At the Stand: Genetically Modified Foods
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The history of human kind has been punctuated many times by the arrival of new technology. The plow enabled surplus agriculture which allowed the formation of civilizations from nomadic tribes. The invention of writing allowed for the recording of knowledge and history. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the mass production of this knowledge and the Internet allowed anyone access to this information anytime, anywhere.
In my opinion, humanity is at another such junction wherein a new technology will radically change society. That technology is Genetically Modified Foods or GM Foods. GM foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered via modern genetic engineering methods. This essentially allows engineers to create “super” crops. Genetic engineers can now create crops which are resistant to pests, crops which are able to produce up to twice the yield of ordinary crops, crops which are more nutritional than ordinary plants. It is in this spirit that I believe that GM foods are an important technology and that we should promote and develop its use and consumption.
As previously mentioned, GM foods are better quality foods as ordinary crops. Some of the benefits of GM foods to the consumer include higher nutritional yields, inexpensive and more nutritional food, foods with longer shelf life, as well as food with medicinal benefit (Deakin University, 2006). One dramatic case for GM foods being better than their non-GM counterparts is the research into engineering a banana which produces an antigen found in the Hepatitis-B virus. If ingested, the banana could provide immunity to the Hepatitis-B virus for only a few cents per dose. This is a huge cost improvement especially for those people living in developing countries who may not be able to afford the $100-$200 dollar cost of a Hepatitis-B vaccine (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – New Zealand).
Cost is not the only third world problem solved by GM foods. Medicines require specialized storage and transport facilities which may be unavailable or simply unaffordable for people in third world countries. Researchers are now studying the development of tomatoes with edible vaccines. These vaccines will not require specialized storage and shipping, only storage which is able to keep the tomato fresh and fit for human consumption. Such plant based pharmaceuticals are cheaper to produce and store and easier to produce in large scales. (Daniell, Streatfield, and Wycoff 219-226).
GM foods are not only good for the consumer; they are also good for the farmer. As a testament to this fact, more and more farmers from around the world are planting GM crops. The growth rate for biotech crops worldwide (measured in total land area dedicated for GM crops) has been at a constant double digit pace since 1996. This is because GM crops give higher yields and consequently better revenues for farmers. In India, farmers increased their income by $250 per hectare in 2007. Nine out of ten farmers also replant GM crops which indicate their level of trust for the technology’s potential (ISAAA). Aside from higher yields another benefit of GM foods to farmers is their increased resistance to pests and herbicides. Entire crops can be lost to pest infestation and thus GM foods can greatly reduce the risk of a failed harvest for a farmer. Aside from pests, GM crops can also be engineered to resist fungal and bacterial infections. GM crops can also be made to withstand herbicides. The application of herbicides is an often tedious task for farmers as they need to exercise care so that the herbicide does not get applied to their own crops. Herbicide resistant crops greatly simplify the life of the farmer and also allow him to cut down on herbicide costs as well as on time (Whitman).
In spite of all these benefits, there has been opposition to the adoption of GM crops. One particular argument against GM foods is their supposed safety record. Environmental groups level accusations that consumption of GM foods result in unforeseen side-effects in humans. One example has been the study of Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in which he found that feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats resulted in stunted growth rates (Allaby 253). There is also the possibility that GM foods may trigger new undiscovered allergic reactions in some people. A plan to integrate a gene from Brazilian nuts into soybeans was scrapped due to fears of triggering allergic reactions (Nordlee, et.al. 688-692). A more recent case has been the scrapping of a plan in 2005 to develop peas with built in pest resistance. This was due to the discovery that the GM peas had triggered allergic reaction in mice (Young).
It is appropriate at this point to put these supposed dangers of GM foods into the proper context. Nearly everything in life is dangerous, even water is dangerous should one happen to fall into a deep enough pool without the knowledge of swimming. What is important to look at is the level of safeguards against the level of threat posed by an object. In this case, there are already safeguards in place against the supposed dangers of GM foods. For one, the dangers posed by GM foods can be mitigated by thorough study of their effects. In fact, this is already in place in some countries as GM foods have to pass strict government regulations and testing before being approved fit for human consumption.
