For any new introduced technology, there is the attendant risk. Benefits from genetically engineered foods can potentially alleviate world hunger and malnutrition. They can even preserve ecosystems by reducing uses of chemical pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and the like. Those benefits, however, do not easily appear in the open as more challenges on safety, health, regulations, world policy, and food labeling have been coming to the fore. As more genetically modified foods have been surfacing, overcoming the unintended harms needs great care. After all, throwing caution to the winds may yield irreversible danger and mistakes. And the warning has been written on the laboratory wall: “Proceed with caution!”
Commercialization Risk in Transgenic Food
Production of genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops has swelled to great volumes that some analytical processes must be done to assess risk factors associated with commercializing the product. In 2002 alone, some 59 million hectares of genetically modified crops were planted worldwide. The USA, China, Canada, and Argentina produce about 99% of these GM crops. In the USA, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 40 GM plant varieties are eligible for commercialization. The said GM crops have passed requirements asked by the federal government (Whitman 2007). Concerning Australia’s agribiotechnology industry according to Ernst &Young and Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science and Resources, Australian Biotechnology Report (1999), it has just started and relatively small as to what is internationally required. In 1998, however, it was considered as among the top 5 agribiotechnology producers.
The so-called F1 or first generation of GM crops got one or few new genes to coax producing good traits in plants. Some unintended harms, however, have allegedly emerged. Commercial or environment risk assessment starts at the onset of the commercialization phase for biosafety research. When a certain government approves the planting of GM crops, or when the products are ready for use as human food or as animal feed, then the post-commercialization research starts. In Australia, an existing States’ Moratorium for GM food Crops are being reviewed so that trials on some agronomic factors, i.e, production costs and yield output, could be assessed including the crops’ sale ability, liabilities, and segregation (Network of Concerned Farmers, 2007).
Earlier, the approval for planting GM canola was prevented due to a state moratorium. In Australia, state government has the ability assessing economic and market loss and has the power to block commercial release of risky GM crops (Non-GM-Farmers, 2003).
New Technology, New Risk
In modifying a certain food crops, scientists use gene technology to directly alter the genetic composition so as to come up with a new or modified entity. The surfacing of this new technology, as scientists have experienced, has both the beneficial and the risk sides.
Both plants and animals have much genes ranging from tens to hundred thousands. Modifying this genetic make up of both plants and animals has been made possible with the addition of one or a few new genes to the over all genetic map, with desirable properties. The new gene technology is quite specific in its target: manipulating only the choice genes, one or two, whereas selective breeding or some forms of genetic improvements like mutagenesis through chemical or radiation, make changes involving many genes. The conventional process of genetic modification works with breeding closely-linked species. With the advent of the latest gene modification technology, it becomes possible now transferring foreign genes to other unrelated species. This breaks species barriers. Such feature, however, creates unpredictable results, which can be extremely beneficial and or extremely risky. Consequences are expressed affecting both man and his environment. Some of the published results on GM testing have reached the top leaders of various countries. One of the publications appeared in UK on the widely awaited results of the Farm Scale Evaluation report on GM herbicide-tolerant crops on farmland biodiversity. As politicians decide on the planting of commercial GM crops, it becomes a “crunch time” for the field of biotechnology in Britain. And “the world is watching” (Giles, 2003). When a moratorium was in force to review impacts on health, ecosystems, and the economy, a great delay ensued. This irked business interests in the US and elsewhere resulting to President Bush launching a legal proceeding versus the EU’s astringent GM policy (Frecleton, et al 2003)
Assessing Risk from GM Foods
A regulatory body known as the Office of the Gene Technology Regulation (OGTR) in Australia regulates and manages the resulting risks posed by the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) affecting the health and safety of its citizens, and the ecosystems. Another agency that assesses risk coming from GM foods is the Food Standard Australia New Zealand or FSANZ. Examining if the assayed GM food has allergens or toxins is one of its duties. On allergies from GM foods, sources said that all GM food is tested for all evidences of allergic and other reactions. Research groups, however, conclude that GM food crops are probably safer than non-GM counterpart. As a matter of fact, future GM crops may remove allergens from food like peanut or wheat. Other people say, on the other hand, that with the introduction of new protein from GM food, only time is needed to show that GM foods cause disease or allergy (GM Nation). For some genetically modified foods that have just entered the current era, studies on the extended or long-term effects of these foods on one’s health have become imperative.
