We live in a world of perpetual evolution. To be stagnant and still is to regress, so it is easy to see why we often manipulate the natural resources we have to make them better, even if they are sufficient enough. But when does enhancing turn to damaging? Genetically modified foods are quickly becoming commonplace in agriculture, but it comes with the territory that there are pros and cons to their usage. Before we say whether or not genetically modified foods are for the better, we need to consider the aforementioned pros and cons (and the ethical issues) that arise from them.

What are Genetically Modified Foods?

Looking at a plain example of what exactly genetically modified food is would be something along the lines of vitamin-enriched wheat bread.  You will find these at most any food market and most will think nothing of it. However, this is just the tip of the surface when it comes to the vast array of genetically modified foods in our world. Genetic modification, as defined by The Human Genome Project, is seen as the altering of genetic makeup of organisms via a special set of technologies.[i]

This is done by recombination of DNA from various organisms, which leads to a genetically modified genome.  However, the rate-limiting step in the process of genetic modification is finding out what traits in what genes are useful.

The Human Genome Project, founded in 1990 by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health was a planned 15-year major scientific project that set out to advance various genetic technologies. This joint operation allowed for the creation of a reliable, efficient method of genomic sequencing in order to decipher what traits do in fact prove worthy for genetic modification. First, the chromosomes, which contain hundreds of millions of DNA bases, go through a subcloning step in which they are split into short fragments. These fragments are such that they differ in length from one another by only one base allowing for their identification in subsequent steps.

Next, the fragments are put through gel electrophoresis, which uses an electric current to separate the fragments. These fragments are then dyed and the final base at the end of their sequence is read and analyzed by a computer. With this method, upwards of 700 bases can be sequenced per run of the gel electrophoresis.

From here, researchers can track the genomic sequence for traits that can improve crops/foods by providing things such as insect resistance, virus resistance, and even extreme temperature tolerance.

Once the correct gene is found, there needs to be a way to copy and extract the gene for insertion into food plants. This is first done by a polymerase chain reaction, which utilizes alternations of heating and cooling to amplify the desired isolated gene.  This gene can then be inserted into the new plant via soil bacteria, protoplasts, or even viruses. Once the new gene is inserted, it is checked for functionality and also for its presence in the offspring of the plant. A technique for identifying whether or not the modification has succeeded generally is a chemical test in which a specific color will result as a positive or negative.

What Genes can be transferred?

It should be noted that not only plant genes, but also any living organism, have potential to be transferred to the target organism. So, in theory, one could insert a human gene into a food plant if need be. However, the less related the two species, the more likely the genes will be difficult to splice.

We can now see that the potential possibility for genetic modification of foods is mostly limitless, with practical applications largely aimed at improving agricultural efficiency to feed the demand of billions of humans worldwide. A common example of improving corn supplies is the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t. corn), a bacterium that readily produces crystal proteins that ward off insect larvae.

Herbicide tolerance, however, is the most prevalent genetic modification, accounting for 74% of genetically modified crops in the year 2000. (Whitman 2000) Herbicide tolerance allows farmers to reduce the use of weed-killer, which in turn reduces cost and time tilling.

The line doesn’t end here however, as things such as drought resistance, disease resistance and even nutritional enhancement all play a part of genetically modified foods. Recently, the Rockefeller Foundation has funded development of a strain of Vitamin A enriched rice dubbed “golden rice”. They seek to bring this product to the market as a means of curing malnutrition in third-world countries that are suffering from lack of essential nutrient intake, leading to death in many.

There are upwards of 40 plants that are currently being used in genetic modification, but the primary ones consist of: corn, soybeans, rapeseed, chicory, squash, and potatoes. Of these, five make use of herbicide tolerance, two make use of insect resistance and one utilizes virus resistance.[ii]

Benefits of Genetic Modification on Food Sources

The U.S. accounts for upwards of 2/3rds of the world’s genetically modified crops, with various South American and Asian countries making up the majority of the remaining third. Europe is the only continent with rather strict enforcement of genetic modification usage, often requiring approval before crops can be planted.

So what does this all mean in the context of our contemporary world? There is no straightforward answer to whether or not genetically modified foods are proven to be the future of our nutritional means, but one can make a case for and against them. Various pros to utilizing genetically modified organisms can be seen in April’s issue of “Acre US”, the longest running magazine pertinent to farming in the United States.

According to the article authors Mike Amaranthus and Larry Simpson the rising use of synthetics such as fertilizers and pesticides have increased pollution rates, resulting in poorer water qualities around the world. Instead, they suggest that a biological approach can replace the need for chemicals in farming.

This approach includes the use of microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria, which can provide benefits not unlike that of typical chemicals used in farming.[iii]

So it would seem beneficial in this circumstance that developing genetically modified crops would prove better. The cost of utilizing chemicals would decrease, pollution would decrease, water and air qualities would improve, and crops would be able to enhance their nitrogen absorption via bacteria or fungi.

Of course there are hosts of other benefits as well, such as fortifying crops with vitamins and minerals that usually are not there to help feed deprived countries. Even the use of genetically modified tomatoes and potatoes to produce pharmaceuticals more readily for third-world countries is being researched.[iv]  

Drawbacks of Genetic Modification on Food Sources

We can see the plethora of benefits genetically modifying foods can bring about, but there are two sides to every story. The main cons arise from ethical considerations and the fear of harm to nature and possibly humans. The problem with genetically modifying foods is that if one simple strain of modified crop was to be detrimental to a species, it could cause serious damage fast. Just like when E. coli breakouts happen, the food has to be promptly recalled so as not to infect any more than it already has.

If farmers and scientists were not careful with their procedures and a harmful bacteria or virus was to go unnoticed, there could be thousands of acres of harmful crops ready to be ingested by various species.  These crops could then crossover with non-modified species and proliferate even further. Moreover, we need to be careful with gene transfers utilized so as not to develop allergenic crops that could be lethal when ingested.

Take-Home Message

After perusing several research articles, though, the benefits that genetic modification have and can bring about for our food supply outweigh the threats. We can enhance crops with essential nutrients, reduce the use of chemicals and synthetics, grow more quickly, extend shelf life, improve nitrogen utilization, reduce pollution and even develop natural pharmaceuticals.

When looking at the picture holistically, I can’t imagine having to meet the rising demands of today’s food supply without improving our methods and the answer seems to lie in genetic modification.

In the end, we have to be conscious that genetic modification is like any other technology and when we overuse it, there are consequences. If something is naturally nutritious or able to grow without much synthetic and chemical use, then it should remain unaltered. Needless to say, your diet should revolve around such foods.

However, if it is unrealistic to meet the demands of your diet naturally, then you shouldn’t fear small amounts of genetically modified foods.  

References:

 

[i] "The Science Behind the Human Genome Project/Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms." Human Genome Project (2008) <http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml>

[ii] "20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods." Food Safety. World Health Organization, 2010. Web. 19 Apr 2010. <Http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/en/20questions_en.pdf>.

[iii] Amaranthus, Mike, and Larry Simpson. "Biological Approaches to Farming: Reducing Fertilizer Use & Pollution." Acre USA (2010).

[iv] Deborah, Whitman. "Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful” ProQuest (2000): <Http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php#n14>.