Genetically Modified Food: The Benefits and the Risks

Background Genetically modified foods or GM foods for short, also go under many different names, including transgenic food, genetically engineered food or biotech food.

So what are GM foods? Although different people and groups have different definitions, GM foods can broadly define as foods that “are produced from crops whose genetic makeup has been altered through a process called recombinant DNA, or gene splicing, to give the plant a desirable trait.” The modification is usually done in the lab using molecular techniques or genetic engineering although there are others who would argue that crops produced through conventional breeding can also be considered as GM food.

The first GM food crop, a tomato developed by Montsanto was submitted for approval to the US FDA in August 1994 and came into market in the same year. As of September 9, 2008, a total of 111 bioengineered food products have completed the US FDA “consultation procedures” on bioengineered foods. In addition to the tomato, the range of products includes soybean, corn, cotton, potato, flax, canola, squash, papaya, radicchio, sugar beet, rice, cantaloupe, and wheat. According to estimates by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, “between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. Breads, cereal, frozen pizzas, hot dogs and soda are just a few of them.”

The benefits of GM foods. Support for GM foods come from different sectors: scientists, economists, and understandably from the agricultural and food industries.

GM foods can fight world hunger. The world population has reached an all-time high of over 6 and a half billion. Over 20% of these are suffering from poverty and hunger. That GM foods can stop hunger is one of the noblest motivations behind the development of GM foods. GM foods supposedly are easier to grow and bring higher yields. In poverty-stricken parts of the world, higher yields can save millions of lives and bring much-needed economic benefits. In a review, Terri Raney of the United Nations says “…the economic results so far suggest that farmers in developing countries can benefit from transgenic crops…”

GM crops are better. GM crops are designed to be sturdier and more robust than their non-modified cousins. They are meant to be resistant to drought, diseases, and pests. The Hawaiian papaya industry, for example, only managed to survive a virus epidemic after the introduction of more resistant transgenic varieties.

GM foods have been with us for hundreds of years. The wide variety of many plants that we see today came about through natural as well as traditional man-made plant cross-breeding that took thousands of years. That is peppers come in different shapes, colors, and taste, from the very spicy hot to the sweet types. That is why we have more than 1000 different types of tomatoes.

GM foods can fight malnutrition. In a world suffering from malnutrition, GM foods can answer the need for more nutritious food. To cite an example, Swiss research strove to create rice strains that contain large amounts of beta-carotene and iron to counteract vitamin A and iron deficiency. Malnutrition can refer to both undernutrition and wrong nutrition. People in rich and developed countries may have more than enough food but not the proper nutrition necessary to keep them healthy. For this reason, researchers at the European-funded FLORA project have developed strains of fruits and vegetables with enhanced content of antioxidants. Through genetic engineering, FLORA oranges have higher than normal flavonoids and phenolics. The FLORA purple tomatoes have three times the amount of the antioxidant anthocyanins compared to normal tomatoes.

GM foods are good for the environment. The damage to the environment that insecticides such as DDT bring about is well-known. The use of synthetic fertilizers in the farmlands led to the eutrophication of rivers and lakes all over the world. GM foods translate into less use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and therefore less pollution.

GM foods can help medicine. GM foods can be used in producing pharmacological products in the so-called “medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants.” FLORA stands for “flavonoids and related phenolics for healthy living using orally recommended antioxidants” and it sees it self as “a player in the future of medicine.” As early as 2005, Indian researchers reported the potential use of transgenic bananas in carrying vaccines against hepatitis B. In the same year, the biotech company GTC Biotherapeutics based in Framingham, Massachusetts has developed a herd of genetically modified goats that produce milk which contains a human anticoagulant called anti-thrombin.

GM foods are safe. The creators of GM crops are quick to assure that GM foods are safe and pose no threat to human health. GM crops are regulated by three agencies: the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US FDA. “The FDA ensures that foods made from these plants are safe for humans and animals to eat, the USDA makes sure the plants are safe to grow, and the EPA ensures that pesticides introduced into the plants are safe for human and animal consumption and for the environment. While these agencies act independently.”

According to the US FDA, “bioengineered foods do not pose any risks for consumers that are different from conventional foods … We make sure there are no hazards, such as an unexpected allergen or poisonous substance in the food, or that the food is not changed in some way that would affect its nutritional value.”

The issues against GM foods.

The opponents of GM foods may be scientists, environmentalists, and of course consumer groups. In addition, many celebrities are openly anti-GM, thus setting role models for the public. Among the most well-known and outspoken GM sceptic is Charles, England’s Prince of Wales.

GM foods are for profit. According to its opponents, GM foods were created for profit and nothing else. They cite the multinational giant Monsanto, a pioneer in GM research and owns the infamous Roundup crops. Companies like Monsanto are unlikely in the GM business for purely noble reasons.

GM foods are unregulated. The use of GM foods in the world is almost an unregulated free-for-all activity. Going through the US FDA consultation procedures is mainly voluntary. Anti-GM advocacy groups and concerned scientists are asking for more controls and regulations.

There are also reports of GM plants escaping field trials and finding their way to the natural environment, thousands of miles away. In 2006, rice which contained genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (the notorious Bt) found its way to European supermarkets, causing a big outcry. The bacterial gene rendered the rice resistant to insects and the transgenic rice was a test plant that has not yet been approved for human consumption.

GM foods can harm the environment. GM foods are affecting their environment and some of these effects might actually be harmful. The effects are especially evident in other living organisms within the vicinity.

There are concerns, for examples, how cross-pollination with pollens from GM plants can affect non-GM plants.

Resistance development is another major issue. In China, for example, researchers used antibiotic-resistance marker genes to derive resistant transgenic rice strains. There are concerns that the marker genes will be taken up by naturally occurring gut bacteria and lead to resistant, more pathogenic strains.

Other studies also point to possible effects on animal life such as insects which are closely interact with the GM plants. One of the most well-known incidences was the claims that pollens from transgenic corn plants with Bt insecticidal gene markers are adversely affecting monarch butterflies in North America. Although experts say that the butterflies were safe from Bt, environmentalists were not satisfied.

GM foods can be detrimental to human health. The main concerns about adverse effects of GM foods on health are the transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity and allergenicity. With genetic modifications come new compounds in the crops which we virtually know nothing about. These compounds may be in the form of allergens and little-known proteins whose effects to human health are difficult to predict. In the food chain, this can even affects animals fed by GM crops and slaughtered for human use.

GM foods are not better. Western Europe is a stronghold of anti-GM movement. A European study last year declared that organic foods – which are exclusively non-GM-, are definitely better and more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts.

Which way do we go? The risks versus benefits of GM food are not an easy issue to settle. There is an urgent need for increasing food production and GM foods seem to be in the best position to address this need. In the short-term, GM foods are probably the solution to food shortage.

Currently, there is not enough scientific evidence to support the possible risks of GM foods. However, like in most things new and innovative, the long-term benefits and adverse effects can only be speculated upon.

Responsibility should be on the scientists, the health authorities, and the industries to act responsibly and to be as transparent as possible.

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