Insect resistance has been incorporated into GM crops. One of the properties has been demonstrated with insect-resistant Bt cotton containing a gene sourced from the bacterium Bacillum thuringiensis. With such added gene, this makes cotton plants produce bacterial toxin. This toxin has pesticide properties that act specifically on cotton insects. Food plants modified with herbicide tolerance, on the other hand, give raisers more options in controlling weeds. They can even spray less toxic weedicides and do some soil conservation practices that assist in minimizing soil displacement. Farmers are also allowed to conserve irrigation water.
Superweeds, Super Resistance
Worried farmers have expressed their opinions that the modified food crops having pesticide resistance would leak out some time along the growth cycle some of their pesticide properties via the rooting system and then become non-selective. In this way, non-target insects and some beneficial soil microorganisms are also put out. Some farmers have expressed negative opinions that insect-resistant GM food crops are not superior to the current ways of controlling crop pests as pests would still have resistance even the genes are in the GM crops. Then there’s another anxiety that some types of superweeds would appear resulting from the transferring of herbicide tolerance from GM crops. Having such tolerance, superweeds now have become very hard to control with what manufacturers called “environment-friendly herbicides.”
With such superweed status, farmers are likely to use more toxic and concentrated herbicides. Some researchers under Australian conditions have suggested that the rate of occurrence of transferring GM crops genes to related crops and weeds is very insignificant. Buffering GM crops with buffer zones around can contribute in reducing the peril of transferring genes. On GM food crops having resistance to drought or infertile soil, observers opine that such modified plans may drive farmers to use land not intended for food raising, which could result to damaging the environment. They feel that it would pay more just letting these unused lands untouched by farm implements. After all, and in the long run, modified crop species may not remain stable and would likely succumb to sudden ecological changes.
No to GM, Yes to GM Crops
If a country has a “cleanliness” image like Australia, many have the opinion that such introduction of genetically modified food crops in the said country would harm this image. Another risk factor comes from the high price of genetically modified seeds, planting stocks, tubers, or propagules that hinders the common farmers. Producers of GM seeds and other planting stocks, particularly the multinational companies, are mainly concerned in earning profits.
Due to the potential increase in the crop’s yield, farmers may largely benefit from this technology. Other expected benefits from gene technology include having healthy animals and crops, low production cost, and less toxic inputs. With GM, compact farming is possible, exhibiting the potential of using less land but with more food crops to grow.
One of the driving forces, in spite of the prevailing commercialization risks of GM food crops and why raisers stick to them is due to the fact that GM crops yield higher than conventional crops. It follows then that farm owners or cultivators have been earning more from GM crops on the same piece of land than those planted with conventional food crops. Some international market outlets have been showing interest in absorbing GM crops. GM products having insignificant amount of GM substance are still marketable replacing those GM products that have higher contents. Canada’s selling of GM food crops with low-level content intended for the European market (EU) has been channeled to Japan instead.
GM Crops: Dominant, Invasive?
Another commercial risk on pursuing the production of GM crops has been based on the consideration that GM species are treated like introduced exotic species, sometimes as dominating invasive plants. This is for the simple reason that once the GM food crops are set out in the open, they may cause irreversible harm to environment at the government expense. This in reality is hard to contain. On the part of the raisers, they have felt that they have been chained to the producer companies in buying GM seeds and maintenance chemicals like herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and the like, at higher prices than conventional seeds. The rising encroachment cases of land owned by multinational companies have been reported. These lands have been planted without permit with GM crops by farmers and the companies concerned have filed complaints. Additional risk factor includes the increasing costs for segregating both crops and animal entities.
Currently, it becomes imperative tracking where the genes are: from seed to market venues and finally to dining tables. Tracking these genes provides government agencies concerned in assessing risks associated with environment, commerce, and in the enforcement of government regulations. Currently, the use of DNA, including some protein-based assays, is being employed in tracking plant genes and transgenes. Better assaying, so far, is being developed, which is faster, more sensitive, and cheaper. The current astringent food labeling requirements and the tracing regulations have made production more acute for genetically modified foods.
Detecting Gene Flow
Pre-commercialization research on gene flow is conducted to carry works on assessing environmental risks. An example of gene flow detection is shown in the discovery of corn transgenes land races in Mexico. Gene flow is a vital concern in genetically modified crops as this process may give negative ecosystem effects to the world farming systems.
The European Union, meanwhile, has become astringent in passing regulations concerning the traceability of all genetically modified crops. EU also asks to label both food and feed products for GM ingredients exceeding a threshold level of 0.9%. The passing of co-existence measure is aimed at protecting non-GM farmers from accidental mixing of crops with GMOs. This is important in case of the EU’s labeling requirement that GM products should stay below EU’s labeling threshold (Agriculture and Rural Development, June 15 2007).
