Genetically modified (GM) food has generated considerable interest and controversy in the United States and around the world (University of Richmond, 2004). Proponents applaud the vast benefits of technology while opponents argue that environmental and food safety issues outweigh the benefits. This paper provides background information regarding the genetically modified crops in an attempt to show that they are a benefit to society.
The appearance of GM food products in the marketplace has resulted in a great deal of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage (SCOPE, 2004). A variety of concerns go hand in hand with the new advances enabled by genetic modification. However, the possibilities presented by GM crops cannot be overshadowed by these concerns.
Crop varieties developed by genetic engineering were first introduced for commercial use in 1996 (University of Richmond, 2004). Today, these crops are grown on more than 167 million acres worldwide. American farmers are the largest producers of GM crops. The United States comprises nearly two-thirds of all biotechnology crops planted around the world. GM crops grown by U.S. farmers include corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash, and papaya. Other major producers of GM crops are Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.
Recent breakthroughs in biotechnology have given scientists the ability to select specific genes from one organism and introduce them into another to provide a desired trait (University of Richmond, 2004). This technology is used to produce new varieties of plants or animals faster than traditional breeding methods and to introduce traits that are impossible through traditional techniques.
The main agricultural biotechnology products seen so far have been GM crops designed to tolerate herbicides and resist pests (University of Richmond, 2004). Crops carrying herbicide-tolerant genes were created so that farmers could spray their fields to eliminate weeds without ruining crops. Similarly, pest-resistant crops have been engineered to contain a gene for a protein from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt), which is toxic to many pests. This protein, referred to as Bt, is created by the plant, thereby making it resistant to insect pests like the European Corn Borer or Cotton Boll Worm. Other pest-resistant GM crops on the market today have been engineered to hold genes that give resistance to specific plant viruses.
GM foods are still in a very controversial position. They are seen as a way to provide food to the world's ever-expanding population. They can also produce plants that will give farmers better yields through various methods. Also, because crops are harmed or destroyed by many different factors, including insects, weeds, disease, coldness and drought, GM crops are touted for their ability to be resistant or tolerant to these factors.
Supporters of GM crops say that these crops can give us healthier food, produced in a more efficient, environmentally friendly way (Sample, 2003). They believe that promoting GM crops will boost the economy and encourage biotechnology companies to invest in research and development. However, anti-GM groups argue that only the multinational biotech companies will see rewards, and say that few farmers will benefit. In addition, the potential risks of GM crops to health and the environment outweigh the risks of going ahead they argue.
GM supporters say that farmers can reap enormous profits from growing GM crops. Basically, the start-up cost is expensive but money is saved on pesticides (Sample, 2003). To produce the GM crops, modern biotechnology is used. This means that highly skilled people and sophisticated and expensive equipment are needed.
Large companies must invest in laboratories, equipment and human resources, which is why GM crops are more expensive for farmers than traditional crops. GM crops, farmers are told, are a much better option, though as takes a shorter time to produce the crop, it is a precise method, and there are no undesirable genes.
It is very clear that GM crops offer a variety of benefits for farmers. GM crops can be grown to be herbicide resistant (Sakko, 2002). Therefore, farmers can spray these crops with herbicide and kill the weeds, without damaging the crop. In addition, the amount of herbicide used in one season would be reduced, with a significant reduction in costs for farmers and consumers. For example (Sakko, 2000), "for Ingard cotton, pest resistance was built into the cotton, hence reducing and even removing the use of pesticides, which are not only expensive but, more importantly, harmful to the environment."
There are a variety of areas where GM techniques are being utilized in crops to produce altered nutritional profiles (Dibb and Mayer, 2000):
increasing the content of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients;
modifying fats and oils;
altering the starch and sugar content;
altering protein/amino acid profile reducing levels of anti-nutritional/allergy factors;
Even animals can be genetically modified to be leaner, grow faster, and require less food. They can be modified to have special characteristics, including greater milk production in cows (Sakko, 2002). These modifications result in improved productivity for farmers and ultimately lower costs for the consumer. Modified crops have the potential to prevent outbreaks like foot and mouth disease, which has caused major problems for many farmers and local economies.
Genetically modified foods offer many benefits to farmers to quickly improve crop characteristics, including yield, pest resistance, or herbicide tolerance, often impossible with traditional methods (SCOPE, 2004). Also, GM crops can be manipulated to produce artificial substances, such as precursors to plastics and consumable vaccines.
One of the main challenges of agriculture is that mass irrigation is turning acres of fertile ground into salty wastelands (Sample, 2001). Already a third of the world's irrigated land has become useless because the soil is too salty for crops to grow and the problem is rapidly worsening.
If a solution is not found, the world will struggle to provide for its increasing population. Some scientists believe that GM crops are the solution, as there are ways to modify the crops to increase the plants' defenses to salty soils, cold weather and drought. As a result, areas where crops have never been viable, because of extreme cold or frequent drought, could become useful farmland.
According to SCOPE Research Group (2004), however, there are also a variety of concerns. "The power of genetic modification techniques raises the possibility of human health, environmental, and economic problems, including unanticipated allergic responses to novel substances in foods, the spread of pest resistance or herbicide tolerance to wild plants, inadvertent toxicity to benign wildlife, and increasing control of agriculture by biotechnology corporations."
Dr. Liz Dennis is one of many scientists who believe that the benefits of GM crops should not be undermined by the potential risks (SCOPE, 2004). Dennis believes that GM crops have the potential to be part of the solution to world hunger. "Two examples of particular significance to developing countries are the recent announcement of "golden rice" -- rice genetically modified to produce enhanced levels of vitamin A -- and attempts in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and elsewhere to produce rice with elevated levels of iron. These technologies offer solutions to dietary deficiencies that affect millions of people for whom rice is the staple diet."
A recent University of Queensland study revealed that concerns that GM crops are threat to the environment or human health are inaccurate (Reuters, 2000). Rather, GM crops provide significant consumer benefits, said the study. For the study, GM crops were examined in 12 countries on a total area of 40 million hectares, and threats of environmental disaster did not materialize. According to Jimmy Botella, a scientist at the university (Reuters, 2000), "Self-proclaimed ecologist groups proclaim that there is a possibility of long-term unforeseen consequences for human health but the fact remains that after 13 years of consuming GM food there hasn't been as much as a skin rash caused by this kind of food."
"genetically modified foods are no more natural or unnatural than the rest but can provide the consumer with enhanced quality and nutritional properties that would (otherwise) be extremely difficult to achieve," he stated (Reuters, 2000).
One major health benefit of GM crops is the modification of plant oils to increase monounsaturated oils and decrease the levels of polyunsaturated and saturated oils, which should give major health benefits in lowering cholesterol. According to Dennis (SCOPE, 2004): "Developing vaccines in plants is very attractive and appears to be quite feasible -- for example, people may be immunized against measles or other diseases by eating bananas. This technology may make a big difference to the health of the developing world."
One of the most promising applications of GM crops was to reduce wastage of fresh fruit after harvest, as between 20 and 80% of harvested crops are lost before they reach the consumer (Reuters, 2000). These losses pose dramatic risks to developing countries, forcing small farmers to sell sub-optimal produce with major health risks to consumers.
GM crops also have the potential to produce fruit that remain longer at the nutritional peak and would also last longer, increasing the quality of the fruits and…