Sept. 19, 2012

Genetically Modified foods .. in a nutshell

The trend towards re-establishing backyard edible gardens and community gardens can be seen as a reaction to the global demise of the small farmer and the growth of giant food production centres that operate more like factories than farms. True, these farms produce higher volumes of food. But not everyone is happy with the way that humans are genetically modifying crops to make them resistant to disease and pests, as biology expert Madison Jones writes..

21st Century Biology: 
The Controversy Surrounding Creating Genetically Modified Foods

The controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to produce stronger agricultural yields comes down to two simple truths: most people care about the food they put in their bodies, and many of them are unknowingly ingesting GMOs on a regular basis. As the debate continues between food purists and biotechnology firms that specialise in GMO implementation, many experts have noted various advantages and disadvantages to the widespread manufacture and use of these modified foodstuffs.

Biotechnology is a blanket term for the use of organisms and their components to make various products – and biotechnological processes have been used to make food (such as honey, wine and cheese) for centuries. In the last 20 years, however, genetic modification – the permanent alteration of an organism’s biological framework using specialised technological processes – has overtaken more natural forms of biotechnology. The first recorded GMO was the Flavr Savr, a tomato modified to prolong ripeness that debuted in 1994; these tomatoes were made available to the public without distinction, and many consumers ate them not knowing about the modifications. Since Flavr Savr’s first appearance, scientists have successfully developed crops (also known as transgenics) that are resistant to temperature, drought, insects and herbicides.

Most modifications of this nature involve the extraction of a plant gene that is implanted into another organism where the gene does not occur naturally. In addition to transferable plant genes, scientists have successfully used genes from non-plants to create GMOs. The best-known example is Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), a bacterium that poisons the larvae of certain destructive insects. B.t. has been shown to enable corn to produce its own pesticides, which have been successful against destructive pests like the European borer. Now, scientists are hoping to broaden the scope of GMO technology. According to the Human Genome Project, proposed projects include rice enriched with iron and certain vitamins; bananas that foster immunity to Hepatitis B; cattle that are resistant to mad cow disease; and trees that yield years ahead of schedule.


The positive

GMO proponents have listed various positive aspects of this technology. First, the industry is highly lucrative. In 2006, more than 10 million farmers in 22 countries planted 252 million acres of transgenic crops; most were enhanced forms of soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, and canola. The leaders in GMO crop growth were the U.S. (53%), Argentina (17%), Brazil (11%) and Canada (6%); though growth has stagnated in wealthy nations, it is expected to continue rising in developing countries like India, South Africa and Paraguay. Advocates have also pointed to GMOs as a solution to pervasive malnutrition throughout the world, much of which is directly caused by factors the modification seeks to eradicate like famine and insect destruction.


The not so positive

On the other hand, many industry experts have heavily criticised GMOs. Some argue that modifications like this work against naturally occurring biological processes. Others have noted that genetic transfers can spread to invasive species and ultimately create powerful, disease-resistant weeds. However, human health is the paramount concern at this time – a problem exacerbated by nations (including the U.S.) that do not require GMOs to carry any sort of identifying label. Many worry that cross-genetic modification could create allergens, carcinogens and other substances that are harmful to people in the short- and long-term. And thus far, firms like Calgene and Monsanto have been reluctant to publish materials that directly identify substances, species and processes used to create food – and this ambiguity has made many people nervous.

The GMO debate has many people arguing on both sides. However, the biotechnology industry has proven immune to controversy – and despite the myriad concerns regarding widespread GMO propagation, this form of agriculture could greatly re-shape the global food industry for years to come.  


Written by Madison Jones

Madison writes for an online resource that offers guidance to students who are interested in all facets of biology.

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