Points of View: Genetically Modified Foods

researcher

A scientist examines experimental samples ofgenetically modified fruit trees.

Genetically modified (GM) foods have been on sale in the world’s supermarkets since 1994. We do not recognize them because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that GM foods be labeled as such.

As the world’s population rises, so does the need for food. Genetic engineering provides a way to increase food production. Biotechnologists can develop desirable characteristics in an organism by altering its genes or by inserting new genes into the organism’s cells. For example, soybeans, corn, and other crop plants have been genetically modified to make proteins that protect them from the action of herbicides. Farmers who plant these GM crops can spray herbicides to control weeds without harming the crop.

GM foods are not limited to plant crops. GM animals have also been developed, including a strain of salmon that grows twice as fast as other salmon. The FDA has not yet cleared any GM animals for human consumption. But it has cleared many GM plant foods for sale. Not only is labeling of GM foods not required, it is actually unlawful to label foods that do not contain GM organisms. In 2011, consumer groups brought legal action against the U.S. government to force new labeling laws. Following are two points of view on GM foods.

The Benefits Outweigh the Risks
People who support development of GM plants and animals view the process as an extension of previous breeding techniques. Traditionally, farmers altered the genetic makeup of a species by crossbreeding different strains to combine their best traits into one strain. However, the direct manipulation of genes through genetic engineering makes it possible to control genetic changes more precisely and efficiently. It even makes it possible to insert genes from one species into another.

The potential to increase crop yields is one advantage of GM food plants. Some GM crops, including corn that contains Bt genes, produce their own insecticides. These GM crops not only have the potential for higher yields, but also can reduce the expense and toxic exposure associated with pesticide and herbicide use. Crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides can reduce the cost and fuel emissions associated with using farm machinery to get rid of weeds.

Other beneficial characteristics of GM fruits and vegetables include development of produce that stays fresh longer or contains added nutrients. For example, inserting a gene that increases the amino acids in a plant food could give it more nutritional value. To combat world hunger, scientists might be able to develop seeds that grow well in areas with poor soil or little water.

protesters

These people in Montreal, Quebec, are protesting the importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Many countries have not accepted genetically engineered crops as much as the United States has.

The Risks Outweigh the Benefits
Critics of GM foods think that these products are significantly different from foods developed through traditional methods. Scientists can use genetic engineering to place genes from any species into another. Opponents are concerned about the safety of foods that contain these “foreign” genes.

One safety concern is the possibility of allergic reactions. Some foods, such as peanuts and shellfish, cause allergic reactions in many people. If genes from these foods are placed in entirely different products, people who eat these new products without knowing they contain the foreign genes may suffer allergic reactions.

Other critics object to GM foods for religious or ethical reasons. Certain religions prohibit eating pork and other foods. People may object to the insertion of genes from pigs or other prohibited foods into foods they normally eat. Similarly, vegetarians might object to eating foods that contain animal genes. Such insertions are particularly worrisome when the sources of modifications are not noted on packaging.

Another major concern is pesticide resistance. Insects can rapidly develop the ability to survive exposure to pesticides. When they do, farmers lose the ability to combat infestations and significant crop losses can result. Farmers who grow genetically engineered crops that make their own pesticides, such as Bt corn, must take special precautions against the development of pesticide resistance.

Some scientists are concerned that genetically engineered plant and animal species could accidentally be introduced into the wild. For example, fast-growing GM salmon that escape from aquaculture enclosures might thrive at the expense of wild species. Wild species could become extinct, thus reducing biodiversity and potentially affecting ecosystem stability.

 

What Do You Think?

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