Genetically modified, by definition, is a term denoting or derived from an organism whose DNA has been altered for the purpose of improvement or correction of defects. (dictionary.com) Genetically modified foods are foods that have been altered to enhance certain traits for the purpose of making them more desirable to consumers. Since the development of this process, modified foods have become more common throughout the years, and with their increase in production there has also been great controversy.
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History of Genetically Modified Foods
In 1994, the first genetically modified food the Food and Drug Administration deemed safe enough for human consumption was a tomato called the “Flavr Savr,” produced in California. The purpose of altering the tomato was for it to be resistant to rotting and decaying as quickly as tomatoes usually do. They were not labeled as being genetically modified and they were between two and five time more expensive than ordinary tomatoes, but consumers still purchased them. However, due to competition, brought on by a tomato made conventionally and with a longer shelf life, the Flavr Savr tomatoes were not profitable. Genetically modified tomatoes were then made into a tomato puree and sold in Europe in the mid-1990s, but a couple years later controversy arose over the concept of genetically modifying food.
In 1998, a doctor from Aberdeen, in Scotland, published results from a research study he conducted suggesting that genetically modified potatoes, injected with an insecticide gene from the snowdrop plant, were toxic to rats. A year later it was announced that beginning in 1999, there were to be trials of genetically modified crops engineered to be resistant to herbicides. The purpose of the trials was to uncover the effects of these crops on farmland wildlife. However, this was criticized to be potentially dangerous to nearby crops, as well as honey that could be affected by cross-pollination. Sure enough, later that year pollen from genetically modified oilseed rape, a plant that is used to produce canola oil, was found at beehives almost three miles away. Two out of nine samples of honey being sold in supermarkets were contaminated in May 2000. At this point in time, nine out of ten people were against the idea of genetically modifying foods.
Despite the controversy surrounding genetically modified plants and foods in earlier years, technologies have advanced, and in 2006, 10.3 million farmers planted 252 million acres of transgenic crops in 22 countries. The United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, and South Africa grew 97% of these crops. Soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa were modified to be herbicide and insect resistant, whereas other crops, like sweet potatoes for instance were modified to be able to survive harsh weather conditions.
The process of genetic modification
Genetically modifying foods changes their genetic makeup in some way. The purpose of doing this is to enhance certain aspects of the food, for example, increasing its resistance to herbicides or its nutritional value. Traditionally, this has been done by way of selectively breeding plants or animals for specific genetic traits, however this method has proven to be potentially inaccurate and very time consuming. Genetic modification on the other hand can physically isolate a particular gene and insert it into another substance, enabling it to then posses that quality. This is done very quickly and accurately.
Plants can be made insect resistant, virus resistant, or more tolerant to herbicides. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that produces a gene for toxin production that is safe for human production. To achieve insect resistance, the gene is injected into the crops that will then be able to produce this toxin on their own, leading to a decreased need for insecticides. To achieve virus resistance, crops must be introduced to the gene from that particular disease-causing virus. This results in less susceptibility to the disease and higher crop yields. Similarly, to achieve herbicide tolerance, a gene from a bacterium that will transmit resistance to some herbicides must be injected into the crops, in turn reducing the amount of herbicides used.
Purpose of genetically modifying foods
There are many reasons for producing and selling genetically modified foods over those that are traditionally produced. Originally, the intent was increased protection of crops. This is still one of the process’ objectives, however there are many additional benefits recognized today. Both consumers and producers who feel that genetically modified foods are advantageous believe that these foods can be cheaper, more durable, and more nutritional. Genetically modifying foods is also a way to ensure that with a world population that is predicted to double in the future, a food shortage will not be encountered.
In addition to increased protection from diseases, pests and herbicides, there are other key reasons for genetic modification. Many crops are destroyed due to troubling weather conditions. Frost can come at unexpected times causing destruction to sensitive crops. Cold water fish have an antifreeze gene which, when introduced to plants like tobacco and potatoes, can lead to a higher tolerance to cold temperatures. Similarly, plants can also develop the ability to withstand droughts.
