The good, the bad and the ugly: Genetically modified foods
Genetically Modified Foods or GM foods are a derivative of genetically modified organisms or GMO. Genetic engineering techniques like mutation breeding, somaclonal variation are used to bring special changes in the DNA of these organisms. This results in introduction of a new trait in the plant which doesn’t occur naturally in that particular species. Often, genetically modified foods are soybean, corn, cotton seed oil and canola.
Plants are genetically modified for introduction of a new trait into the species. Consequently, the genetically modified plant might become resistant to pests, diseases or environmental conditions or produce a certain nutrient which it either never produced before or produced in lesser percentage.
Crops that have been genetically modified tend to have a better taste and quality as they are resistant to certain pests. Their overall maturation time is reduced while yield per hectare is increased. Genetic engineering can offer increase in percentage of nutrients in a crop. Also, genetic engineering can help develop new growing techniques for better production in different environmental settings.
Genetically modified animals like pigs and chicken become more resistant to several diseases which increase their productivity. This results in better quality of meat and better yield of eggs and milk. Overall, animal health is subsequently improved.
There are certain environmental benefits such as conservation of soil and water. Food processing becomes more efficient while waste products can be managed naturally. On a large scale, the levels of food security are increased.
Can this be better?
The advent of GM technology can spell a boon for growing populations around the world and lead to several positive changes in global food industry. The techniques used in genetic engineering can improve the overall quality of food products, enrich them with nutrients and bring industrial actors in development of agricultural sector. Nations that encounter famines, floods and droughts can use biotechnology and scientific assistance to ensure better crop yields and food security for their citizens.
For last few years, critics have objected genetically modified on various grounds. They have expressed their concerns on ecological, economic levels along with toxicity of these food products.
There is fundamental weakness in the concept of genetic modification of foods. A genetic engineer transfers genes from one organism to the other. The insertion of this gene into the DNA of target organism is more or less random. This randomness can affect the functioning of other genes; in fact, it may even disrupt the functioning of essential genes required by the target organism.
When a farmer plants genetically engineering seeds, all seeds have identical genetic arrangement. So, in case a fungus, pest or virus attacks a particular crop, then it could destroy the entire crop leading to widespread crop failure.
Latest reports also suggest that Bt toxin, which is widely used in GM crops have been found in human blood. This toxin was also detected in fetal blood, indicating that the toxin can pass on to the next generation.
Genetically modified foods can carry unknown allergens in food and cause allergies.
GM crops manufacture their own pesticides and this strategy can put more pesticides into our foods then we actually think. Overall ecology of the place can be damaged as the food chain may get disrupted due to genetic mutations.
Can this be avoided?
This can be avoided through several regulatory practices that a government can undertake. Genetically modified foods can be subjected to rigorous safety assessment which can reduce level of toxicity in the food product. Government can study the production locations to understand the possible ecological effects of genetic modification and take necessary actions to avoid them. Before plantation, genetically modified seeds must be studied regularly to reduce their contamination from pests, viruses and fungus. This can prevent widespread crop failure.
Over the past few years, more than 800 scientists from over 80 counties have the signed open letters to their governments, requesting a ban on patenting life-forms and indicating potential hazards of GM foods.
According to a research in 1994, 37 people have died, 1500 have been partially paralyzed due to a syndrome linked to tryptophan which is made by genetically engineered bacteria.
In the year 1996, Brazil nut genes were integrated into soybeans to increase the percentage of protein in the produce. But this resulted in development of an allergen that lead to anaphylactic shock which could have resulted in death of several patients.
Genetically modified rBGH, which is injected into dairy cows have been linked to 4 times higher risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer and human colorectal. Several GM foods are antibiotic resistant. This can make our bodies resistant to antibiotic medicines. GM foods have also been connected several viral and bacterial illness apart from birth defects and allergies.
These products may also lead to toxicity in soil as the toxins can move into the soil. There can be a stiff competition between agricultural and industrial sector, as the latter may try to come take up agricultural practices because of widespread use of scientific techniques in food production.
Why are we so critical?
Genetically modified foods pose potential health hazards that can be life-threatening in several cases. Smoking is optional, but eating food is necessary. Therefore, one cannot compromise with quality of product and eat GM foods even after knowing their possible health effects. We criticize these foods, as the genetic engineering techniques which are incorporated in these products isn’t well-researched and therefore, it could lead to several harmful effects.
GM foods are basically produced to increase food security and develop better quality products with more nutrients and resistance to pest and diseases. But at the same time, these foods can cause potential health hazards, some of them even life threatening. GM foods are not as safe as the traditional foods and therefore, they need require better researching to become safer by all standards. GM food certainly conserve soil and water, but they can also be a threat to environment as they can threaten plant biodiversity, break food chain and cause soil degradation.
With this, we may conclude that GM foods have certain benefits, but at the same time, they pose several hazards. In terms of crops, governments must study agricultural land and appoint scientists to study the possible after effects of genetic modification of plants and their effect on overall ecology. New genetically modified foods must be tested to rule out any allergens and toxic transfers from crops to human blood. If these regulatory procedures are followed, then the potential harmful effects of GM foods can be reduced, improving the quality of food product and increasing food security for the ever-growing population.