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Positives and Negatives of Genetically Modified Foods

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Genetically Modified Foods: Waiting to happen, good for the world, or an eco-disaster?

Introduction

One of the controversial problems in the field of food production worldwide is the genetic modification of food. While many favour the production and use of genetically modified (GM) foods, there is a growing number of people who oppose GM foods vehemently. All communities and individuals from all socio-economic positions are included in the global debate on GM foods (Daubert et al.: p.327).

Through the process of selective breeding, “fruits of an exotic taste, roses with specific colors and fragrances, and chickens that lay eggs that are lower in cholestrol content” (Daubert et al.: p.327) have been developed. The process is considered simple genetic manipulation when there is no inter-species crossing. The technique is limited to enhancing a species with a trait that is unique to the species in question. However, it became more accurate with the arrival of biotechnology, genetic modification, and selective breeding, with genetic manipulation focusing on specific genes not indigenous to the species. Improvements have been made to already elite varieties through the introduction of new traits. For instance, the crossing of inter-species has increased traditional crops by breeding insect-resistant crops and increased nutritional value of corn and rice, respectively. A globally contentious problem has been this alteration of the species followed by the production of genetically engineered foods (Daubert et al.: p.327).

Positives and Negatives of Genetically Modified Foods

The purpose of this Memorandum is to discuss the pros and cons of the arguments in favor of and against genetically modified foods. The two sides’ primary strengths and weaknesses will be identified. The more persuasive evidence of the two will be determined and examined, and recommendations and solutions will be suggested for optimal future outcomes.

Overview of the Pro and Con Arguments Concerning Genetically Modified Foods

History reveals that the genetic modification of food has been carried out for several centuries, for both plants and animals. The well-known geneticist Gregor Mendel is known to have performed genetic manipulation in the 19th century, which developed into selective breeding practices. The reasons for the promotion of GM foods are related to higher levels of production and improved quality production of agricultural and animal products. This is necessary through increased and more substantial crops with enhanced nutritional values to battle human malnutrition and world hunger. The reasons for countering it, on the other hand, relate to its adverse effects on human health, such as allergies, in addition to the dangerous transfer of genes between species and potential adverse effects on human health, environmental and ecological changes (Daubert et al.: p.327).

The Business Aspects of Genetically Modified Food

International trade and U.S. domestic politics deal with internal regulation on competitive trade and the obstacles to trade that are presented by differences in related rules of the governments of various nations. The transatlantic dispute over genetically modified food is due to the diversity in opinions regarding the benefits of the new development (Young: p.460).

Firstly, the impact of foreign rules on U.S. agricultural producers are mitigated because, for most crops, domestic demand takes precedence over exports. Secondly, the European Union (EU) is the third-largest export market for the U.S. In contrast, the more significant export markets Canada and Japan, have less restrictive approaches to agricultural biotechnology than the EU. It is the EU’s rules that have the most substantial influence on the United States. Thirdly, policy change works out very high in cost, mainly because genetically modified foods are required to undergo a process of approval, instead of having to comply with a particular standard. Instead of changing a specific rule that results from the regulatory process, trading up through changing the regulatory process itself would have to be done. Domestic institutions, rather than outcomes, would have to change, though the former are highly resistant to change (Young: p.461).

Further, GM crops are subject to an approval process. Hence, exported products require the importer’s approval. Domestic regulator changes do not help to acquire access to the foreign market. Moreover, an additional complication is that genetic modification is considered a production process, according to the U.S. government. “The dynamics of trading up tends to be weaker with regard to rules regulating production processes, such as standards for emission from factories” (Young: p.461). Most of the process measures impose costs on domestic producers, putting them at a disadvantage compared with foreign competitors. On the other hand, the European Union deals with genetic modification, as though the scientific process affects the character of the resulting products. The EU impedes trade of GM foods (Young: p.461).

Figure 1. Increase in World Croplands Used for Genetically Modified Crops

(ITM Online, 2009)

From Figure 1. given above, it is clear that the area devoted to growing biotechnology crops all over the world has risen steadily from 1996 until 2003. Genetically modified food crops include the well-known “roundup ready” soybean introduced commercially in 1997. These crops were developed by the firm Monsanto, which produced genetically modified canola and manufactured the herbicide termed “Roundup,” a derivative of glyphosate. The weed killer does not adversely impact the crops. Other crops grown commercially are sweet potato resistant to a powerful virus with the potential to destroy most of the African harvest, rice with higher iron and vitamins to help overcome chronic malnutrition in Asia, and several plants with the capability to survive weather extremes. “There are over 100 species of plants in the testing phase for potential commercial use of their genetic modifications”  (ITM Online, 2009).

Though these genetically modified crops are increasingly relied upon, they form only a small part of the entire farming activity. In 2003, about 167 million acres were used for growing transgenic crops, representing approximately 4.5% of the global cropland. Seven million farmers grew these crops in 18 countries, with the central GM farming carried out in the “U.S., Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, and South America” (ITM Online, 2009).