These regulatory tests help ensure the safety of GM foods and also give the consumer a safety net as he or she is most likely unqualified to perform the needed scientific rigor in testing the safety of a particular GM food (Whitman). It is also imperative to examine the studies which claim that GM foods pose danger to human consumption. The same study of Pusztai has been criticized by the scientific community for its flawed design, execution and analysis. Yet even without scientific consensus, the study of Pusztai was sensationalized and used as artillery by anti-GM activists in creating a food scare. This resulted in the removal of all GM foods from British shops – all of this stemming from a flawed study (Allaby 253). Lastly, one final safeguard is proper labeling of foods which contain GM crops. In this way, the consumer can have the power of whether he or she will decide to consume genetically modified foodstuffs. Regulation and testing are indeed two powerful mitigating factors to the possible undocumented health risks posed by GM foods.
Another criticism leveled against GM is the adverse effects it poses for the environment. Critics point to GM crops as causes for decline in genetic biodiversity. This is due to the forced dominance of one strain of a specie – the GM strain. Aside from reduced diversity, GM crops may have other adverse affects on the environment. For example, a comprehensive study showed that allowing the growth of a GM variety of rape seed oil would be detrimental to the UK countryside. This was due to the need for a special herbicide for use on the GM crop. The herbicide killed a species of weed needed by birds which would have been left untouched if conventional rape seed was planted (Brown and Gow). There is also the possibility that the crop may unintentionally directly harm other creatures. US tests showed that 44% of monarch butterfly caterpillars died due to ingestion of large amounts of GM corn pollen (Sakko).
While a reduction in biodiversity is inevitable, it is also inevitable even in conventional farming. The process of farming itself will tend to affect the local biodiversity. And farmers themselves have been aiding this loss through selective use of crops which produce the best yield, the only difference is that instead of using selective breeding through generations, GM foods are able to acquire the needed traits in a span of a few years’ research. Also, since GM foods have only been recently introduced into commercial production, we will have more studies performed and we will also have more concrete information on the long term effects of GM foods on the environment as time goes on (Sakko). Lastly, the use of pest resistant GM crops will tend to reduce the use of harmful pesticides which will tend to even out the environmental harm caused by the reduction in biodiversity (“Weed-friendly GM crops can help the environment”, “Modified cotton cuts pesticide use”).
Lastly, one should consider our current place in history. Malnutrition and hunger are prevalent in most of the world’s nations. Food prices have been rising steadily over the past few years. The earth’s population is still steadily growing while the amount of available arable land is constantly in decline due to the expansion of cities. With this in mind comes the final argument for GM foods: GM foods may be the only way that the earth may be able to feed itself. GM crops give us the potential to generate larger amounts of food for lesser amounts of land. This is something we need given the current Malthusian disaster that we seem to be heading. Additionally, a higher yield per acre is not something that only our food supply can benefit from. As fossil fuels run out, the world will turn more to biofuels such as bio diesel and bio ethanol. These fuels are derived from sugar rich foodstuffs like corn and sugarcane. We will need the higher yields of GM foods to be able to supply both our food consumption needs and energy needs at the same time.
While there may be dangers associated with GM foods, these dangers are not issues which additional years of research together with appropriate safeguards cannot remedy. We should also examine what we are protecting humanity against when we withhold from adopting GM foods. Are we denying ourselves the solution to hunger and famine because 1 in 1,000,000 might develop an allergic reaction? What would be the difference when that question is asked in the developed compared to the developing world. Man has been master of nature since time immemorial and GM food simply represents the next step in that mastery. Instead of fearing it, we should as a people embrace and understand it so that we may use it for the welfare of this generation as well as succeeding generations.
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Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – New Zealand. “Genetically Modified Food (GMF).” Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. n.d.. Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – New Zealand. 7 Apr 2008. <http://www.maf.govt.nz/mafnet/schools/activities/gmfbio.htm#POTENTIAL-BENEFITS-OF-GENE-TECHNOLOGY>.
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Young, Emma. “GM pea causes allergic damage in mice.” New Scientist. 21 November 2005. New Scientist. 7 April 2008. <http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8347>.