A very important quality of food is the nutritional value that is possesses. Malnutrition is quite prevalent, especially in third world countries where people tend to rely on only one crop to fulfill their dietary needs. If however, these crops could be genetically modified to contain the amount of vitamins and nutrients necessary to sustain a healthy diet, it would be a great advantage. For example, in third world countries blindness caused by a vitamin A deficiency is very common, so researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have developed what they call, “golden” rice, which contains uniquely high levels of vitamin A. The hope in this development is that this rice, funded by the non-profit organization Rockefeller Foundation, can be sent to any countries that request it.
Vaccinations and medicines can be very difficult to produce, and they can also be very costly. Through genetic modification there is hope that the ability to produce foods with edible vaccinations in them will become a possibility.
Common Genetically Modified Foods
According to a WebMD article, experts say that about sixty to seventy percent of processed foods sold in the United States contain genetically modified ingredients. Soybeans, , corn, cotton, and rapeseed oil are the most commonly genetically modified foods. In other words, any foods that contain field corn, high-fructose corn syrup, soybeans, cottonseed oil, or canola oil all contain genetically modified ingredients. These ingredients are extremely common in most foods, much more so than most people are aware of. According to a study funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, only 52% of Americans are aware that genetically modified foods are even sold in grocery stores.
The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world, and in 2000 it was estimated that 25% of corn crops growing in the United States were genetically modified. Corn is an ingredient in beer, salad dressing, margarine, flour, and anything containing corn syrup. The corn sold in stores is not necessarily intended to be genetically modified, however the concern for cross contamination between crops is there, since corn is wind-pollinated.
Soy is the most heavily modified crop, and more than half the soy in the world was made up of genetically modified strains in 2007. There are different reasons for the modification of soy, including an added resistance to insects, and increasing its vitamin or fat and protein content in order to be suitable for animal feed. Soy is also used for creating chemicals used in pharmaceuticals. The likelihood of products in the United States containing genetically modified materials if they contain soy is very high, despite the lack of any labeling stating so. Tofu and soy milk are obviously effected products, however soy is also present in bread, cereal, ice cream and chocolate.
Milk can be made from a genetically modified hormone called the recombinant bovine growth hormone. The function of this hormone is to produce more milk by keeping cells to produce milk alive in cows for longer periods of time.There is no proven difference between milk produced with the hormone versus that produced without it, however cows injected with the hormone are more prone to disease which can in turn have negative effects on the milk.
Rapeseed oil, or canola oil, is one of the most genetically modified crops used. 80% of canola crops in Western Canada have been genetically modified. It is modified in the area of herbicide resistance. Also, modified rapeseed crops produce the main pollen used in the making of honey, suggesting that most honey from Canada could likely qualify as genetically modified.
Advantages of Genetically Modified Foods
Genetically modified foods offer several advantages. As already mentioned, an increased resistance to pests and diseases, the tolerance against bad weather conditions, and an increase in food supply are all obviously positive aspects. Crops have a better taste and quality when they are modified and they also have increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance. The time it takes for crops to mature is reduced as well. As far as the advantages for animals, they develop an increased resistance, productivity, and feed efficiency. They also produce more food, and their health can improve.
The environment can benefit from genetically modifying foods as well. Firstly, the bioherbicides and bioinsecticides are environmentally friendly. Because genetic modification improves the resistance of plants and reduces their maturation time, soil, water, and energy can also be conserved. There is better natural waste management associated with genetic modification, and food processing is more efficient.
Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Foods
Despite the advantages of genetically modifying foods, the disadvantages of doing so seem to greatly outweigh the positive aspects of it. The most common criticisms against GM foods are in regards to the environment, health risks, and economic worries. Firstly, there have been several harmful, yet unintended effects on organisms in the environment. Monarch butterfly caterpillars have suffered an increased mortality rate due to the gene injected in corn crops. Though the caterpillars do not consume corn crops, they consume milkweed plants in neighboring fields, where the wind could easily transfer the pollen.
