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Never before in history has mankind so masterfully commanded its food chain. Thousands of years ago, much of our species made the leap from a hunter-gatherer level of subsistence to an agricultural society. With agriculture, slowly but surely many modifications were made to plants and animals used and domesticated by us for the purpose of feeding ourselves. New specialized varieties with specific desirable traits slowly emerged; with the advent of knowledge of hybridization, this process was greatly expedited. By today, much has changed in the way we shape the foods we put into our bodies.
With modern food science has come the dawn of genetic modification. Food scientists working in tandem with genetic engineers can now isolate the genes for specific desirable traits from an entirely unrelated organism and splice them into an organism that we have traditionally consumed—say hello to “frankenfood. ” As a practice, genetic engineering is the careful modification of a living organism done by essentially rewriting its DNA, thus altering its genetic makeup “in a way that does not occur naturally” (Domingo 535).
The process of genetically modifying a plant entails inserting genes into plant cells by injecting viruses which copy specialized DNA into the cells. The end goal is that specific traits deemed beneficial become newly expressed in the GMO (genetically modified organism). The movie Food Inc. , narrated by well-known authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser (authors of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, respectively), dedicates a large portion of time to the modern use of genetically modified food—particularly soybeans—in American agriculture.
The film hints at the various effects of using GM soybeans in agriculture, yet seems to be mainly focused on the economic impact the Monsanto GM soybean has on Midwestern farmers. It does at times indirectly suggest some possible health effects, though, at the time the movie was produced (2008—only four years ago), not nearly as much was known about such ill bodily effects. The pro-GMO food camp often boasts of the feats of this space age engineering in terms of productivity, efficiency, and health benefits.
Skeptics, on the other hand, see how this practice can wreak havoc on the environment, exploit the economically disenfranchised, and also pose many risks to human health. Here, through the scope of the critical, food-safety concerned (people identifying with the questions raised by authors Pollan and Schlosser), we will explore these various claims about human health as they pertain to the most current technologies in “frankenfood. ” One of the main purposes of genetically modifying crops is to improve nutrition. There is simply less food to go around in today’s world.
With the growing population and lessened crop yields due to drought (a likely implication of climate change), “the price of wheat and corn [has] tripled” (Bourne) in recent years. Multitudes of people have been negatively affected by this. The frightening shortage has prevented many of the world’s poorest citizens from getting the basic, nutritious food staple they need to survive. In some of the hardest hit places, food riots have broken out in response to the startling scarcity. One of the clear potentially benefits of genetic modification in plants is its capability to lessen hunger worldwide.
Genetically modified crops could help reverse the decline in yield growth by increasing drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, pest resistance, and photosynthesis rates (Crosson and Anderson). The “challenge of putting enough food in nine billion mouths by 2050 is daunting” (Bourne) with the increasing prevalence of food shortages. Genetic engineering of plants on a global scale may prove to be pivotal in averting a Malthusian catastrophe; that is, necessary for the survival—or at least temporary sustenance—of humanity.
Companies involved in the genetic modification of crops, such as Monsanto, believe that “biotech will make it possible to double yields of… core crops of corn, cotton, and soybeans by 2030” (Bourne). Introducing such crops to malnourished regions will potentially help alleviate the rising demand for food the world is currently facing. In Uganda, where cassava, a potato-like tuber, is the primary food staple for the masses, a destructive plant virus struck the nation in the early 1990s.
The pathogen devastated the cassava plant’s yield, damages many farmers livelihoods, led to near economic ruin, and, most importantly here, jeopardized health and nutrition of many thousands of native Ugandans. In some of the hardest hit areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, the cassava yields had been halved, all while the population of the continent continued to grow at a very fast pace. In terms of health, this disaster has led to, among other deleterious effects, widespread malnutrition and starvation.
In 1999, “scientists genetically engineered the plant… to resist the [devastating] virus” (Hand). Since then, there has been appreciable improvement in the situation. The recent political situation in Uganda (and many other famine-stricken, war-torn African nations), however, has prevented such ambitious implementations of genetically modified crops from reaching their full potential in helping to solve the global food crisis. In addition to alleviating this hunger crisis, the genetic modification of plants can foreseeably further advances in modern medicine.
One very practical use for genetic engineering is to turn bacteria into factories to make proteins and other compounds that are useful to humans. Researchers at Harvard University, for example, have recently “added a few genes to [E. coli’s] solitary circular chromosome, coaxing the organism to produce lycopene” (“Bacteria into Biotech Factories”). In bacteria, this process allows for useful and vital products like insulin to be produced much more easily, and at lower costs. Likewise, genetic engineering of plants can be used to increase the concentration of beneficial botanical compounds used in medicine and health supplements.
Although certainly not without risk, GMO technology has been around for almost two decades now, and has had much fewer negative implications on human beings than, for instance, newly developed cancer treatments. Yet trial and error for cancer treatment does not get the negative publicity that the genetic modification of plants does, despite the fact that both aim at improving health for people who are otherwise very sick (be it cancer or starvation). In the United States, where opposition to “frankenfood” has steadily grown over the past decade, many scientists fear public suspicion regarding genetically engineered foods (within the country and abroad) could derail further research and development of them.
