The majority of the consumers in the United States are unaware of the dependency and scope of the presence of Genetically Modified Organisms in their environment. The evolution of the science and practice has had positive effects in combatting the starvation of marginalized populations. There is currently no scientific evidence that suggests negative effects of consuming GMO’s yet a large percentage of the population remains speculative. The only perceived drawbacks to GMO’s can be seen in the political environment that exploits the powers gained from organizing and supplying resources.
When one walks into the store and see the vast selection of fresh vegetables and fruits, grains, canned and frozen goods, and even dairy and meat products, it’s difficult to decipher whether any involve of the items you put in their basket are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In America, many consumers remain ignorant about whether or not the food they are buying has been genetically modified.
On Tuesday, residents in Colorado and Oregon will vote on whether packaged foods that contain genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such in stores (Plumer 2014). Such labeling requirements have been avoided by Congress due to the huge lobbying efforts of major agricultural and business interests. A growing movement to require labeling has taken the political fight to the state level. Earlier this year, Vermont enacted the nation's first GMO-labeling law, set to take effect in 2016. A few states like Washington and California failed to pass labeling bills in 2013 and 2014 but despite the few holdups, labeling legislation has been introduced in 28 state legislatures (Plumer 2014).
Farmers have been selectively breeding crops for tens of thousands of years in order to produce desirable genetic traits, clearly an example of genetic modification of food products. What today are considered GMO’s are thought to have started in the 1990s when scientists began to manipulate the genomes of crops and animals directly. This generally recognized idea that GMOs began in the 1990s is actually incorrect, since genetically manipulated food products have been around since the 1940's (Kilman and Thurow 2013).
Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called "the father of the Green Revolution," "agriculture's greatest spokesperson" and "The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives."
Borlaug, Wikipedia (2014) He grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and received his doctorate degree in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. After working for Dupont during 1942-44 on war related issues, he refused Dupont’s offer to double his salary and went to work of all places in Mexico for the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo, funded by the Mexican government, and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The goal of the project was to boost wheat production in Mexico, which at the time was importing a large portion of its grain. His work lead to new semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties, called Pitic 62 and Penjamo 62, changing the potential yield of spring wheat dramatically. By 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlau, with a harvest six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico. Mexico became fully self-sufficient in, and a net exporter of, wheat. He eventually took his work,generally involved cross-breeding between same crop varieties to India, Paskistan, Turkey, China, and other countries, and crops yields rose dramatically, eliminating what many claim to be billions dying from hunger (Kilman and Thurow2013).
Genetic Engineering (GE) it’s the science of combining two food types, plant or animal, that are not sexually compatible via recombinant DNA techniques. All GEs are GMOs, but not all GMOs are GEs, most are not. For example, the “organically grown” Honeycrisp apples bought at Whole Foods are in fact a GMO and a GE. Cross-breeding as a form of genetic manipulation has been around for ten of thousands of years, and GMOs have been in the human food chain for over 200 years, most radically since the 1950s. Genetically Engineered foods are what came about in the mid-1990s, and are what most informed people are concerned about. An example is taking a few genes of a bacteria that produces some favorable trait and then transplanting into a completely different organism to produce the desired trait. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans are resistant to herbicides making spraying field with weed killer easier. B.t Corn on the other hand is modified with a bacterial gene that secretes a poison that kills pests like rootworm, reducing the need for chemical pesticides (Plumer 2014). Golden rice has been genetically manipulated to be artificially fortified with beta carotene to help alleviate vitamin deficiencies in countries like the Philippines. Many researchers are looking for ways to engineer crops that are resistant to drought or other farming problems in order to boost sustainable agriculture or eliminate world hunger.
More than 93 percent of corn, soy, and cotton planted in the United States is genetically modified in some way. Most of that ends up as animal feed or ethanol or corn syrup, which in turn gets into lots of processed foods. Meanwhile, more than 95 percent of sugar beets in the United States are genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant and those beets are responsible for roughly half of all sugar production. Add it all up, and an estimated 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain at least some genetically modified ingredients (Plumer 2014).
Critics of this revolution in GMOs and GEs steadfastly claim that the long-term effects on humanity have not been properly researched and that we don’t know what environmental and physical consequences they could have. However, so far, there has been no good scientific evidence that they are harmful (Key, Ma, and Drake 2008). At this point, billions of people around the world have been eating GM foods for decades without any noticeable ill effects. Numerous scientific studies have concluded that the GM crops currently on the market pose no more of a health risk than conventional crops. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said in 2012 that crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe with the European Commission agreeing after sifting through 25 years of research (European Commission 2014). In the United States, Genetically Modified agencies including U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who review GMOs. Many argue that regulatory approvals are routine, not properly studied, with the regulators basically in bed with the industry. See the movie “The World According to Monsanto” for a documentary about companies’ products and predatory business practices.
ADVANTAGES OF GMO’s/GE’s
The world population approaches 7 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Feeding this exploding population is a primary problem for all aspects of human society, and genetically modified foods hold promise to meet this need.
