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Genetic modification is a special set of biological technology that changes the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plant, or bacteria. Genetically modified foods are foods, derived from genetically modified organisms. Organisms are modified through altering their DNA structure by application of genetic engineering techniques. Biotechnology can be applied to improve production; for instance, animals can be genetically modified to grow faster with less food. Their productive characteristics can be improved, such as higher production of milk or resistance to spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) in cows. Supporters claim that plants can also be modified to have special characteristics that are superior to the ones, possessed by traditional crops. Some of the food products, undergoing field test, are apples that resist insect attacks, cabbage that resists caterpillar attacks, bananas free of viruses and worm parasites, apple with a vaccine against childhood pneumonia and sunflowers that produce oil with lower saturated fats among other tests. This theoretical promise is welcomed but practicality is the only way that the technology supporters can win the nod from critics (Baker 2001).
The United States has widely adopted the use of genetically engineered foods like corn, soybean and cotton. In fact, in 2006, United States grew 53% of the global transgenic crops. This is in complete contrast to bans the same products are facing in some countries like Zambia, Venezuela and Hungary. This argumentative essay, thus, seeks to find out why some countries like the United States are embracing the technology, whereas others like Zambia are completely opposed to the idea. The argument on genetically modified foods is centered on their effects on human health/safety, access and intellectual property, impact on the environment/ethics, disputes on labeling, poverty reduction, food security, and their general benefits or risks to the society. Critics who are opposed to genetically modified foods cite issues such as safety, ecological concerns, and economic concerns.
Many nations have been influenced to adopt the technology by the world’s greatest super powers; although the provocative question as of now is do we really need to embrace this technology? Although there is food supply issue, the question is whether this technology will solve world hunger problems and if that so, is it the best way to address the issue? Many scientists argue that the issue on genetically modified food should be emphasized if the world has to reverse the shortage of food in the developing nations. Recently, some critics and environmentalists, who had earlier opposed the idea, changed their approach on the issue due to prevalence of hunger crisis. The conservatives are for the idea that there is already more than enough food in the world but the shortage is brought about by distribution and politics, and not production. Some strongly believe that overpopulation is the real problem, terming the current food production, adequate for any reasonable population size. According to Paul Collier, an economist at Oxford University, genetic modification is similar to nuclear power, whereby nobody loves it, but climate change has made its application imperative.
On the other hand, many believe that the whole idea of genetic modification is to cater for global food crisis. The biodiversity intensification should work in tandem with nature’s water and nutrient systems and not working against it. Some argue that genetically modified food help farmers produce more, despite the environmental barriers or any form of odds. Those on this school of thought propose that this technology should be satisfactorily tested before it is commercially released, taking all the risks, involved into consideration. Many proponents of this discipline believe that misguided anti science ideologies and failure by resident governments to prioritize agriculture in developing countries led to food crisis, and thus, they are of the opinion that the only way out is for the global governments to take some measures. Genetic modification follows the principles of conventional breeding, although they differ in some ways.
Selection and cross breeding are two main methods that farmers use to improve the quality of their crops. Even in nature, animals and plants bred selectively to maintain a favorable gene pool for future generations. These traditional methods are, however, slow and require intensive labor as it may take repeated attempts to get rid of undesirable traits.
In contrast, generic modification is faster because organisms acquire one specific gene or specific genes together without inclusion of other traits. However, the unpredictability of the technology makes some scientist to believe that it can produce disastrous results if poor methods are used, when applying it. Traditional breeding is based on sexual reproduction between like organisms that involves the transfer of genes similar to the genes of the cell they join. In contrast, bioengineering involves isolation of one a gene from one type of organism, and installing it into the DNA of a different organism, thereby, interrupting its sequence. These introduced genes are new to their surroundings, thus, they require artificial boosting (Firbank 2000).
Just like every new technology, the genetically modified foods issue has generated a lot of debate due to differing opinions among individuals with some being positive and others negative about the importance of these transgenic products. Whatever the reasons one may have about the technology that makes him/her have the specific opinions they possess, one should make a decision, based on the facts about benefits and the risks that may accrue from the application of the technology, compared to tradition methods.
Economically, growing GM crops is initially expensive but cheaper in the end as money is saved on pesticides. It requires highly skilled labor and sophisticated equipment. Large companies require considerable investment in laboratories, human resource and equipment, thus, the reason behind costly genetically modified crops. It, however, takes a shorter time to produce the required product, precise and with no undesired genes. These benefits are not comparatively satisfying because the initial cost of planting traditional crops is low, thus, this compensates for the cost, incurred during purchasing of the pesticides.
