Living in America, we sometimes forget what a huge problem malnutrition and starvation are in other parts of the world. It's estimated that over 852 million people in the world are severely food deprived. Now, imagine a world where no one goes hungry, a farmer's crop can survive a long drought or an early frost and still produce a large harvest, and harmful insects and weeds cannot survive in the same field as a crop. Imagine a world where malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are a thing of the past, because the food we eat is so much more nutritious. Some scientists believe that, through new technology, this world could be a reality in our lifetime. I'm talking about genetically modified foods, or GM foods for short. People have been genetically altering foods for hundreds of years, but due to recent technological advancements, the potential of these foods have changed drastically. Many scientists believe that genetically modifying foods could help end world hunger while others say that it could result in human and environmental catastrophe. Although there are many potential risks there are also many potential benefits. Like the old saying goes, "with great power comes great responsibility." Like almost all new technologies, genetically modified food technology needs to be closely monitored and evaluated as it progresses. Ultimately, genetically modified food technology has too much potential to be completely halted.
So just what exactly is genetically modified food? In short, genetically modified foods are organisms that have had their DNA artificially changed to give them a new characteristic. Normally, these modifications are made to produce plants that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides, produce more food, have more nutrients, grow faster, or survive in harsher climates than usual. However, there have also been more unusual experiments done. According to American Scientist Magazine, a gene from a jellyfish has been spliced into plants to make them emit light. In another case the Monsanto Corporation (the largest genetically modified food company in the world) is developing grass seed that will produce different colored lawns. These altered organisms are commonly called genetically engineered, genetically modified, transgenic, or "Franken-foods". Genetically engineered foods first went on the market in 1994. The product was a tomato engineered by a company called Calgene. The species of the tomato was called the FlavrSavr. Ironically, it was considered to have a mediocre flavor and never sold well. The FlavrSavr was a commercial failure and was off the market by 1997. Despite the early failure of the FlavrSavr, GM foods have flourished in the last ten years. Odds are you've eaten many genetically modified foods and not even known it. Currently, The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimate that 75% of processed foods in the U.S. contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.
Although, genetically engineered foods have only been in production for the last 15 years, humans have been altering the DNA of plants for ages. For centuries, people have been using artificial selection to cross-breed plants. For example, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage have all derived from the same species of mustard. However, the process of artificial selection is very difficult and time consuming. Artificial selection is also limited to only plants of similar species. Fortunately, recent advancements in technology have made it possible to move DNA from one species to another regardless of their differences.
The process behind GM foods is very difficult and complex, so this is a very simplified explanation of how it works. There are two main methods of genetically modifying foods. The first method uses bacteria to modify the DNA. First, the scientist uses enzymes to cut the desired gene out of the DNA. The gene is then coupled by a promoter and a terminator, these act as signposts to show the beginning and the end of the desired gene. Next, the gene is inserted into section of DNA called a plasmid. The plasmid is then inserted into bacteria. Finally, the bacteria are used to infect the plant cells, where they transfer the gene into the plant cell's chromosome. The second method is more advanced but also more expensive than the first method. Here, the desired gene is cut from the DNA then attached to a tiny particle of gold or tungsten. Next, the particles are shot into the plant cells using a particle gun or "biolistic" gun. Lastly, the desired gene falls off of the particle and attaches to the chromosome. After insertion is achieved, the cell is allowed to divide so it makes copies of itself. Once the plants start to grow, they are tested to see if the gene was successfully transferred. Along with the original desired gene, a marker gene is also implanted in the cell. This is used as an easily identifiable trait. This way, all the scientist needs to do is look for this trait and if it is there then they know the desired gene was transferred successfully too. Through those two methods, scientists have been able to do amazing things.
The potential benefits of genetically modifying foods are incredible. First off, there are many obvious benefits for the farmer. Their crops will be better because of advantages like herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Another thing is that GM crops are being altered to withstand harsher weather and generate more food. Also, the farmer doesn't have to spray his field as much, cutting down on the amount of fuel he uses. It's estimated that GM foods have indirectly allowed farmers to cut back by 475 million gallons of fuel over the past nine years, which cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. There are even more benefits for the consumer. Because of increased production, there is more food, which in turn means cheaper food. Also, genetic engineering makes it possible for foods to taste better and be more nutritious. In fact, scientists at The University of Pittsburg School of Medicine recently engineered a pig that generates Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3's are substances that help prevent cardiovascular disease. If this is approved by the FDA we could soon have pork that is actually good for your heart. Another group of scientists have created what they call "golden rice." This is rice that contains beta carotene and vitamin A. Many nations rely heavily on rice as their main food source and this will immensely help those people get the nutrients they need. Another crop has been created that ripens much slower after being picked, so it can be shipped longer distances before rotting. Even with all of these benefits, genetically modified foods are still very controversial.
Many people think GM foods are very dangerous and could result in human and environmental catastrophe. Some critics think that, much like bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, insects could become resistant to the pesticides used on GM crops, making them more difficult to deal with in the future. Also, new plants could produce new allergens and toxins that the human body is unfamiliar with. The majority of GM foods being produced are resistant to herbicides. Researchers believe that this will cause farmers to use more herbicides on their crops. In turn, this could result in pollution that could be harmful to humans and the environment. Another concern is that, through cross-pollination, weeds and other plants could pick up the modified gene and become resistant to the very chemicals that are used to kill them. Although there seems to be many concerns over genetically modifying foods, no study has been done that shows any major risk associated with GM foods.
The genetically modified food business continues to steadily grow despite public ignorance and uncertainty. Between 1996 and 2003 the amount of land being used to grow GM plants was increased by 40 times over. It is estimated that over 200 million acres of farm land are now devoted to growing GM plants. In 2000, only three countries made up for 98% of the global GM crop. America produces 68%, Argentina accounts for 23%, and Canada is responsible for 7%. Recently European governments and businesses have been pushing to boost their own GM food production. Nevertheless, according to a recent survey by The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Americans are still very uncomfortable with GM foods. The survey showed that the majority of Americans know little to nothing about genetically engineered plants and animals, but it also showed that American consumers do not support banning the new technology, but rather want regulations put in place to ensure that the new products are safe.
Regardless of how the public feels, we can expect to see more genetically modified foods in the future and exponential growth in the biotechnology business. Some ideas that developers have already mentioned are bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases, fish that mature quicker, fruit and nut trees that mature quicker, and plants that produce new plastics that have unique properties. As soon as more long-term research is done we can expect to see an explosion of unique new GM products on the market.
Ultimately, genetically modified plant technology has too much potential to be completely halted. Right now, most scientists agree that there is no proof that GM foods pose any threat to people or the environment. With proper evaluation and responsibility, genetically modified foods could help solve world hunger. That is a goal too great to be ignored because of possible threats. There are many potential risks associated with GM foods, but the potential benefits far outweigh them.
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