167 million acres (676,000 km²). Soybean crop represented 63% of total surface in 2001, maize 19%, cotton 13% and canola 5%. In 2004, the value was about 200 million acres (809,000 km²) of which 2/3 were in the United States.
In particular, Bt corn is widely grown, as are soybeans genetically designed to tolerate glyphosate herbicides. Future applications of GMOs include bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B, fish that mature more quickly, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties. The next decade will see exponential progress in GM product development as researchers gain increasing and unprecedented access to genomic resources that are applicable to organisms beyond the scope of individual projects.
Biologist Stephen Nottingham explains the risks of GMF:Experimental trials with transgenic organisms are usually conducted strict regulations to minimize the potential spread of genetic material Even given these regulations, however, no field trial can be said to be 100% secure. This was illustrated when flooding struck the American Midwest in July 1993 and an entire field of experimental insect-resistant maize was swept away in Iowa. once released accidentally into the environment, plant material may prove difficult to recover. (Bragi)Unique ecological risks have been associated with virus-resistant transgenic crop plants leaving crops more vulnerable to virus attack and risking the spread of virus susceptibility to other plants.
Genetically modified foods are unlikely to present direct risks to human health. There are two main areas of concern:a)The possibility of allergic reactions to genetically modified foods, andb)The possibility that bacteria living in the human gut may acquire resistance to antibiotics from marker genes present in transgenic plants.
Proponents claim that a genetically-modified potato is as safe as one modified the old-fashioned way, through generations of selective breeding; biotechnology just gets the job done more quickly. Critics are concerned that mixing together genetic material from different species might produce unexpected allergic reactions in the person who eats or drinks it. For instance, if an individual consumer who is allergic to broccoli eats a banana that just happens to have a little broccoli DNA under the peel, that person might get sick. Some studies on animals indicate that consuming genetically-modified foods may cause allergic responses, compromise immune systems and inhibit organ growth, although no proven cases of widespread reactions have been definitively documented.
Opponents of biotech foods want other questions answered, as well. Will re-engineering a plant or animal to serve a specific end, such as improving taste, decrease its nutritional value? Will consuming genetically-modified food products make a person more resistant to antibiotics, which are widely used to treat bacterial infections? Does consuming milk or meat from livestock that has been injected with growth hormones (a form of biotechnology that is different from genetic modification) subject consumers to early puberty, cancer, and other ailments?Since neither side has been able to provide definitive answers, the jury is still out on food safety; after all, genetic technology itself is barely decades old.
So one can condense the issue into a single question: should we move forward with new technologies that might help provide higher crop yields, new and interesting types of food products, and more profits for the companies that own the technology; or play it safe and wait until we better understand the health and environmental consequences of manipulating life forms that took generations to develop?Multinational Corporations benefit because GMF can be very profitable. GMF have taken hold quickly because multinational corporations with the resources to make large financial investments in research and development can profit directly. Multinational companies can spread out the benefit and profit to many branches of their businesses. Many such corporations combine the following: an agrochemical company, a seed company, a pharmaceutical company, a food processing company and sometimes businesses involved with veterinary products. Developments in one part of the corporation can be used to sell products in another branch.
Farmers benefit in the short term because they can grow and sell more crops with fewer problems due to weeds, pests, fungi or frost. The genetically modified seed is designed to resist these traditional enemies.
Food processing companies benefit from a ready supply of raw food ingredients designed for specific processing needs. Genetically modified tomatoes and potatoes, for instance, have higher solid contents and yield more sauces and French fries. These foods take longer to ripen and rot. Thus less food is spoiled and more gets processed.
Supermarkets benefit for the same reasons. The fresh produce lasts longer on the shelves and is more profitable. Consumers, to date, haven’t benefited. GMF have been developed for the convenience of the producer and processor. Yet they cost more to produce and the costs get passed along to the consumer. Eventually there will be some kind of designer novelty foods for shoppers to try.
