Genetically modified organisms especially in agriculture has attracted global concern over the last few years. People from all walks of life, politicians, consumers, activists, farmers biotechnologists as well as technology regulators have been involved in the heated debate. Evidence has been brought forward on the massive benefits of genetically modified crops due to the food insecurity in the world as a result of low agricultural productivity and the ever increasing population. However, many consider the adoption of genetic engineering technology in agriculture as a time bomb.
These concerns have resulted into changes in the importation and exportation policies, intensive regulation of agricultural technology and practices in many parts of the world. Different environmental organizations around the world have protested against genetically modified organism due to it potential effect on the environment. Despite these arguments, this technology is being adopted by farmers around the world knowingly or unknowingly. But the big issue is the costs and benefit of genetic engineering in agriculture.
Whether the benefits of increased agricultural production at reduced cost overrides the environmental and food safety concerns has always been the big issue (Nelson, p 4).
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What are genetically modified crops? Over the years, research in biotechnology has advanced significantly. Biotechnology is a field of technology that deals with living systems. For many centuries, biotechnology has been employed in agriculture and manufacturing industries, for example fermentation processes for industrial production of wine has been used for many centuries.
Principles of genetics and hereditary which were developed in the late 19th century have improved agricultural production by enabling farmers select the beat trains in plants and animals. However, the unearthing of the structure of DNA in the mid 20th century was a turning point for biotechnology. This led to a progressive development of genetic engineering technology. Today, farmers need not to choose animals or plants with the best characteristics such as drought, pests and diseases resistant, high yields, early maturity or high quality products due to advancement in biotechnology.
Through genetic modifications, scientists can alter the genetic material in the plant or animal to improve on its characteristics (Whitman, p 1).
Genetically modified organisms in agriculture refer to plants and animals that are created by scientists to meet desired characteristics using modern molecular biotechnology techniques. To enhance the traits, the genetic material in the organism is modified to meet the desired qualities. This technique has replaced the traditional methods of propagation used by farmers to enhance the desired characteristics through selective breeding which is inaccurate and time consuming.
Biotechnology produces organisms of the intended traits with greater precision. For example, today, scientists can extract the gene responsible for drought resistance in plants that do well in deserts and insert it in various agricultural plants to enhance their drought tolerance. Recent research indicates that these genes can also be transferred from plants to animal or from animals to plants. A good example in this case is the genetic modification, Bt maize.
The gene responsible for the production of protein in the maize was isolated from a bacterium that was observed to produce a protein as a defense against insects’ larvae. The Bt main therefore has improved nutrients content as well as pest resistance such as stock borer (Herman, p 36).
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Legitimate concerns about genetically modified organisms There is no doubt that there are several problems associated with genetically modified organisms in agriculture. This has resulted into criticism from different people around the world including some biotechnologists. This is despite the massive promises of the new technology.
The greatest concerns has been the players in the agribusiness field concentration on the financial benefit accrued from adoption of genetic engineered crops without considering its impacts on the consumers as well as the environment. This criticism has become intense with various religious and interest groups being opposed to the idea basically because scientists are not certain about the long term effects of genetically modified products on the consumers and the environment (Rader, Para 26).
A legitimate argument is based on the fact that man altering the Mother Nature will always have negative consequences.
Some of these consequences may be life threatening. This is evident from the current changing weather crisis as a result of man activity. Genetic engineering is more threatening as it touches on the most fundamental part of life, the hereditary material. Religious groups have been opposed to these biotechnology developments due to its threat on the identity of the target species. However, some critics base their argument on ethics since genetic modification technology is closely related to human cloning and human embryo tissues research (Rader, Para 26).
The greatest concern on genetically modified food is food security.
There are proposals that genetically modified products may not be safe for human consumption. Adoption of genetically modified organisms in agricultural production is a major change in the global food supply and reliable and extensive studies need to be done on their safety. This concern does not affect genetically engineered organisms only but also changes that are as a result of other biotechnological advancements. There is no doubt that biologists are aware of the impacts of what they are doing. They are well informed on the negative consequences of altering the genetic makeup of organisms.
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However, there are some unanticipated effects of this technology as a result of long term impacts (Rader, Para 26).
A very good example was the genetic enhancement of nutritional contents of soybeans. Soybean has been considered as a good source of plant protein for many years. However, research indicates that it lacks methionine, one of the essential amino acids. To enhance the nutritional value of soybeans, scientists isolated a gene responsible for protein production in Brazil nut and inserted it on soybean. However, scientists were unaware that the same gene was the allergens in the nut.
A very large number of people are allergic to Brazil nut because of this allergen. This modification could have resulted into unexpected allergic reaction. This was revealed before the product entered the market through testing which led to abandoning of the project. This is clear evidence that genetically modified organisms products need to be extensively tested before they can be consumed by human beings. Though this indicates that testing is done before the products are released, there is no assurance that the products are safe for consumption (Rader, Para 26).
