The term genetically modified or GM foods connote crop plants that have been genetically produced by utilizing the techniques of molecular biology. There have been several protests from the world community, the environmental organisations of Europe and organisations that promote public interest in respect of the use of genetically modified foods. The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, published an article, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms, wherein it was stated that “Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be ‘genetically modified,’ ‘genetically engineered,’ or ‘transgenic.’” (U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research). Fundamentally, Genetically Modified foods connote crops that have been modified genetically in order to be made suitable for either animals or humans to consume them. This change is engendered by means of the latest techniques of molecular biology in contrast to the previous hybridization methods.
The Flavr Savr tomato has the dubious distinction of being the first genetically modified food. It was less prone to spoil over a period of time in comparison to ordinary tomatoes. This product’s evaluation report was released by the Food and Drug Administration on the 18th of May 1994 (Stone).
The Advantages of Genetically Modified Foods
The world population is increasing by leaps and bounds. It will be a daunting task to provide food for this mammoth population. The savior of the day has been judged to be Genetically Modified foods. There are several benefits in using such foods. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis genes produce crystal proteins that exterminate insect larvae. This results in a significant reduction in the amount of pesticide used. Most people are chary of consuming food that had been heavily treated with pesticide, because pesticide can prove harmful to human health (Chaudry).
There exist several crops for which destroying weeds entails a lot of time and expenditure. In such cases it is possible to develop genetically modified variants that remain unaffected by a particular weed killer. Crops like “soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola modified to tolerate specific herbicides or resist certain insects. Tomorrow new GM crops might withstand drought, resist viruses, grow bigger, yield pharmaceuticals and do other things nature never imagined… In 2005 herbicide-tolerant varieties represented 87 percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 61 percent of the cotton crop. That same year Bt varieties represented 35 percent of the U.S. corn crop.” (Brown).
In order to protect seedlings from frost a gene that prevented freezing in fish living in cold water, was incorporated into potato and tobacco. Moreover some genetically modified or gm foods can thrive even in places with high salinity and prolonged droughts.
The absence of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc engenders increased vulnerability to illness and reduced longevity. The main victims are children, whose immune systems get badly compromised with the result that their growth is hampered. If these micronutrients or dietary minerals needed by the human body in very small quantities, generally less than 100mg per day, are not imbibed to the extent required, then disease and death will ensue. Some of the remedies for this malaise are to consume a diet that contains the requisite amount of vegetables, fruits and animal products. Another method, which is best suited to the third world, is to consume crops that are rich in essential nutrients; an example is the bio fortified sweet potato. These sweet potatoes contain a sufficiently high level of provitamin A (Biofortified Rice, a contribution to the alleviation of life-threatening micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries).
Malnutrition is the blight of the undeveloped countries. Most of the inhabitants consume rice, which is deficient in essential nutrients. This results in severe malnutrition. Unfortunately, provitamin A does not occur naturally in rice. The only β carotene to be found in rice exists “in the green tissues but not in the endosperm (the edible part of the seed). The outer coat of the dehusked grains—the aleurone layer—contains a number of valuable nutrients, eg Vitamin B and nutritious fats, but no provitamin A. These nutrients are lost with the bran fraction in the process of milling and polishing.” (Biofortified Rice, a contribution to the alleviation of life-threatening micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries).
If this rice is stored without being processed, it decomposes and becomes unfit for consumption. The ingestion of such rice, which lacks β carotene, results in an enhancement of impaired vision, blindness or even death blindness and premature death in children belonging to countries whose staple diet is mainly rice. This can be concluded from the following excerpt from Science, “Rice (Oryza sativa), a major staple food, is usually milled to remove the oil-rich aleurone layer that turns rancid upon storage, especially in tropical areas. The remaining edible part of rice grains, the endosperm, lacks several essential nutrients, such as provitamin A. Thus, predominant rice consumption promotes vitamin A deficiency, a serious public health problem in at least 26 countries, including highly populated areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” (Ye, Al – Babili and Klöti).
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences created a genetically modified variety of rice called Golden rice that addresses this major drawback with rice by including a very high content of beta-carotene. Golden Rice is rice with two genes, namely synthase (psy) and phytoene desaturase (crt I), added which results in a significant increase of β carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A (Schaub, Al – Babili and Drake).
Statistics available with the World Health Organization indicate that Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness. Every year between a quarter and a half a million children lose their sight due to such deficiency. Such ophthalmologic defects are symptoms of very severe health problems that cause death in more than half of such children every year (Food and Agriculture Organization).
Vaccines are being developed in tomatoes and vegetables. The reason for this is that a lot of expenditure has to be incurred if medicines and vaccines have to be developed by conventional methods. Moreover their storage and transportation necessitates special equipment. In this connection an endeavor has been initiated to produce an edible vaccine for HIV and hepatitis B virus that is inexpensive. Rurik Salyaev and his colleagues belonging to the Siberian Institute of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry in Irkutsk, Russia, have used the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens for this purpose (Coghlan).
The Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Foods
The disadvantage with B.t corn was that it was extremely harmful to Monarch butterfly caterpillars and other insect larvae. It has not been possible to modify B.t toxin in such a manner that it proves to be fatal only to insects that consume and destroy crops. Due to cross pollination and cross breeding, plants that had been modified to become resistant to pesticides and herbicides could transfer these properties to weeds.
It could transpire that new kinds of fatal allergies could be inadvertently introduced while producing GM Foods. For instance, an endeavor was made to improve the nutritional value of soybeans by incorporating 2S albumin from the Brazil nut. However, this 2S albumin was an allergenic food and it was established that such modification would result in unexpected allergic reactions on being consumed (Kean, Goodridge and McGuiness).
“Traditionally, genetic material belonged to a global commons or open system. No one exclusively owned this material and countries freely shared it. In sharp contrast, today exclusive ownership and restrictions on the sharing of genetic material are the international norm.” (Safrin).
Due to this extreme anxiety to patent genetic material, the developed countries are going all out to patent any genetic material that could possibly pay economic dividends. The undeveloped countries, which possess most of the genetic material, have imposed several restrictions on such material. This has resulted in quite some differences between these two categories of nations. Several individuals and social groups have been seriously threatened (Safrin).
Certain benefits have been realized due to GM Foods. Nevertheless, there exist a number of drawbacks. The Bt pest control gene could result in weeds that no drug could destroy. The safety of such foods Vis – a – Vis human consumption cannot be vouchsafed. The extant peer reviewed data is woefully insufficient. As such the time is not ripe to indulge in such exotic enterprises. The dangers seem to far outweigh the benefits. Genetic modified foods can be consumed only if further data about their reliability and safety are forthcoming.
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