GMO: Friend or Foe?
GMO: Friend or Foe?
What is it?
First of all, what is a GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism? Put simply, a GMO is an organism that has been genetically modified to improve its ability to grow in environments that it is not native to, resist pests without having to spray pesticides, tolerate extreme weather conditions, produce more food (such as milk in cows), or show other desired traits. GMOs are produced through a technique which is generally known as recombinant DNA technology. In this technique DNA molecules from varies sources are combined into one molecule to create a completely new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, which gives it modified or novel genes.
Transgenic organisms, on the other hand, which are a different kind of GMO, are organisms that have DNA inserted into their genes from a different species. This process requires just three main components: the gene that is going to be transferred, the organism into which that gene is going to be transferred (this organism is known as the target species), and a vector to carry the into the target species’ cells. The gene to be transferred must be cut out and isolated from the original organism. This is usually done by restriction enzymes, which are like molecular scissors, which recognize specific sequences in the DNA and cut it out of those places. This technology has many advantages.
Through the use of GMOs more food could be produced for less many, thus lowering the cost to the consumer without lowering the profits of the farmers. Essential nutrients could be implanted into important, everyday foods such as rice or corn. Not to mention that with insect resistant crops, not only is more of the crop saved, but fewer pesticides have to be sprayed. Sounds great right? So, what’s the problem? The problem is that this relatively new technology is still being tested, and in fact some problems have occurred as a result of these GMOs. In the United States it is not required that genetically modified foods be labeled any differently than foods that grow naturally without modification.
U.S. versus Europe
The food and drug administration policy regarding genetically modified foods states that no safety studies are needed on these modified foods due to the fact that organisms which are genetically modified are substantially equivalent to foods that are natural. This policy is somewhat outdated and considering that research and unpredictable tests are still being done, I’d say that it’s not very accurate. Meanwhile, the European policy says something quite different. It states that GMOs must receive authorization before they enter the market. This applies to GMOs used in food and animal feed, and to seeds for genetically modified crops. Why are these policies so different?
Probably the biggest reason is that Europeans are more wary about their food in general than most Americans are. In 1996 Europe experienced a “mad cow disease”, also known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which made European consumers distrustful of reassurances that genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. Although mad cow disease had nothing to do with the genetic modification of food, it generated consumer anxieties about food safety at the same time in 1996 U.S.-grown GM soybeans were first being cleared for import into the EU. Immediately, activist groups started speaking out against GMOs. These well-publicized campaigns and the backlash against genetic modification of foods forced the European government to reconsider their policy regarding GMOs.
Before Genetic Engineering
It may be argued that genetically modified organisms have been around as long as humans have been successfully breeding different plants and animals to achieve a desired result. Genetic engineering itself is a relatively new technology which was introduced to the world in the mid to late 1900s. However, before genetic engineering, breeding was used to manipulate crops. Even in prehistoric times, gatherers would find food from plants they found in nature, and farmers would plant seeds saved from domesticated crops.
Even then foods were manipulated through the use of yeast and fermentation. Eventually, some naturalists and farmers began to recognize hybrids, which are plants produced through natural breeding between related varieties of plants. In the early 1900s, European botanists began to use Gregor Mendel’s genetic theory to manipulate and improve plant species. This is called “classis selection”. A plant of one variety is crossed with a related plant to produce desired characteristics.
Modern Genetic Engineering
The first sign of today’s technology was in the mid 18th century. James Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery of the three-dimensional double helix structure of DNA in the year 1953. This discovery eventually led to the ability of scientists to identify and splice genes from one kind of organism into the DNA of another. Twenty years later, in 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen combined their research to create the first successful recombinant DNA organism. Then, in 1980, the U.S. supreme court ruled that genetically altered life form can be patented in the Diamond versus Chakrabarty case. This decision allowed the Exxon oil company to patent an oil-eating microorganism.
Tomatoes were the first crop to be genetically engineered and grown commercially. The genetically modified tomato crop was created to be resistant to the usual rotting and decay of a typical natural tomato. Created by a company in the U.S. called Calgene, the company was permitted to commercially produce the tomato in the mid 1990s without any kind of unique labels to indicate their difference from conventional tomatoes. Later, Calgene experienced problems relating to its production of the GM tomato and new competition was introduced from another product. At the same time, a variation of Calgene’s tomato was used in a tomato paste produced by another company, which ended up being sold in Europe where the GM foods were expected to be happily accepted and supported.