There was a study done to test this theory, and the study did in fact support it. Another environmental concern is that the genes used to enhance certain crops will be transferred over to species unintended to contain the gene. For instance, in the case of crops that are introduced to a gene enabling them to develop an increased resistance to herbicides, the gene can potentially spread into the weeds themselves, causing them too to develop a higher herbicide resistance. This could cause problems because the weeds would then become very difficult to combat which could possibly ruin the crops.
The concern for human health risks in regards to genetically modified foods is very high as well. Firstly, food allergies are very common among people in Europe and the United States, and in some cases these allergies can be fatal. The possibility that adding genes to plants could cause allergic reactions in susceptible people is there, and it is a very threatening possibility. Secondly, genetically modified foods pose an unknown overall threat to human health. Despite the lack of proof that foods made of genetically modified materials can be harmful to people, there have been studies showing that certain GM foods are in fact harmful to the digestive tract of rats. Just the fact that the effects of GM food on people are still not completely known also poses a huge threat in itself.
From an economic perspective, genetically modifying foods is very costly. With new technologies that are continuously surfacing, companies are starting to want to patent their ideas, and this raises the concern that with patents will come a raise in price of seeds, making business very difficult for farmers who will not be able to afford them. This would result in the domination of food production throughout the world by only a few companies if GM foods reached such a high existence. It would also increase the dependence of developing countries on industrialized nations. Lastly, it could also result in biopiracy, or foreign exploitation of natural resources.
There are ethical issues surrounding genetic modification as well. Many people question if it is unethical to alter nature by taking the genes of one species and mixing it with another. There is also the question of whether or not it is ethically wrong to violate the essential values of organisms. This process can stress animals as well, as their natural ways of life and food production are being compromised in ways that are having essentially unknown effects on the animal. The ethicality of labeling foods as genetically modified is a very controversial issue. In the United States, labeling foods is not mandatory and to the many people who do not want to consume these foods, this is viewed as very unethical.
Laws of Genetically Modified Foods
The laws and governmental regulations of genetically modifying food varies throughout the world, yet a common factor is that all of these different governments are in fact working towards establishing regulatory processes. In Japan, as of April 2001, testing GM foods was made mandatory. In the United States, regulation is achieved by several different governmental agencies, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Food and Drug Administration. The EPA is responsible for regulating the substances used that may cause possible harm to the environment and human health, pesticides for example.
Farmers need to obtain licenses in order to use such chemicals, and the amount they are permitted ot use is regulated. The USDA includes different divisions each responsible for their own branch of assessment. “Among these divisions are APHIS, the Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service, which conducts field tests and issues permits to grow GM crops, the Agricultural Research Service which performs in-house GM food research, and the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service which oversees the USDA risk assessment program.” (Csa.com) The FDA is involved when companies producing GM foods have issues they feel they want to consult with them about. They are not required to go to the FDA though.
The future of Genetically Modified Foods
Currently, genetically modified ingredients are present in many foods, however the process is mostly limited to altering the ingredients in the area of improved sustainability. In the future, there are plans to genetically modify much more. For example, there are plans to try to produce foods with the ability to produce human vaccinations. There are also plans to genetically alter food animals, like pigs, cows, and most recently salmon.
Genetically modified foods have come a long way since their first introduction into the market. They have great potential to solve many problems and improve upon many conditions. However, there are many challenges facing governments as far as the advancement of genetically modified foods is concerned. Regulations, food testing, and uncovering more of the possible effects on both human health and the environment are all great issues involved. The concept of genetic modification is also very controversial. However, regardless of the obstacles and controversy surrounding this phenomenon, it is becoming much more widespread throughout the world.
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