Genetically modified foods and environment

Introduction

Cultivation of crops for food has been as old as man himself. As time goes by farmers have been trying to improve characteristics of plants used for food such as taste and resistance to diseases. Crops which have been grown in a healthy manner seem to have better yields and even good taste. However, this technique does not work well because it has natural limitations. Plants which are from different species can not be bred together to bring out desired characteristics the farmer may want.

It is on this background researchers that are in the field of genetic engineering and biotechnology have come up with a concept of genetic modification in attempt to address this limitation to farmers. Genetic modification is a biotechnology that involves use of gene from one organism into another. This technology is very different from traditional breeding techniques that farmers used to employ to improve their crop yields several centuries ago (Gura, 2000 p 412).

Increased production of genetically modified foods to many has been considered as a breakthrough in addressing issue of food security. Currently, various regions of the world particularly developing countries have been faced with both acute and chronic food shortages that have led to loss of many lives due to malnutrition.

Nevertheless, bio-safety of genetically modified foods has raised a lot of concern in public health domain. Adverse effects of gene transfer in genetically modified foods have been found to be a threat to human health and in ecological system.

Therefore, the main purpose of this paper is to present evidence based argument in support that, despite achieved breakthroughs in genetic engineering to provide us with genetically modified foods, there are overwhelming drawbacks that outweigh good intentions of using genetically modified foods (Gura, 2000 p 414).

Concept of genetic modification

Before proceeding further it would be relevant to highlight how genetic modification works. Genetic modification shortened as GM is a process which involves altering with the how genes in the plants, animals or micro-organisms function. It also involves getting a gene form organism A. to organism B. All these need to be living organism for the process to work.

Essentially, GM is possible by altering deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of an organism in some aspects. This may be in form of inserting a genetic material into an organism from another organism which is of the same species or unrelated species. It is possible to introduce a genetic material from one plan to another or from plant to an animal or vice versa (Ibid).

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a genetic material that is found in the cells of living things that carries coded information which allows survival of any living thing in terms of how an organism’s cells functions, reproduce and get repaired. It has been found that in a single cell of an organism, there are thousand of different types of genes.

These genes make up DNA and determine genetic make up or characteristics of an organism. Advanced understanding of genetic materials has facilitated emergence of genetically modified foods in the world. Genetic modification involves number of steps (Gura, 2000 p412).

For instance, to genetically modify a plant, a researcher will have to look for a plant which has characteristics that are needed. This follows location of the specific gene in the DNA that gives the desired attributes of the plant. After specific gene providing desired characteristics in the plant is identified, it is inserted to the plant which needs to be modified.

At this point, there is integration of identified specific gene with a piece of DNA from bacteria that acts as a carrier. Also, something called ‘promoter’ which acts as a switch is inserted to this gene to ensure that this gene works appropriately to the plant it is transferred. Interestingly, it is only few number of cells in the plant being modified accept new gene introduced (Gura, 2000 p412). .

In order to find out which cells in the plant have taken up new genetic material, a carrier package gene is also introduced to the plant. Carrier packaged are introduced in the plant by use of soil bacterium or attaching very minute particles of tungsten and firing them into plant tissue at a very high speed. It is worth noting that genetic modification does not only involve gene transfer. It can involve altering specific gene in a plant or organism by changing or switching off certain gene in order to achieve desired characteristic (Gura, 2000 p413).

Benefits of genetic modification

Research findings indicates that out of the trials which have been carried out to determine the success of GM, plants and animals with specific qualities desired can be produced with high level of accuracy and in a more efficient way compared to traditional techniques. GM has made it possible to transfer genes from one species to another which would not be possible using traditional methods.

There are number of alleged advantages as a result of genetic modification. The first advantage cited is that of pest control. It has been said that huge crop losses do occur due to insect pest infestations that can cost farmers in terms of financial investments as well as lead to country’s food shortage.

It is argue that annually, famers use several tons of pesticides to control pests during crop growing process which is a health threat to consumers. As such production of genetically modified crops such as B.t. corn can help farmers eliminate need for using chemical pesticides and significantly cut down the cost of buying these chemicals (Hurley,Babcock & Hellmich, 2000 p2).

Another benefit of using genetic modification in agriculture is that it helps come up with crops which have tolerance in herbicide used during weeding. It is argued that weeding by physical means for some crops may be costly and therefore, many farmers opt to use herbicide sprays.

This process is also time-consuming as farmers try to take caution not to spray to food crops. By using of plants that are genetically-engineered to have resistant to particular herbicides, it is said that this can save huge amounts of herbicide sprays used and prevent environmental pollution (Hurley,Babcock & Hellmich, 2000 p6).

A good example is that of a certain soy-bean strain which has been genetically modified by Mansanto Company that is able to resist herbicides. It is argued that if farmers grow this type of soy-bean, they do not need multiple applications of herbicides but just one weed-killer application that significantly reduce the cost and minimize dangers associated.

Crops that are tolerance to cold have been developed using antifreeze gene obtained from cold water fish. Such plants include tobacco and potatoes. It is argued that with antifreeze gene, such crops are able to withstand cold temperatures.

In addition to above mentioned benefits, genetic modification has been embraced due to creating plants which are able to resist drought or high saline content salt. This is seen as a great hallmark especially in current world where land for cultivation is reducing.

People are now able to grow crops for food in region that could earlier not support growth of normal crops. There being high prevalence rates of malnutrition in developing world, genetic modification has been providing some sort of relieve. For example, there are some parts of the world where population depends on one type of crop, like rice, as main staple in diet.