Genetically modified crops are herbicide resistant, thus, farmers require less herbicides as they spray their fields with herbicide to kill weeds without harming crops. In effect, the amount of herbicide, used in one season compared to that, used in traditional crops, is much less. This leads to a subsistent reduction in costs for both farmers and consumers (Boyce 2000). For instance, genetically modified cotton has an inbuilt resistance to pests, thus, eliminating the use of pesticides. Critics, however, dismiss this citing lack of credible evidence to substantiate this. Biotechnology companies are in the process of experimenting on new crops that are drought and salinity resistant or less fertilizer dependent. If successful, the idea will definitely promote food production by opening up new virgin lands that were earlier unproductive.
The main concern of those, opposing the idea of genetically modified foods, focuses on their potential danger to the environment and the possible health risks to humans (Alemanno 2011). There is little or no information about the effect they will have in the near future. The genetic makeup of all living organisms is complex and biotechnology only focuses on short-term effects, thus, the effect of the technology is short-lived. Scientists do not exhaustively test the effect of introducing this technology in an organism. Resistance nature of these genetically modified crops may change after a while, especially when some pests that the crop was modified to prevent develop resistance towards these genes.
There is always a possibility that farmers may not be able to destroy genetically modified crops, when they spread into the environment. For instance, in Europe, sugar beet that had been modified to resist a certain herbicide unexpectedly acquired the genes to resist another and farmers had to use highly poisonous chemicals to eliminate it and harming the environment in the process.
Another complication to the above risks is that the pesticides, produced in the crop, negatively affect the organisms that get involved in the food web, directly or indirectly. The built in pesticides may directly affect the animals that feed on these crops, e.g. tests in the U.S. showed that 44% of monarch butterflies died if allowed to feed on genetically modified corn. In Britain, the skylark bird was indirectly affected by the substantial reduction in the weed it relied on for food after the introduction of genetically modified sugar beets. Those, who are against the idea, argue that if these modified crops possess inbuilt pesticides that can kill caterpillars, then, what harm they can cause on human beings. Biologists warn that if this poison is allowed to enter food webs, then, the whole ecosystem is at a danger of collapse (Bonny 2003).
According to critics’ point of view, biotechnology violates the ethical rights of natural organisms as the process involves extraction of genes from one organism and transferring to different species. Most critics base their objection on the fact that the act is demeaning to the source species as well as unethical to the recipient organism. They term this as a violation of organism’s intrinsic values, tampering with the work of creation by mixing genes among species. Most object to consuming plant genes in animals and vice versa as well as stressing the animal. Most of these concerns are related to religious beliefs, where some ideologies teach about sovereignty of all living organism and that none should tamper with the natural set up of organisms. The society belonging to developing nations views the introduction of this technology by developed nations as a plot to execute a hidden agenda of serving their interests.
The defective genes from genetically modified plants may be transferred to other crops through cross-pollination, thus, interfering with conventional breeding. However, scientists argue that with careful management, this can be prevented. For instance, scientists are experimenting on a certain maize strain that do no interbreed with other maize strains, hoping that it could prevent cross-pollination. The number of herbicide tolerant weeds had gradually increased with the introduction of biotechnology, increasing doubts on the capability of this technology to promote food production. Although genetic engineers are promising to contain the situation, critics are worried that genetically modified plants may spread to other plants, creating modified weeds that will be beyond human control. Genetically modified food mix-ups may also occur, where humans may accidentally consume genetically modified food, meant for animals, leading to health problems. Humans are currently using these genetically modified products to enhance tissue growth, especially when enlarging hips and body muscles.
Another important area of concern due to use of genetically modified foods is disease. Since some genetically modified crops are modified by use of disease causing organisms, will new diseases emerge? Some genetically modified crops also possess antibiotic resistance marker genes that scientists use to determine whether the genetic modification of a plant has been successful. Therefore, what will happen when these antibiotic resistance genes are transferred into disease causing microorganisms? The problem would even be more tragic as most of the antibiotics already in use are ineffective.
Envisaged application of genetically modified foods is diverse and includes bananas that produce human vaccines against Hepatitis B, engineered fish with quick maturity, fruit and nut trees that yield earlier, foods with lower risks of poisoning and plants that produce new plastics with improved properties. Future development might see an increase in this technology use due to increased access to genomic resources that are applicable to organisms. Safety testing of these products should also be a priority to ensure that the benefits of this technology clearly outweigh perceived costs of development.
In conclusion, further research is necessary to perceive any potential dangers of these foods as opponents fear to clear or confirm their doubts. If any side effects are detected, biotechnologists should device a way of eliminating it before they introduce these products in the food web. However, until credible research confirms that genetically modified foods pose no threat to human health, the argument over their use will not stop. Living things have complex morphology and tampering with their genetic composition has far reaching effects. Thus, it is the common interest and obligation of humans to support concerned organizations and scientists in carrying out research on the suitability of these products in the market. People should also ensure that those products that have been introduced in the market undergo mandatory labeling and they adhere to safety as well as environmental standards. The liability for any harm that may arise from the use of these genetically modified food products should be fully assumed by biotech companies.