Skeptical public sentiment may hinder the advancement of such crops that could potentially improve nutrition and overall health in regions—such as famished Sub-Saharan Africa—that could desperately use it. In addition to solving the modern world-wide hunger epidemic, a more indirect yet very significant positive impact on human health owing to the implementation of GMOs in agriculture would be the lessening or cessation of mass deployment of harsh, toxic pesticides over acres upon acres of cropland.
Pesticides have long been cited as producing many detrimental effects with regards to human health. One of the largest indirect positive health implication of implementing GMOs in agricultural is the reduced use or end of pesticide application on food crops. First and foremost, pesticides ultimately cause “target organisms [to] develop resistance” (Lu and Cosca) to their chemical components. In the end, this leads to increasingly larger, more widespread use of pesticides and the need for more serious, more expensive, and more toxic pesticides to be applied to food crops.
Studies have specifically demonstrated that agricultural workers exposed to pesticides on a routine basis “developed higher incidence rates of cancers of the nervous, lymphatic and hematopoietic systems” (Lu and Cosca). Furthermore, it has been documented that among infants whose mothers were exposed to routine pesticide use, there has been a “significant association between in utero organophosphate [(a very common agricultural pesticide)] exposure and abnormal reflexes” (Lu and Cosca). For this same commonly used pesticide, researchers have discovered a severe and widespread incidence of “neurotoxicity among the exposed” (Lu and Cosca).
Less severe yet nonetheless very disturbing effects of “muscle pain, weakness… change in taste… eye pain, headache[s], drowsiness… tremors… difficulty in breathing, palpitations, throat irritation, and sweating” (Lu and Cosca) have been linked to pesticide use as well. Many of these symptoms and conditions have been correlated to merely the level of “pesticide levels found in soils” (Lu and Cosca), and have not only affected agricultural workers, but also individuals living within relatively close proximity to intensely farmed areas.
If (and/or possibly when) genetically modified food crops designed to resist pests “naturally” are introduced on a significant scale, the use of these chemical pesticides and their harmful effects on human health will inevitably be curtailed. Despite the growing yet relatively mild opposition to the genetic engineering of crops in the United States (as opposed to Europe), many scientists in the United States assert—including former Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore—that genetic engineering isn’t fundamentally different from traditional breeding.
Amidst objections raised by opponents concerning health risks, scientists such as Moore “have questioned the honesty of the environmental lobby’s arguments on biotechnology” and denounced such arguments “as scare tactics” (Lacy 195). To this group’s way of thinking, the benefits of genetically modifying food in terms of health have so far outweighed the risks. As is true in the scientific community, opinions on GMOs vary widely among different groups and individuals.
In the interviews I conducted, public opinion ranged from “I think it’s good” and “yes,” ‘I think it’s safe from a health perspective’ to “I don’t like it,” “It is unethical,” and “it can’t be too safe. ” More people were uneasy with its use than those who were not. One person even stated his belief that “genetic modification can cause unnatural cell division… [and] spread bacteria. ” From a scientific standpoint, this person’s former claim is very plausible yet the latter is a little more unknown.
Despite the likely benefits of increased yield and its effect on mitigating the world hunger crisis, as well as indirectly preventing many health problems associated with the use of pesticides on non-genetically modified crops, there are also many valid health concerns surrounding this young biotechnology. Many researchers and experts have conveyed their legitimate apprehension over the potentially negative effects on health due to the consumption of genetically engineered agricultural products.
Myriad studies have indeed found many potential health risks associated with consuming GM food products. Most of these ‘con’ findings and opinions are not merely hypothetical and based on sociobiological models either; rather, they are largely based on true scientific studies conducted in labs. In Food Inc. , author Michael Pollan is quick to point out that, contrary to the oft-cited plus of switching to genetically engineered crops that less harmful pesticides will be used, some GM crops are actually merely designed to better withstand pesticides.
The film makes an example out of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® GM Soybean, which has been engineered to withstand much larger quantities of glyphosate, the highly toxic main ingredient in that particular pesticide (Food Inc. ). This fact directly contradicts the common claim that the implementation of genetically modified crops will lead to less pesticide use, at least in some very significant cases. Given Monsanto’s mammoth market share within American agribusiness—which produces much of the world’s food in our “bread basket”—this finding is all the more disturbing.
More pesticide (the dangers of which being previously mentioned), not less, coupled with the finding that “many GM foods have some common toxic effects” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 172), may compound health issues in the near futures. For good reason, this combination seems at least somewhat likely to prove to be quite a venomous cocktail. In addition to allowing for increased pesticide usage in certain circumstances, one of genetically engineered crops’ demonstrated direct detrimental effects on the body is the increased incidence of allergenicity.