Pest resistance – Insect pests have substantially reduced crops for thousands of years, which not only results in devastating financial loss for farmers but starvation in developing countries. Millions of tons of chemical pesticides have had obvious negative effects on the environment, human health and animal devastation. No one wants to eat food that has been treated with harmful pesticides, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Recent scientific discoveries like the cultivation of B.t. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market and hope to reduce the risk and damage the pesticides have on the populations and environment of agriculture regions (Nat Bio 2001).
Herbicide tolerance – Governments and Farmers will employ the use of herbicides to control the population of undesirable plants competing with their crop. This practice is expensive and has had noticeable negative effects on their environments. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to not be affected by their herbicide product Roundup, which results in one application of a weed-killer instead of multiple applications, reducing production cost and limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off (Pesticide Science 1999).
Disease resistance – Many viruses, fungi and bacteria cause plant diseases, and plant biologists are trying to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases (Kenward 1999). Much of plant interaction with soils, bacteria and fungi are symbiotic so risks exist trying to isolate a virus or bacteria causing plant disease from those that actual cause healthy plant growth(Boundless “Root Microbes” 2014).
Cold tolerance – An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato, allowing them to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings (Kenward1999).
Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance – Plants able to withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places. (Nat Bio 2001).
Nutrition – Rice is a staple in many Third World countries, but rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. GE rice might be obtained that contain additional vitamins and minerals, preventing blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of "golden" rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A). Plans were underway to develop a golden rice that also has increased iron content, but both have yet to come to market because of protests against GM food in Europe.
Pharmaceuticals – Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes, obviously much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines (Daniell 2001).
Phytoremediation – Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST GMO’s
Environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations, scientists and government officials have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.
Unintended harm to other organisms – A laboratory study was published in Nature showing that pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. (Nature 1999).Bee colony collapses are a major concern world-wide and are continuing to develop, and fingers are pointing at farming practices, including use of pesticides and the unknown effects of GMO crops that have build in pesticides. B.t. toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately, not only crop-damaging pests. Since bees are necessary for growing most food crops, a collapse of bee colonies could have immediate and devastating effects on food production.
Reduced effectiveness of pesticides – Mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, so insects could become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.
Gene transfer to non-target species – Weeds might cross-breed with crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance making them also herbicide resistant. Cross breeding is basically a Pandora’s box, with the possibility of mutations that could have unforeseen consequences not only on food crops, but on biodiversity across the globe. Containment solutions have been proposed, but a strong wind could make human efforts virtually impossible.
Human health risks
Allergenicity – Life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods have been growing, and a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Extensive testing of GM foods are obviously necessary avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies.
Unknown effects on human health – Introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health, and a few decades of experience is insufficient to know what long term effects on human health could result. Since most of the feed to livestock and animals intended for human consumption is genetically modified, the long-term effects on those animals could result in secondary harmful effects on their food products. Beef, pork, dairy products, chickens, fish and all the other animals used for food are obviously already using GM feeds, and the imagination can run wild with negative possibilities for human consumption. A simple example are birds who eat GM seeds and/or crops having their immune systems affected in a way that mutates Bird Flu into an a disease with world-wide consequences.
Farmers in Third World countries to be competitive in world markets have been forced to use GM seeds, which they can only afford with loans, making them dependant on companies like Monsanto. In 2012, the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 13,754 farmer suicides, with the problem associated with debt stress more than with crop failures, with a finger pointing squarely at being forced into GM crop production (Behere and Bhise2009).
GMO seeds have resulted in fantastic crop yields, but also lead to monoculture with large corporations easily dominating family farms. Even monoculture itself has been accused to have delirious effects on the environment, economies, and animal and insect populations. Patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness, and increases the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
In the United States consumers would be hard pressed to find any food in grocery stores that is not genetically modified. Processed food in fast food restaurants and in canned and frozen foods all involve some ingredients that were genetically modified. The debates over legislation requiring GMO labeling might seem that steps toward a healthy solution, but what can one do if everything is so labeled? GMO research came about from scientists like Borlaug who altruistically tried to eradicate starvation, malnutrition, and de-forestation. GMOs were highly successful in dramatically increasing crop yields and in feeding the exploding world population, but they also help facilitate a runaway population bomb, whose future consequences clearly are dire. Realistically, GMOs are here to stay, and as genetic manipulation techniques continue to develop, the world is blindly headed into the unknown. Labeling is not a solution, since realistic alternatives to GMO food on a global scale do not presently exist.
A starving man will not be concerned with labels. Today, the future of the world’s human population are in the hands of scientists and corporations, and concern about their profit motives and competence are clearly justified. Government policy will bend to the demands of a hungry public. At the very least, the public should be informed and involved in decisions often made in laboratories and corporate boardrooms about what future generations are going to eat. Perhaps public ignorance and dependence on governments, scientists and corporations are justified.
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