In attempt to address vitamin A deficiency, one research was conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences came up with a strain of rice which has increased content level of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

This project was funded by Rockfeller Foundation to help address malnutrition in the world. It is speculated that researches are still going on to produce this particular strain of rice with relatively higher content of iron to help address anemia which is also a high prevalent form of micro-nutrient deficiency especially in young children (Rockfellor Foundation, 1999 p1470).

Human and environment harm associated with genetic modification

Globally supporters of genetically modified food argue that its is necessary to use GM foods in order to meet food requirement of world’s ever increasing population and address setbacks brought by crop diseases.

But I would pose one question: Do we really need genetically modified foods to address this problem? What are the risks associated with the use of genetically modified food to human being and our environment? Malnutrition still continues to remain a major public health concern particularly in developing countries. But is it that people are having malnutrition and hunger due to the fact that there is no sufficient food to feed them?

It should be noted that issues of food security do not revolve only around on inadequate or availability of food. There are about three dimensions of food security namely, availability, accessibility and utilization. Food may be available but individuals lack economic means to have access to food however plenty it might be in the market. In addition, complex issues ranging from social, political to economic are determinant to accessibility of land and other resources.

For that reason, concern of increased level of production through introduction of genetically modified foods is just one part of the whole picture in addressing food insecurity. It is realized that most of genetically modified foods grown, they are for market purposes.

Countries that produce maize and soy-bean are developed countries and these crops are used as animal fodders and some of it being added in processed food commodities. This does not seem sufficiently enough to address malnutrition and hunger in the world. Many countries which have been faced with food crisis have always raised concerns in regard to food aid given as genetically modified crops due to their health and environmental effects (Clark & Lehman, 2001 p27).

Great controversy has ensued and will continue between those who support the use of genetically modified crops and those who do not support use of it. But who is right between the two groups? Over the recent past there has GMO controversies being reported in popular media and in scientific papers.

Those who support GM crops maintain there are potential benefits associated with the use of such crops which include high yields rate, increased tolerance of crops in new crop growing zones as well as reduced dependence on use of biocides. Notwithstanding this they argue that these crops have no associated risk to human being or environment. However, these claims have been criticized through practical ways.

Several potential harms have been identified such as damage to insects and other soil organism which are useful, enhancing antibiotic resistant diseases and involuntary exposure to not only human beings but also to livestock and wildlife to toxins and allergens which have not been detected (FAO/WHO, 2000 p26).

Lack of validity to support GM crops bio-safety

A search conducted on GM food safety from Medline database indicated that on issue of toxicity of transgenic foods 44 citations were identified, with only one citation reporting experimentation while seven citations were from opinions. A search on adverse effects of transgenic foods provided 67 citations, two reporting experimentation while sixteen were citations from opinions.

Finally, a search on modified foods yielded 101 citations with six citations reporting experimentation while 37 were citations based on opinion. In total sixty authors were identified offering their opinions without support of concrete data. Most of these were those who supported idea of transgenic food safety (Clark & Lehman, 2001 p7-8).

On the same note several studies conducted by generic modified companies lacked citations and this questions the evidence presented to us besides lacking valid reason to explain why evidence presented by those support GM foods that are safe has not been subjected to peer review. For this reason, claims for GM crops are safe and posses no environmental harm for sure have not gone through peer-review for validation this lack sufficient ground to be trusted (Clark & Lehman, 2001 p27).

Controversy in countries over use of GM foods

There has been a recent global controversy over genetically modified foods where United States of America has been seen taking different stand for genetically modified food as compared with other countries particularly from European region.

For instance, a study conducted in these regions indicated that United State respondents were supportive to genetically modified foods as compared to those who were from Europe.

However, biotechnology did not seem to receive strong support in United State but European respondents were more supportive to genetic testing. Though no solid reason was found as to existence of resistance of genetically modified food in Europe media coverage seemed to be the most probable cause that influenced of public perceptions (Gaskell et al, 2000 p1).

Conclusion

From the above presentation, I find that there is not concrete evidence to support that there is no harm in consuming genetically modified foods. Bio-safety assessment is supposed to be undertaken taking into consideration of the harm associated with use of GM crops both to human and environment.

Nevertheless, such studies prove to be expensive in terms of cost and should be continuous. There seems no commercial organization promoting use of GM crops or governmental body willing to undertake such studies to provide public with evidence-based research.

Much of what we are currently hearing is commentaries and opinions which do not have any single data to support claims that it is safe to use genetically modified food. We can not get blinded that increasing food production to feed ever growing population is a sound reason to embrace genetically modified foods.

Neither should we need to go for it because of reduced farming cost in saving insecticides and herbicides for crop production. There may be potentially high risks that are associated with use of genetic modified food that are not uncovered which may prove so costly and endangering life in this planet earth that managing malnutrition and hunger caused by poor policies which can be effectively addressed.

References

Clark, E. Ann & Lehman, Hugh. (2001). Assessment of GM crops in commercial agriculture. Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 14, pp. 7-27

FAO/WHO (2000).Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plants origin.

Report of a joint FAO/WHO Expert consultation on food derived from biotechnology, World Health Organization, Geneva, p. 26

Gaskell George, Bauer,W. Martin, Durant,J ohn & Allum, C. Nicholas. (2000) World apart? The reception of genetically modified foods in Europe and the US. Science Journal. Vol. 285, p. 1

Gura, Tylor. Reaping the plant gene harvest. Science journal, 289, p. 413

Hurley, M. Terrance, Babcock, A. Bruce & Hellmich, L. Richard. (2000). Bt corn and insect resistance: an economic assessment of refugees. Journal of Agricultural and Resources Economic.Vol, 26, p. 2

Rockfellor Foundation. (1999). Rice biotechnology: Rockfeller to end network after 15 years of success. Science Journal, Volume, 286, p. 1470