Figure 2. The extent of Transgenic Crops Production in Various Countries

Positives and Negatives of Genetically Modified Foods

(ITM Online, 2009)

 Number 2. given above represents the breakdown of the levels of primary transgenic crop production in various countries: the United States: 63%, Argentina: 21%, Canada: 6%, Brazil: 4%, China: 4%, and South Africa: 1%. In the graph above, the acreage in millions is also given for the countries indicated. It is believed that this commercial enterprise will level out in industrialized countries, whereas in developing nations, it will rise for the next several decades. Through research, GM product development is likely to increase in the next few years, with greater access to genetic information and resources (ITM Online, 2009).

The Primary Strengths and Weaknesses of the Issue

One of the main strengths of the argument in favor of the genetic modification of food (GM) is that there is an extensive improvement in the quantity of crop yield. At the same time, the need for fertilizers and pesticides is considerably reduced. However, the disadvantage is that such agricultural yield is inadequately tested, and may cause unknown dangers to health. Hence, though farmers and the public in poor, developing countries will benefit significantly from improved crop production, environmentalists create barriers to the genetic modification of food. According to Singh et al. (p.602), genetic or transgenic modification applied to plant and animal food sources have a high potential for improving human nutrition and health; however, facilities for growing GM crops must be available the developing as well as the developed world.

Concurrent with the benefits of genetic modifications of plants, there are potential risks common to all technologies. New gene combinations with novel traits, such as resistance to pests, diseases, and herbicides, are created utilizing both traditional plant breeding methods and transgenic techniques; however, more significant genetic novelty may be possible by the latter approach (Singh et al.: p.602). The environmental benefits obtained from introducing GM crops are as follows:

  • Crop production cost is reduced, and the yield is increased. For example, some of the transgenic plants such as cotton, corn, soybean, and maize reduce crop production cost and increase the yield. A genetically modified (GM) crop developed by Monsanto is “Bt cotton that produces an insect control protein (Cry1Ac) derived from the naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis” (Singh et al.: p.602)Production of the protein in the cotton plant ensures protection against Lepidopteran insect pests, including cotton bollworm and pink bollworm, according to Betz et al.(p.156). On the other hand, the production of unexpected proteins may occur since genetic engineering is not very accurate, and this may be toxic or allergenic for humans.
  • Similarly Bt maize varieties require considerably reduced insecticide, greater control of target insect pests, increased yield, lower production costs, improved profitability, lower farming risk, and more significant opportunity to grow the crop, leading to beneficial outcomes in the form of higher profits for the farmers (Carpenter & Gianessi: p.24). According to Govil (p.415), there is a decrease of over 16 million pounds of insecticide used per year, in the production of Bt maize varieties, as reported by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Hence, it is clear that there is an enormous decrease in pesticide use with the corresponding improvement in the environment, and a radical increase in productivity and savings in production costs. At the same time, genetically engineered plants can cause contamination of plants through cross-pollination by pollen carried by the wind.
  • Reducing toxic chemicals in the environment is one of the most significant benefits of reducing the use of pest control chemicals. This is because transgenic crop plants such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton contain pest-resistant genes, and are immune to attack from specific pests. The use of several hundred million pounds of pesticides by U.S. farmers had every likelihood of poisoning the soil, air, groundwater, and aquatic ecosystems, states Brown (p.52). Contrastingly, it may so happen that genetically engineered plants become potentially invasive and hence detrimental to human and animal health.
  • Environmental monitoring and remediation is being carried out in recent years as a method of clean-up and is being investigated scientifically. According to Monciardini et al.(p.2761), transgenic plants are a tool for detecting and dealing with environmental pollution. Several plant taxa are capable of metal phytoextraction or organic compound phytodegradation. Through genetic manipulation, specific processes for further improvement can be identified. Genetic engineering of plants with non-plant transgenes increases phytoremediation outcomes against the priority pollutants such as organomercurials (Rugh: p.496). Research with transgenic plants helps develop drug delivery systems and biopharmaceuticals to treat life-threatening and chronic diseases (Fischer et al.: p.820).

On the other hand, genetic engineering may result in resistance to antibiotics. There are chances for biopiracy to occur, with genes of plants and animals stolen from developing countries. Moreover, there may be moral objections to genetic engineering since it is unnatural.

An important issue is that the downsides of genetic engineering should not deprive poorer nations of the technology’s advantages. The opponents of GM foods include special interest groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as several public figures (Daubert et al.: p.328). It is important to note that the activists against GM foods base their opposition on philosophical ideals rather than scientific or economic principles. GM food production is supported by great corporate houses such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont-Pioneer. Activist groups such as Greenpeace fear that farmers who grow GM crops will become dependent on these companies.

