While there is little controversy over many aspects of biotechnology and its application, genetically modified (GM) foods have become the target of intense controversy. This controversy in the marketplace has resulted in a firestorm of public debate, scientific discussion, and media coverage. The countries most affected by this debate are Middle Eastern and third world countries, who stand to reap the benefits of solving widespread starvation, and countries such as the United States, as strong suppliers of genetically modified foods. The world's population is predicted to double in the next 50 years and ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is already a challenge. Scientists hope to meet that challenge through the production of genetically modified food plants that can help in warding off starvation as the world's population grows.
Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" commonly are used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology refers to using living organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," or "genetically engineered." Genetically modified foods are crop plants created for human or animal consumption that use genetic engineering to alter their genetic content. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.
Drought is among the most damaging environmental factors in plant agriculture, mainly because plants either mature early to avoid growth in the dry season. To increase drought tolerance, plants can be genetically modified to improve one or more of these mechanisms. Many flowering time genes have been identified, and some of them may soon find applications in speeding up flowering and maturation of crops to avoid predictable droughts. Genetic improvement of the abscissa acid responsiveness of guard cells is expected to be beneficial for water conservation and drought tolerance. Additionally, plants may be genetically modified to have more hairs on the epidermis, to minimize transpiration by reducing airflow near the leaf surface. The water status of a plant is a function of water uptake by roots and loss via stomata and cuticle.
Therefore, in addition to conserving water by improving leaf characteristics, plant roots may be genetically modified to improve water uptake from the soil. Some plants such as mesquite trees prosper in extreme deserts because their roots grow to great depths to reach underground water supplies. Water channels -- that is, proteins that transport water across cell membranes -- are likely key players and thus good targets for genetic modification. Drought problems cause hardship to farmers worldwide. Genetic improvement of drought tolerance of crop plants through traditional breeding or gene engineering has shown encouraging signs that plants can be genetically modified to better cope with drought.
Of great importance to plant-based industries such as agriculture and horticulture's the yield of grain or fruit. To be profitable, these businesses need high and steady yields year after year. Some of the GM food technologies offer great promise for large-scale analysis in the future. Genetically modified plants could be used when novel stress-tolerant properties are suitable for solving environmental problems. Such an example would represent a truly positive instance in which the use of genetically modified plants may not be so threatening in the eyes of the general public. Finally, a strategy worth considering is to make transgenic plants sterile so that they cannot easily spread their genetic material to plants that are closely related to the crop plant -- for instance, to wild plants and weeds.
The basic science of biotechnology has existed since the early 1970s, but only in the middle 1990s did commercially viable genetically modified foods appear on store shelves in significant quantities. The new foods quickly became embroiled in controversy. The European public, due to the problems faced mad cow issues, stated these products as unsafe. Regulatory approval for new field trials of GM crops in Europe was stopped, and activists filed lawsuits against growers of GM crops in Europe for polluting the world's genetic commons with products that God had neither created nor intended.
Similar events unfolded in Japan with the Japanese government and consumers demanding segregation and labeling of GM crops. In the United States, however, public discussion took a different direction. The new crops were hailed as allowing farmers to protect yields while using fewer harmful pesticides benefiting the environment, field workers and farmers. Within five years, U.S. farmers went from essentially zero GM planting to sowing the majority of the soybean crop and nearly half of the corn and cotton crop with GM seeds. Consumers, meanwhile, were largely quiet with the exception of large activist groups.
In 2003, about 167 million acres grown by 7 million farmers in 18 countries were planted with GM crops, the principal ones being herbicide- and insecticide-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Other crops grown commercially or field-tested included a sweet potato resistant to a virus that could decimate most of the African harvest, rice with increased iron and vitamins that may alleviate chronic malnutrition in Asian countries, and a variety of plants able to survive weather extremes. On the horizon are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as hepatitis B; fish that mature more quickly; fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties.
Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge for the 21st century. Like all new technologies, they also poses some risks, both known and unknown. Controversies surrounding genetically modified foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.
Genetically modified foods offer a way to quickly improve crop characteristics such as yield, pest resistance, or herbicide tolerance, often to a degree not possible with traditional methods. Further, GM crops can be manipulated to produce completely artificial substances, from plastics to consumable vaccines. genetically modified foods offer enhanced taste and quality, reduced maturation time, and increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance. genetically modified foods also are more resistant to disease, pests, and herbicides that pave the way for the development of new products and growing techniques. Animals are bred with increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency. This results in better yields of meat, eggs, and milk. Environmental benefits include the conservation of soil, water, and energy, and bioprocessing for forestry products.
GM foods retain a higher level of pest resistance, which can help farmers to reduce their use of chemical pesticides, which in turn reduce the cost of food production. Some plants have been engineered to be resistant to weed-killers, so that farmers can spray a field with the weed-killer, wiping out everything except the crop. This also reduces the cost to the farmers of growing food crops. More and greater benefits will come from the development of vaccines, antibodies and other pharmaceutical proteins in plants. Vaccines extracted from GM potatoes, against hepatitis B and against bacteria and viruses causing diarrhea diseases, are already under test. Eventually they will be produced in bananas or lettuces or in tomato juice that can be ingested raw. The benefit to society is the greatest challenge, the potential for increased food security for growing populations and poorer countries in the Middle East.
These benefits do not come without risks, however. A variety of ecological and human health concerns come with the new advances. For example, protests have been based on environmental, human health, and economic concerns. Environmental concerns involve whether the pest-resistant crop plants may be killing beneficial insects as well as pests. Some studies have shown that the pollen of transgenic corn plants is toxic to the larvae of monarch butterflies. Another concern is whether the introduced genes will spread from the crop plants into plants growing nearby, creating "super weeds" that could not be killed by weedkiller. The transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination can cause unknown effects on other organisms, soil microbes, and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity. Research studies in this area are largely inconclusive.
Safety concerns include the potential dangers to human health such as allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, and unknown effects. Research on GM plants will bring particular benefits to health. Some have already been achieved through the reduced use of pesticides. In South Africa, cases of burns and sickness from agricultural chemicals have fallen from 150 to a dozen a year because GM cotton is sprayed only twice a season instead of more than eight times. Economic concerns are the most important as they relate to middle eastern and third world countries.
The likelihood that these poorer countries will not be able to produce genetically modified foods themselves is very high, due to their lack…