One of the techniques used in genetic engineering is induced random gene mutations. This produces numerous genetics which are tested for desired qualities. There are various techniques that are used to induce random gene mutation. This may include the use of radiations of a certain wavelength, use of chemicals or subjecting the genetic materials to high temperatures. This technique relies more on lack when compared to genetic modification where a gene of the desired trait is inserted. This suggests that more tests need to be done on genetically produced organisms using this technique.
However, throughout the world, there are no proper regulations that have been put in place to regulate breeding of organism which puts the consumers at a risk. There are no doubts that breeding technologies are creating harmful products accidentally and whose short term and long term effects are unknown. A very good example given in this case was the production of celery using convectional breeding methods. Although the celery produced was of a better variety, it had negative effects on the farm worker who became hypersensitive to sunlight.
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Other products produced using the same techniques such as Lenape potato was found to contain toxins levels which was fatal (Herman, p 36).
The health concerns raised against genetically modified food have affected the perception of the public on these foods. For example, a very large number of children all over the world today suffer from fatal allergies to some animal and plants products especially peanuts. A large number of people associated this with genetic modifications. Although this may not be true, there is a need to think twice about this issue.
Most of genetic modifications are aimed at producing fruits and vegetables with fast maturity rate, improved nutrition value, altered ripening behaviors, resistant to diseases and pest and better yields. Unfortunately, these products are given to very vulnerable members of the society. The likelihood of introducing new types of allergen in the fruits and vegetable through genetic engineering is very high. The allergenicity effects of new allergen may have far reaching effects considering that most of the people around the world are suffering from life threatening hypersensitivity (Nelson, p 103).
Some scientists have been opposed to the new technology because it is not possible to determine with certainty the effects of genetically modified products on human health. There are still some unknown effects of introducing new genes to crops. It is more likely that there are some negative effects that scientists may not expect associated with genetically modified organisms that are unknown or unexpected by scientists. For example, a recent study suggests that genetically modified potatoes have some effects on the digestive systems of rats.
Substantial differences between the digestive systems of rat feed with genetically modified potatoes and those feed with unmodified potatoes. Although these potatoes were not meant for human consumption, it suggests that genetically modified food may not have short term negative effects on humans but can result into modification of body systems which may be detected when it is too late (Whitman, p 1).
The unintended harm to some species as a result of adoption of genetic engineering technology in agriculture has attracted a lot of concern on the future of GM in agriculture.
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These concerns are based on the effects of Bt maize on the population of monarch butterflies. Although monarch butterfly larvae do not consume corn, pollen from Bt maize was transferred to the milkweeds plants through hair carrying with it the anti larvae proteins. The monarch butterfly larvae perished as a result of consuming this pollen. The main concern here is that the proteins in Bt maize was not intended to eliminate the monarch butterflies but unfortunately, it kills larvae indiscriminately.
Since it has proved to be difficult to produce GMO crops with toxins that kill only pests, there is a need for evaluation of effects of the genetically modified products on unintended targets (Whitman, p 1).
There is developing fear of what is likely to happen if for example, the world corn production became overdependence on Bt maize, and then insects develop resistant to Bt crops and other GM crops as well as convectional pesticides. This may lead to similar problems experienced after some mosquitoes in tropical regions developed resistant to DDT.
It therefore suggests that dependence on GMO in agricultural production may be a time bomb. The possibility of creating some plants that can resist certain herbicides creates the possibility of creating super weed. The possibility of the gene transfer process getting to the non targeted species either by mistake or maliciously is of greater concern to farmers. The transfer of herbicide resistant genes to the weeds may result in cross breeding and consequently creation of super weeds. These super weeds will be able to resist the herbicide the same way the crops can.
It is possible that some of the genes can be transferred to non-genetically modified crops in the field as a result of cross breeding. This possibility has been proved by the law suit between farmers and Monsanto Company (Whitman, p 1).
There are also economic concerns that have been raised against adoption of genetically modified organisms in agricultural production. Introduction of genetically modified crops may have negative economic consequence as a result of costs involved in establishing their markets. Biotechnology companies have invested a lot of resources in the development of GM crops and would like to make profit out of it.
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However, infringement of patent rights especially in agricultural technology is a big issue. These factors will affect peasant farmers in the developing countries as multinational biotechnology companies try to maximize return on their investment within a short time leading to increased prices of new propagation materials. It is less likely that despite the promise of GMO in averting the food insecurity in the world, farmers will be able to adopt these new varieties of crops (Whitman, p 1).
It is clear that this biotechnology technique may not be available to all societies in the world.
The resources required for significant genetic engineering research may not be in the reach of many agricultural technology companies all over the world. This creates the worry of a few multinational biotechnology companies controlling global agriculture. There is a possibility of the small companies being wiped out of the market as a result of intense competition. This competition will affect the small scale farmers negatively (Rewavas and Leaver, p 640).
Counter Arguments Despite the intense argument against genetically modified organisms in agriculture, the global farming systems are progressively adopting this technology.