Nottingham adds that there are many other concerns including ethical questions involving animal welfare, whether DNA is actual life, and intellectual property rights and genetic resources from the Third World. (Bragi)The world’s poorest nations account for around 95.7% of the world’s genetic resources. Traditional farming practices involve farmers retaining seeds, from the harvest of one year’s crop, for planting in the following year. This practice saves money on buying seed and in itself represents a continuous selection for yield and resistance to pests and diseases. However, with genetically modified seed, royalties are payable to the companies holding the patent for the seed. Under world trade agreement rulings, farmers have to make substantial royalty payments to multinational companies if they keep seed for replanting, even if the crop happens to be native to their particular country.
Genetic engineering is a valuable new technology that can develop more plentiful and nutritious foods, with great potential benefits for humanity and the environment, and this new scientific discovery needs to be implemented as quickly as possible for humanitarian reasons. As with every new scientific technology, harmful side effects of genetic engineering are inevitable and great care should be taken in its implementation, including carefully controlled long-term tests on human health and environmental impacts.
All genetically engineered foods have been thoroughly tested and demonstrated to be safe before they are released into the marketplace. However, this testing is typically conducted only on rats and other animals, by the companies involved. Very little of this research has been reviewed by independent scientists and then published in scientific journals.
Genetically engineered foods are usually “substantially equivalent” to other foods, with no increased risk to human health, and no need for the lengthy and expensive human testing demanded of, for example, new food additives. However, the unpredictable disruptions in normal DNA functioning caused by genetic engineering can produce unanticipated and unknown side effects for human health, including unknown and unpredictable toxins and allergens, and these possibilities can only be definitively assessed through human testing.
Genetic engineering is a scientific and technological process, and its evaluation and governmental regulation should be based on purely scientific and objective criteria. To have a purely scientific evaluation of genetically engineered foods, we need more science, especially human studies and environmental studies. Moreover, purely scientific assessment of genetic engineering ignores the fact that, for many people, food has cultural, ethical and religious dimensions that must also be considered.
Alan McHughen, author of Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, in the introduction he states:”Make no mistake: I am in favor of an orderly and appropriately regulated introduction of some GMOs into the environment and marketplace, and I adamantly oppose others. There are good reasons to ban certain products of genetic technology, and good reasons to allow, with management, certain others; some may require no extraordinary regulation at all. If your opinion differs from mine after reading this book, I hope you will be able to justify, if only to yourself, why we disagree.
My philosophy is to be skeptical, be critical, even cynical of claims by business interests, government agencies, and activist groups. But also keep an open mind and then decide for yourself.” (Internet 7)Theres no doubt that the GM food supply should be closely monitored and regulated, but that doesnt mean it should all be banned. I believe that genetic engineering of plants, animals, and humans has much to offer as long as we are aware of potential benefits and side effects. And thats true even for more traditional methods of farming, animal husbandry, and medicine.
1.Cummings, Michael R., and Williams S. Klug. Concepts of Genetics. New Delhi: Pearson Education, 2004.
2.Dubey, R.C. A Textbook of Biotechnology. New Delhi: S. Chand, 20063.Kumar, H.D. Modern Concepts of Biotechnology. New Delhi: Vikash Publishing House, 20034.Purohit, S. Agricultural Biotechnology. India: Agrobios, 20055.Purohit, S. Biotechnology: Fundamental and Applications. India: Agrobios, 2004Internet Reference:1.Bragi, David. Food Savior Or Frankenfood? The Debate Over Genetically Modified Foods. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/gate/archive/2001/06/25/healthwatch.DTL2.Robbin, Adria. What Are We Eating? http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f00/web1/robbin.html3.Schultz, Norman. http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/fact_finding_limits/4.Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/genetic_engineering5.Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/genetically_modified_food6.Genetic Engineering: The Controversy. http://www.genetic-id.com/prosncons/index.htm7.http://www.foodmuseum.com/issues.html