The terms, ‘genetic modification,’ and, ‘biotechnology,’ are often times used interchangeably, although genetic modification (GM) involves a set of technologies which alter the genetic makeup of organisms including plants, bacteria, or animals. ‘Biotechnology,’ is a more general term that refers to the use of organisms or their components, such as enzymes,’ in the production of cheese, wine, yogurt, or beer. The process of combining genes from different organisms is referred to as, ‘recombinant DNA technology,’ and the resulting organism is called, ‘genetically modified,’ or, ‘transgenic.’ GM products include things such as food or food ingredients, fibers, feeds, medicines, or vaccines.
One of the most limiting steps in the process involves the location of genes for important traits, such as ones conferring desired nutrients or insect-resistance. The sequencing of genomes and discovery programs for hundreds of organisms are generating detailed maps, along with data-analyzing technologies used to both understand and use them.
The year 2006 for example found 252 million acres of transgenic crops being planted in 22 nations by 10.3 million farmers. Most of the crops were both insect and herbicide resistant ones including cotton, soybeans, corn, alfalfa, and canola. Additional crops that were grown on a commercial basis, or were field-tested, include rice with increased vitamins and iron that may ease chronic malnutrition in Asia, a type of sweet potato that is resistant to a virus which has the potential to decimate the majority of the African harvest, as well as a variety of plants with the ability to survive extremes of weather.
Fish with the ability to mature more rapidly, bananas with the potential to produce human vaccines against infectious diseases like hepatitis B, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier than usual, cows that are resistant to mad cow disease, as well as plants that produce new types of plastics and have unique properties are all on the horizon. The same year of 2006 found 97% of the global transgenic crops being grown in:
- United States (53%)
- Argentina (17%)
- Brazil (11%)
- Canada (6%)
- India (4%)
- China (3%)
- Paraguay (2%)
- South Africa (1%)
Even though the pursuit of GM products is expected to plateau in industrialized countries, the pursuit of them in developing countries is increasing. Over the next few years exponential progress related to GM product development is expected because researchers are gaining increased and unprecedented access to genomic resources they may apply to organisms; access that is beyond the scope of individual projects.
The technologies involved with genetically modifying foods present humanity with dramatic promise in relation to meeting 21st century challenges. As with every new type of technology; however, there are potential risks involved – some of which are known and some of which are not. There are controversies surrounding GM foods and crops that often focus on human and environmental safety, ethics, labeling and consumer choice, poverty reduction, intellectual property rights, and conservation of the environment.
Benefits and Controversies Related to GM Products
The Benefits of GM Products
Animals: Better yields of eggs, meat, and milk. Improvements in the health of animals, as well as diagnostic methods. Increased feed efficiency, hardiness, productivity, and resistence.
Crops: Enhanced taste and quality. Improved resistance to disease, herbicides, and pests. Increased nutrients, stress tolerance, and yields. New products and growing techniques, and reduced maturation time.
Environment: Better natural waste management. Bioprocessing for forestry products. Conservation of energy, soil, and water. ‘Friendly,’ bio-herbicides and bio-insecticides. More efficient processing.
Society: Increased food security for growing populations of people.
Controversies Related to GM Products
Access/Intellectual Property: Biopiracy or foreign exploitation of natural resources. Domination of world food production by a few companies. Increased dependence upon industrialized nations by developing nations.
Ethics: Objections to the consumption of animal genes in plants, as vice versa. Stress on animals. Objections to the tampering with nature through mixing genes among species. Violation of natural organisms and their intrinsic values.
Labeling: Mixture of GM crops with non-GM products which confounds labeling attempts.
Safety: Potential environmental impacts such as the unintended transfer of transgenes via cross-polination, unknown effects on other organisms like soil microbes, or the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.
Society: The potential for new advances to be skewed towards the interests of wealthy nations.
Genetic engineering has the potential to pose health hazards to people who consume genetically modified foods. Genetic engineering of foods allows people to take the genes of one species, such as a fish, and insert them into another species, such as a tomato. The result is a tomato that has some of the characteristics of a fish; two organisms that would never breed with each other.
Beginning as early as the 1980’s and rapidly accelerating to this date, companies have been using genetic engineering to insert foreign genes into a number of different crops such as soybeans and corn. GM ingredients appear in many foods in American supermarkets and have been detected in processed foods like drink mixes, infant formulas, or taco shells for example. The foods are not labeled and people have no way of telling if they are eating GM foods or not.
Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops have the ability to survive applications of herbicides that would usually kill them. The American food supply includes products that are made from genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops including, ‘Roundup-Ready,’ corn, soybeans, and canola – which are engineered to withstand applications of Roundup, as well as crops that have been engineered to survive exposure to additional herbicides.
Familiar Foods, Allergens, and the Addition of Foreign Genes
Genetic engineering may introduce a known or unknown allergen into a food; one that it did not contain previously. A soybean, for example, may contain genetically engineered genes from a brazil nut that produces allergic reactions in the blood serum of people who experience allergies to nuts (this happened). Allergic reactions to nuts may be serious or even fatal. When genetic engineering causes a familiar food to begin producing a substance that was previously not present in the human food supply, it is impossible to know who may experience an allergic reaction to it.
In another example, the Bt toxin appears in bacteria which produce naturally and are considered to be fairly safe for people. In these bacteria the toxin exists in a, ‘protoxin,’ form and is dangerous to insects only after it has been shortened or, ‘activated,’ in the insect’s digestive system. Some genetically engineered Bt crops produce this toxin in its activated form – something which previously only appeared inside the digestive system of certain insects.
People have little experience with exposure to this form of toxin, and had no reason or opportunity to ingest any form of this Bt toxin in large quantities in the past. When the Bt toxin is incorporated into common foods we eat we are exposed to it every time we eat these foods. Unlike other pesticides of course, a pesticide that is genetically engineered cannot simply be washed off prior to a meal.
Toxicity may also be the result of a characteristic that has been introduced unintentionally. A plant that usually produces high amounts of a toxin in its leaves but low amounts in its fruit, for example, may unexpectedly start to concentrate the toxin in its fruit after a new gene has been added.
Genetic Engineering of Crops and the Development of Antibiotic Resistence
A study published in, ‘Applied and Environmental Microbiology,’ presented evidence supporting the perception that bacteria in a person’s mouth has the potential to take up antibiotic resistance genes that are released from food. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause diseases is a major threat to public health. Due the excessive use of antibiotics in both medical treatment and in agriculture, humans are losing the ability to treat diseases that are life-threatening such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and salmonella. Genetically engineering antibiotic resistance into foods has the potential to increase public health issues even further.
The British Medical Association urged an end to the use of antibiotic resistance genes in the genetic engineering of crops. The Association stated, "There should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st Century. The risk that antibiotic resistance may be passed on to bacteria affecting human beings, through marker genes in the food chain, is one that cannot at present be ruled out."
“These questions and answers have been prepared by WHO in response to questions and concerns by a number of WHO Member State Governments with regard to the nature and safety of genetically modified food.”
“German chemicals giant BASF is closing its biotech division in Germany. The move was prompted by massive resistance to genetically modified food among both the public and politicians.”
“A genetically modified (GM) food is a result of recombinant DNA biotechnological procedures that allow the genetic makeup of an organism to be modified. This can be accomplished by incorporating genes from other organisms or by rearranging genes already present.”