Criticism has not deterred biotechnologist and multinational companies from developing more genetically modified crops. The intense research on this field and massive investments is clear evidence that there is a market for genetically modified agricultural products and the world is ready to adopt genetic engineering as a necessary technology. The world population stands at over six billion while it is expected to double within half a century. Convectional methods of farming will in no way sustain the ever growing global population. The risk of food insecurity is made more real by the increased changes in climatic condition.
Weather has become increasingly unpredictable and unsupportive to agricultural activities. The solution to the challenges is genetically modified crops (Whitman, p 1).
Genetic modification creates crops that are resistant to pests. Some GM crops are also fast growing and mature before pests attack the crop. For many years, pest control has been a major concern for farmers due to losses resulting from crop destruction. Large scale and small scale farmers use large amount of pesticides to avert these losses. On the other hand, there is a growing concern by consumers on the safety of chemicals commonly used by farmers to control pests.
There are numerous environmental hazards associated with chemical pesticides. The need to use environmentally destructive pesticides can be averted by use of genetically modified crops. Growing Bt corn and other Bt crops has eliminated the need to use pesticides in agricultural production. Although there are concerns that have been raised such as the monarch butterflies saga, these problems can be addressed by improvement of technology (Rewavas and Leaver, p 640).
In many cases, it is practically impossible or uneconomical to use physical means of removing weeds from the fields.
This calls for farmers to use large amount and many varieties of herbicides to remove the weeds. This is not only time consuming but also expensive making agriculture less profitable. The farmers are also required to be careful in the use of the herbicides to ensure that they have no negative effect on the crops or the environment. Genetically engineered crops can be effectively used to avert these problems. These plans are designed to resists a specially synthesized herbicide with minimum environmental impacts. This reduces the amount of herbicides required and consequently the production cost.
Genetic modification has also led to the development of disease resistant crops increasing yields and lowering production costs. Scientists have conducted extensive research in the development of crops that are resistant to disease causing microorganisms (Nelson, p 84).
Unpredictable weather conditions have also threatened profitability of agricultural activities. Unpredictable frost can have destructive effect on seedling leading to losses. This has led to the introduction of antifreeze gene in crops such as tobacco and potatoes which is isolated from animals living in cold water.
These plants are able to resist very low temperatures where normal plants cannot survive. It is important to note the reduced global agricultural productivity is as a result of unpredictable weather condition. Arable lands are being converted into unproductive land as a result in increased droughts. Moreover, a large percentage of land in the world cannot support agriculture due to lack of adequate supply. Adoption of genetically modified crops by farmers is the solution to this problem. With this technology, farmers will be able to grow crops in areas that were previously considered unproductive due to drought or salinity.
This is by modifying crops to withstand drought or high salt concentration in the soil (Rewavas and Leaver, p 640).
If genetically modified organisms were adopted in agriculture especially in the third world countries, malnutrition will be a thing of the past. It is observed that as a result of poverty, many people in the developing world rely on a one crop as their staple food. This crop may not contain all essential nutrients required by the body. Genetic engineering has the ability to introduce genes to these crops which will ensure that it contains the essential nutrients.
For example, in the developing countries where rice is the staple food, a large number of people suffer from blindness as a result of beta carotene deficiency. However, the golden rice which has been developed genetically was found to contain high amounts of vitamin A. Although this could have been a solution to the problem, massive anti genetically modified food protests have deterred the introduction of the rice to the farmers (Whitman, p 1).
There are also proposed uses of agricultural genetic technology in development of plants that produce edible vaccines which could replace the convectional injection vaccines.
Scientists are also working on development of genetically modified plants that clean up the environment by absorbing pollutants such as heavy metals from underground water and the soil (Whitman, p 1).
Conclusion There are many proposals that genetically modified foods will solve the food security crisis that faces the world. They have been proposed as possible solution to over reliance on pesticides and herbicide in agricultural activities which degrades the environment. However, there are concerns over the safety of the GM products for human consumption.
There are many issues that have been raised claiming that GM foods are unsafe for human consumption due to possible allergic reactions and the wide range of unknown and unexpected negative impacts on human health. The long term effects of GMs on the environment may also be far reaching due to loss of identity or elimination of some animal and plant species. Work Cited Herman E. M. , Helm, R. M. , Jung R, and Kinney A. J. “Genetic modification removes an immunodominant allergen from soybean”. Plant Physiology. 132 (1) (2003): pp 36–43
Nelson, Gerald. Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture, ISBN-13: 978-0-12-515422-2, Academic Press Rader, Charles M. A Report on Genetically Engineered Crops, (2001), retrieved on 17th May 2010 from; http://members. tripod. com/c_rader0/gemod. htm. Rewavas A and Leaver C. J. “Conventional crops are the test of GM prejudice”. Nature 401 (6754), (1999): PP 640. Whitman, Deborah B. Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? (2000), retrieved on 17th May 2010 from; http://www. csa. com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview. php.