This can contribute directly to human health and development (AgBio). Borlaug (1999), who won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work in developing high-yield wheat and other grains in third-world countries, stresses that genetic engineering is essential due to the worldwide population growth. Other organizations supporting genetically modified foods are the American Medical Association, the International Association of African Scientists, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
Of course, there are always two sides to every coin, and individuals such as Ronnie Cummins, national director of the BioDemocracy Campaign, a grassroots organization that promotes organic food and opposes genetic engineering in agriculture, states that genetically modified foods can result in production of items that are toxic, carcinogenic, and allergenic. She warns that widespread planting of GM crops could cause unexpected harm to the environment; as crops are engineered to resist weeds, insects and viruses, evolution will drive these pests to become stronger and more dangerous. She speaks for others in wanting a worldwide moratorium on genetic engineering in agriculture.
Recent studies show that U.S. farmers are using just as many toxic pesticides to grow genetically modified foods than the traditional ones. Crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant account for 70% of all GM crops planted in 1998; the benefits of thes herbicide-resistant crops are so farmers can spray as much of a herbicide on the crops as they would like. Scientists estimate that these resistant plants could triple the amount of toxic herbicides used in agriculture. It is also pointed out by opponents that genetic pollution has already begun to damage the environment. The genetically altered pollen is carried to adjoining fields and pollute natural foods.
A century ago, U.S. consumers debated about the safety of artificial ice and whether or not a mechanical freezer was as safe as ice harvested from frozen lakes or rivers. These worries, of course, were groundless. Then again, no one was concerned about asbestos and it proved to be a deadly carcinogenic. The debate about genetically altered foods will continue as long as people do not understand the ramifications, if any, and are fearful of future concerns. As in any debate, there are truths on both sides: Bioengineering is not risk free, nor is it as deadly as its worse foes make it to be. Environmentally, it both helps and hinders nature. It is important that the correct information gets out to the public, so consumers can make their own decisions for themselves and their families. As with organic foods, there will be some who request it and others who do not care either way.
No one can expect that there will be a moratorium on genetically modified foods. Those in favor of this issue and especially those who have benefited and hope to continue to benefit from the advantages of genetic engineering have a great deal of influence. However, those who have consciously made the decision not to have foods that are genetically modified need the ability to make an informed choice. Some people call for labeling of genetically modified foods. Alan McHughen (2000, p. 202) believes in an informed choice, but believes that labeling is not the answer, first because in the U.S. genetically modified foods are only those where there is an identifiable health concern or substantial alteration, so is not all inclusive; 2) the public may see these labels as a warning of a health hazard, which has not been established; 3) certain foods would still not need to have a label, such as meat with residual hormone content, so consumers would once again be misled; 4) the cost of food has already increased significantly this past year and it can be expected that mandatory labels would be paid for by the consumers; 5) what happens to small- or medium-sized food processors who do not know where the tomatoes came from and if they are or are not genetically modified; and 6) what about products that have more than one modified product?
McHugen has a suggestion of what can be done instead of labeling. That is, he says, to "scrap the knee-jerk GM labeling laws and demand a mechanism by which each consumer can identify exactly which products fit specified criteria" (p. 241). The answer goes back to the power of technology using it as a benefit. This would be to establish a public database for all products and all processes that records all the contents, in percentage form, with a measure of variation in each batch.
Such a database makes sense. However, two things need to be in place. First, data is nothing but numbers unless people can read and understand that data and apply it easily to their own situation. Consumer education is imperative -- surely more than what has come with regular food labels. Second, this program has to be supported by all companies, without loopholes. Unfortunately, that may bring everything back round robin to regulation, since there are always the Enrons of the world that do not comply.
Regardless of what is decided, communication is key to understanding, and the consumer has to be educated in this topic in order to make well-informed decisions and to stop the fear factor of response. If anything, companies that produce genetically modified foods and those that are not in favor of them need to provide "objective" information (not brainwashing) materials) that present all sides of the issue. Then people can read and know what they feel is best for them.
AgBio World, Scientists in support of agricultural biotechnology. February 27, 2008 http://www.agbioworld.org/declaration/index.html
BioDemocracy. Hazards of genetically engineered food and crops. Ronnie Cummins. http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge-free.cfm
Borlaug, N. (1999) Biotech can feed eight billion in the next century. New perspectives quarterly 25(1): 129-132
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Gay, K. (2008) Super Food or Super Threat. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers.
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