Not all business operators, however, are comfortable with the strict threshold and traceability requirement since it becomes hard to manage such global trading of the products. Besides, the system becomes costly, which produces liability to both food producers and exporters. Regarding GM labeling and traceability, GM food producers have asked the World Trade Organization to clarify EU’s moratorium on approving new GM crops. GM producers including the USA have felt that EU’s stand creates a dispute and tends to lean on unfair trade practice.
From GM Risks to Commercial Risks
From genetically modified risks, undetermined side effects or commercial risks have surfaced. Biotechnology has indeed revolutionized food production. Some resulting biotech products originating from commercializing genetically engineered food crops carry some protective genes against insects, herbicides, and pathogens. Commercialization of GM food crops, in spite of their substantial benefits to both consumers and producers, has brought arguments as well as controversies. An instance of this is about the discovery of the said StarLink GM in taco shells and other prepared foods. And this incident has created ripple effects in the corn industry, disrupting business activities of growers, wholesalers, and corn processors. The prospect of commercializing GM crops has many issues. And some of the issues that must be resolved include food and environmental safety as well as public acceptance. Safety issue includes the presence of potential allergens, and the presence of toxins. Testing for these factors is required before products are approved for marketing.
From all the factors involved, consumer acceptance serves as the key elements in gauging the success or failure in commercializing the modified food products. In overcoming risks, it is vital that quarrelsome issues must be resolved first. By generating public confidence and by preserving human health and environment, these will help overcome the risks involved in commercializing the food products.
More GMO Researches in the Offing
More and more GMO researches are being conducted worldwide. In Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the most active organization of this type, carries out GMO field trials. Its researchers have been studying on how GMOs would have impact on the environment. For this matter, CSIRO researchers aim at assessing the potential risks arising from using GMOs. Australian researchers have so far come up with finds on several GMOs. One of these is the results of the Bt-cotton plant toxin. According to their finds, Bt-toxin degenerates 2 to 4 weeks, implying that the toxin has no disastrous effect to environment (CSIRO, 2004). Another find is on GM clover, which the researchers found as having little effect or threat to Australia’s native grasslands.
In all the astringent efforts devoted to marketing of GM foods, another factor is needed to boost the product’s integrity and purity. GM products need Identity Preservation (IP), a process that literally separates the grain from the chaff (University of California, Division of Agriculture).
Meanwhile, in the Americas, the Brazilian Corporation for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) and BASF, a chemical company, have agreed to commercialize the latest herbicide-tolerant GM soybean. BASF donated the gene ahas, which resists imidazolin herbicide. The Brazil Corporation did the insertion of the gene into soybean. The resulting new GM variety will be the first biotech crop developed in Brazil for
commercialization. Farmers can acquire the new variety within five years from now. Brazil is the second world largest producer of soybean.
Agriculture and Rural Development. June 15, 2007. Co-existence of genetically
modified crops with Conventional and Organic Farming. Retrieved August 15, 2007
CSIRO. Current Australian Research. Retrieved August 14, 2007 from
Ernst & Young and Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science and Resources,
Australian Biotechnology Report (Canberra: Ernst & Young and Commonwealth of
Australia, 1999), 64.
Frecleton R.P, Sutherland W. J., Watkinson A.R. Deciding the Future of GM Crops in
Europe. Science, Nov 7, 2003: Vol. 302, No. 5647, pp.994-996.
Giles, J. Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don’t…Nature, October 16, 2003, Vol.
425, pp. 656-657.
GM Nation. About the Debate. EMBRAPA and BASF Announce First Brazilian
Developed Biotech Crop. August 10, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.
GM Nation? The Public Debate, Debating Zone. Retrieved August 15, 2007 from
Network of Concerned Farmers (2007, August 1). Review of the Crop Moratorium in
NSW, Victoria and SA. Retrieved August 13, 2007 from http://www.non-gm-
Non-GM-Farmers.com. (2003). IDA Miffed that States Have Blocked Canola Release
Due to Economic Risk (2007, October 14). Retrieved August 12, 2007 from
http://www. non-gm-farmers.com/new-details.asp? ID=767
University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Identity
Preservation of Agricultural Commodities (Undated). Retrieved 15 August 2007 from
Whitman, D. B. Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? April 2000. Retrieved
Aug 14, 2007 from http://www.csa.com/