According to an IMF News Brief (2002), several African countries face a dire food shortage, especially Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Even so, their governments have hesitated to import genetically modified grain, especially in Zambia, although suppliers have offered to provide the grain in the form of flour. It is essential that alternative sources to GM grain need to be investigated urgently for the emerging nations.

Evaluation of the More Persuasive Side: The Negative Aspects of GM

The use of genetically modified crops poses many concerns relating to health, climate and economic aspects, as well as market and strategic problems. Therefore, the downsides to using GM foods seem to be more convincing and suggest that the device should be used sparingly, and only in optimum conditions and in situations where it is most needed. The ecology and toxicology of GM crops, an assessment of the adverse effects and hazards of the use of genetically modified food, and the main issues of sustainability, globalization, ethics, and socioeconomics.
  1. There is the potential risk of introducing allergens into recipient plants through nordlee et al. (p.688) notes genetic manipulation, and thus foods. Testing for the toxicity of food is required for monitoring proteins that are not found in the human diet. If the gene product is a known allergen, it will be an allergen in a transgenic plant. Animal testing may also be required to determine whether there is an immune response in humans, mainly if it makes a significant part of the diet (Harrison et al.: p.728). Moreover, how protein structure relates to function, and the sensitizing activity needs to be further determined.
  1. There are adverse effects on non-target species as well as on the environment. Transgenic crops that express insecticidal transgenes to control agricultural pests may also affect non-target organisms (Saxena et al.: p.480). The toxic effect may be on plants that are not pests of the crop itself but are predators and parasites of pests that benefit agriculture. On the other hand, these problems may be directly related to the application of Bt toxin and not due to the cultivation of crops carrying Bt gene, as observed in studies on the effect of spraying Bt-toxin on nontarget organisms as pests.
  1. Crop plants are increasingly invasive and weedy, which can result in agricultural weeds, and thus may add to the burden on farmers. This occurs in crops that have some weed like characteristics, such as Medicago sativa, Brassica napus, Brassica rapa, Helianthus annuus, and Oryza sativa. Herbicide mixtures are used to manage the weeds in order to face the issue of the crop itself being weedier and invasive due to their transgenic and novel characteristics (Bennett et al.: p.273).
  1. Pest resistance. The extensive cultivation of GM crops with pest or disease resistance has caused concern that this may impose intense selection pressure on pest populations to adopt the resistance mechanism. If insect pests become resistant to transgenic proteins, it may limit the duration that an insecticidal transgenic variety can be feasibly grown. The first reported pest to develop resistance to Bt toxins applied as microbial formulations in open field populations, was the diamond black moth, states Tabashnik (p.12780).
  2. The main issue that environmental activists have against GM crops is the fear of the loss of biodiversity. GM crops can be a threat to the crop diversity or outgrow a local flora to the detriment of native species. Garcia et al. (p.12338) studied the socio-economic and ethical implications of GM crops’ use.

Recommendations and Solutions

The pros and cons of the use of genetically modified foods are almost equally balanced. The reasons why GM has more adverse effects than beneficial outcomes have been discussed above. According to Daubert et al. (p.328), analytical chemists are required to make a significant contribution to this issue. It was found that more methods are necessary to allow rapid, sensitive, and accurate measurements of genetically modified organisms. Current analytical methods must be adapted and new techniques designed to detect transgenic DNA and newly produced proteins, cost-effectively. According to Daubert et al. (p.322), these methods should be useful for performing untreated and processed food analysis. Unapproved genetically modified organisms accidentally released in foods or feed should be detected, though their presence may be minimal.

“Thus, a host of sampling strategies directed to detecting the presence of genetically modified organisms in foods in a sensitive, selective, and reliable manner should be developed and employed” (Daubert et al.: p.328). The potential allergenicity of GM foods also has to be taken into consideration. For this purpose, analytic chemists should develop reliable analytical methods for the rapid testing of possible allergenicity. This is an area of research that needs to be focused on in the future. It is essential to remember that proteins that are not allergic to the species of origin can become allergenic when transferred to a different species.

Conclusion

The pros and cons of the arguments in favor of and against genetically modified foods have been highlighted. The main strengths and weaknesses of the two sides were identified, and it was found that more than its benefits, the chances of an eco-disaster in the future were higher due to the production of GM foods. The negative aspects of using the new technology were discussed, and recommendations have been suggested for improving the benefits while reducing the chances of adverse outcomes.

The impact of genetically modified foods on U.S. trade is related to various factors such as domestic consumption being given priority over exports, and the European Union’s more restrictive rules applying to the U.S. export market rather than the more liberal policy adopted by Canada and Japan. Moreover, policy changes are not easy to carry out because of the approval process that GM foods have to undergo. They require changing the regulatory process itself, impacting domestic institutions that are highly resistant to change. Hence, policy changes need to consider recommendations and solutions for improving the benefits of GM foods.

Works Cited
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