Genetically-modified (GM) foods is a term most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption through genetic engineering. GM foods are developed from organisms that have been genetically-modified to allow for greater control over the organism’s genetic structure to enhance desired traits in that organism.
Traditionally, the enhancement of these desired traits had been undertaken through breeding. However, the process has proven to be time-consuming and not accurate. Although, genetic engineering, has afforded this process to happen more rapidly and accurately.
Food biotechnology is not new. In 1871, Louis Pasteur discovered that heating juices to certain temperatures would kill non-beneficial bacteria that would otherwise spoil wine production and fermentation process. This was eventually applied to milk production, heating milk to a certain temperature to improve food hygiene and shelf life.
Advances in food biotechnology also allowed for faster and mass production of cheese through the addition of the microbial enzyme, chymosin. Previously, the enzyme, rennet extracted from the stomach lining of cows, has been used in this process. The use of microbial enzymes was the first application of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
Two decades ago, in 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for marketing in the US. This tomato was genetically-modified to allow for delayed ripening after picking.
Plants are genetically-modified for insect resistance, viral resistance, herbicide resistance, changed nutritional content, improved taste and longer storage.
With the world’s population now estimated to be at 7 billion and expected to double in 50 years, food shortage is becoming a more pressing and increasing concern. Food biotechnology hopes to solve this problem through:
● Pest resistance, by reducing the significant losses from insect pests which has caused such devastating financial losses and starvation, especially in developing countries.
● As farmers typically use herbicides to kill weeds, which, if they are not careful, can also kill crop plants, creating crop plants which are tolerant to herbicides has certainly helped alleviate this concern.
● Plant biologists are working to create plants that are genetically-engineered to be resistant to known diseases.
● An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. With this gene, plants are now able to tolerate cold temperatures.
● Similarly, scientists are also working on isolating genes to make plants more resistant to drought and high-salt content soil to help grow plants even under harsh drought conditions.
● Improved nutrition content of crop plants. Where malnutrition and poverty remain a problem especially in developing countries, and where sources of nutrients have to come from multiple sources, genetic engineering is now making it possible to obtain these sources in one food item.
However, GMOs seem to have as many supporters as critics. Individuals and groups who oppose GMOs share similar concerns: long-term effect of GMOs and GM foods on health and the environment; the effects of pesticide resistance; the impact of GM crops for farmers and the role of GM crops in feeding the world population.
The other areas of controversy include: food labeling (i.e., whether or not it should be specified whether a food item is genetically-modified); role of government regulators; and the objectivity of scientific research as well as accuracy of what is published.
One of the more striking published evidence against the harmful effect on the use of GMOs is the death of monarch butterflies. A laboratory study published in Nature a few years ago showed that pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. Unfortunately, the B.t. toxins intended to kill many species of pest insect larvae also are harmful to other insects.
There is also the concern of reduced effectiveness of pesticides. Just as some mosquitoes have developed resistance to DDT (now a banned pesticide), people are concerned that insects will become resistant to B.t.
Similarly, there is a growing concern of gene-transfer to non-target species. For instance, crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance will transfer this resistance to weeds.
From the human perspective, there is the possibility of increased allergenicity and the harmful health effects that are currently not known.
If you are living in Ethiopia and other African countries that had suffered through years of drought, malnutrition and death due to starvation, it seems that the answer is quite clear-cut: bring on the drought-resistant GMOs and genetically-modified fruits and vegetables loaded with life-saving micronutrients.
On the other hand, if you are a farmer, an ecologist, biologist and scientist, dealing with the emergence of species becoming extinct, or alternatively, on the other end of the spectrum, emergence of pests that are resistant to chemicals and pesticides known to man and no means to control them, then you would likewise be in fear of the consequences.
Now more than ever, “knowledge is power.” The bottomline is, ultimately, you have to make a decision of what you put in your body and what you support. Technology is not always good but it is not always bad, on the contrary you have to keep yourself informed and let your voices be heard.
You cannot rely on any “experts” and regulating bodies to make the decision for you, because this affects you, your loved ones. This affects all of us, whether you take action or not, but you need to realize that YOU ARE THE ONE who is making the right choice for yourself.
Michael Steinhoff has been living in Florida. He loves to share his knowledge in the health, nutrition field. He is a content manager for Gochomps.com