This was not the case; a prominent scientist in the UK spoke out against all genetically modified foods and the development process. He had initially been hired to create a safety procedure for GM foods in Europe, but while conducting his research, he discovered that rats had suffered from various physical changes, some precancerous, and he concluded that the genetic modification process itself was to blame, rather than the specific gene that was inserted. His made public announcements that genetically modified foods could not be trusted made many European consumers understandably upset.
Pros: The Benefits of GMOs
This relatively new technology has a lot of potential to solve some pressing world problems. Due to poor soil, agriculture in the tropics is difficult. Not to mention the extremes of moisture, heat, and drought; and a multitude of pests and diseases that attack animals and crops. Oftentimes, a farmer in tropical Asia or Africa loses much of their crops every year, often more than thirty percent, to insects and plant disease. Here modern transgenic technology could be extremely useful because plants and animals can be engineered to have specific pest and disease resistances. If plant seeds in this area of the world were engineered to contain Bt (short for Bacillus thuringiensis), a toxin that kills pests, it would greatly reduce the amount of crops lost without such heavy reliance on harmful chemical sprays.
Another way that genetic technology could be very useful in this part of the world would be to provide nutrition that is often lacking in the daily diet. If the millions of malnourished Asians who subside mainly on rice were able to grow and consume rice that had been genetically modified to contain Vitamin A and iron, cases of Vitamin A deficiency (which kills about two-million a year and blinds hundreds of thousands of children) and cases of anemia, would decrease.
Genetically modified products not only reduce the use of chemical sprays, but they can also aid in land conservation and species protection. If GM crops make farmland more productive for these farmers in the tropics, there will be less need to plow up more fragile lands in the future. In sub-Saharan Africa roughly 5 million hectares (one hectare is equal to 100 acres) of forest are lost every year. This is primarily due to new clearance for low-yield agriculture. The threat of biodiversity in poor countries today comes from such cutting of natural habitats. So, transgenic crop technologies could lead to fewer watersheds destroyed, fewer trees cut, fewer hillsides plowed, and more species saved.
Cons: The Problems with GMOs
However, the potential good that could be done with GMOs is balanced with the potential to be destructive. It is possible that the environment might be hurt if engineered crops are released into rural tropical settings where wild relatives of food plants can be found. If a crop that has been engineered to be herbicide resistant, so that more herbicide can be sprayed to kill weeds without hurting the crop, breeds into a wild relative, the result might be a hard to manage super-weed that is no longer affected by herbicides. This is not the only environmental concern raised by the use of GM crops.
It has been proven that pests can evolve to be resistant to insecticides so it is possible that the widespread planting of crops engineered to have Bt in them might trigger an evolving population of super-bugs that are resistant to the toxin. These insect resistant crops could also lead to the deaths of helpful insects such as butterflies, which would lead to the decrease of biodiversity. Why is biodiversity so important? Biological diversity provides a source of significant economic, health and cultural benefits; and, in agriculture, biodiversity stands for an important source of genetic material allowing the development of new and improved crop varieties. Insect resistant crops could also have a negative effect on soil organisms.
In My Opinion
The real question is this: do the benefits of genetically modified organisms outweigh the risks? My answer is no, they don’t. After all what right do we have to sacrifice the environment for humanities sake? However, the hard fact of the matter is that GMOs are already a part of everyone’s daily diet. They are nearly unavoidable here in America, and unless you eat all organic foods then, chances are, you’re eating GMOs. Eating organic is a great thing to do because you can be sure that your food is pesticide, herbicide and GM-free, but, of course, eating organically is not an option for most people because organic food is so much more expensive. However, just because GMOs are everywhere does not mean that we have to eat them. In my opinion all genetically modified foods should be labeled properly so that people who wish to avoid GMOs can. I think that the United States should follow Europe’s example and require that all GMOs receive authorization before they are allowed in the market.
Although genetically modified organisms have the potential to be useful in solving important world problems such as malnourishment, and hunger, they also have the potential to permanently harm the ecosystems in and near which they are used. The decrease of biodiversity, the threat of super bugs and weeds, and the negative effect that these crops could have on soil organisms make the widespread use of GMOs a serious risk to the environment. However, if transgenic technology is here to stay then the least our government could do is label foods containing GMOs, and institute a policy that requires all genetically modified foods to be thoroughly checked before being passed into the market.
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University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 3 January 2017
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