Findings show that the “introduction of novel proteins into foods… may elicit potentially harmful immunological responses, including allergic hypersensitivity” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 168). Due to the inherently complex biochemical nature of cultivated food crops, the “introduction of a gene-expressing, nonallergenic protein… may not always result in a product without allergenicity” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 168). That is, allergies to foods that were otherwise unknown or non-existent could randomly crop up as a result of this unnatural exchange of proteins used to alter the core nature of a food crop.
Generally speaking, many “adverse microscopic and molecular effects of some GM foods in different organs of tissues have been reported” (Domingo 537). Other than allergies, more serious health effects of GMOs include the potential “that they may cause hepatic, pancreatic, renal, and reproductive effects and may alter hematological, biochemical, and immunological parameters” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 172). Through GMO consumption, humans are being exposed to an unprecedented amount of dangerous “anti-nutrients such as phytoestrogens, glucinins, and phytic acid” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 165).
These were proven to cause marked infertility in laboratory animals (sheep and cattle). Moreover, inflammation of the GI tract due to GM foods “may lead after many years to cancer” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 169). Of utmost concern, however, is the disturbing finding that “maternally ingested foreign DNA could be a potential mutagen for [a] developing fetus” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 170). Given these findings, it is clear not enough regulation is imposed and not enough research is made available and/or taken seriously by companies involved in the genetic modification of food crops.
Now that this new leap in biotechnology has been available for over a decade and a half, scientists have had time to study the health implications of genetically engineered foods on the body more in-depth. The results the scientific community is gathering are startling. Pointing to a prior lack of extensive research on the subject, scientists underscore that “the lack of evidence that GM food is unsafe cannot be interpreted as proof it is safe” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 164).
We should also proceed with the production of such genetically modified food as “every single GM food through the food chain will eventually reach the consumer” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 164). In order to ensure food safety, many concerned researchers reaffirm the assertion that every genetically modified food crop “containing a new marker gene should be tested for toxicity with long term studies, since GM food will consumed for a life time” (Dona and Arvanitoyannis 167).
Although the technology, as mentioned above, has been available to us for over fifteen years, this amount of time has not been sufficient enough to draw any such long-term conclusions. Until that is done, its implementation should be limited to reasonable, unbiased experts’ assessments of what is necessary, or situations in which the likely pros would outweigh the likely cons. It is human nature to fear the unknown. As yet, genetically modified foods are still largely unknown to us.
While these fears may legitimately stymie progress with regards to such a new, potential human health panacea, at the same time they also protects us as a species from over-ambitiously and haphazardly ‘playing God,’ thus potentially opening a biological Pandora’s Box of sorts. It can only help to push us further into solving our food dilemmas if we adopt a fundamentally cautious and critical mind-set regarding food safety, a la Food Inc.
Because there are so many disconcerting findings regarding negative health effects on the human body with current GMO technology, it is imperative we continue to aggressively and objectively study it. And, given the very plausible positive effects of using GMOs in agriculture en masse—such as a well-nourished world exposed to fewer carcinogenic and neurotoxic substances—the key to harnessing this technology to our species’ benefit as a whole is a slow, careful, unbiased approach to its research, development, and testing.
In any event, “frankenfoods” are charging their way into the modern world of agriculture and will almost certainly be a very significant hallmark of the near-future’s era of food science, technology, and agriculture.
Works Cited Bourne, Joel K. “The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty. ” National Geographic Magazine. Jun 2009: n. page. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. Crosson, Pierre, and Jock R. Anderson. “Technologies for Meeting Future Global Demands for Food. ” Resources for the Future. 2. (2002): n. page. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://www. rff. org/rff/Documents/RFF-DP-02-02.pdf>.
Domingo, Jose L. “Human Health Effects of Genetically Modified (GM) Plants: Risk and Perception. ” Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal 17. 3 (2011): 535-37. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, 08 June 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://dx. doi. org/10. 1080/10807039. 2011. 571065>. Dona, Artemis, and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis. “Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods. ” Critical Review in Food Science and Nutrition 49 (2009): 164-75. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. Food Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Prod.
Elise Pearlstein. Perf. Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. DVD. Hand, Eric. “St. Louis team fights crop killer in Africa. ” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12 Sep 2006, n. pag. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://artsci. wustl. edu/~anthro/bnc/articles/StLPD1. htm>. Lacy, Peter G. “Deploying the Full Arsenal: Fighting Hunger with Biotechnology. ” SAIS Review 23. 1 (2003): 181-202. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://www. todoroffs. com/79LCWB81STN/slippingthesurlies/Deploying%20The%20Full%20Arsenal%20%20Fighting%20Hunger%20With%20Biotechnology. pdf> Lu, Jinky L., and Katherine Cosca.
“Pesticide Application and Health Hazards: Implications for Farmers and the Environment. ” Internation Journal of Environmental Studies (2011): 37-41. Routledge, 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://dx. doi. org/10. 1080/00207233. 2010. 542657>. “Researchers Rapidly Turn Bacteria into Biotech Factories. ” Wyss Institute at Harvard. Harvard University, 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://wyss. harvard. edu/viewpage/285/researchers-rapidly-turn-bacteria-into-biotech-factories;jsessionid=144C80533514983C37959598DA351930. wyss1>.
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