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Genetically Modified Food – The Benefits and the Risks

Background Genetically modified foods or GM foods for short, also go under many different names, including transgenic food, genetically engineered food or biotech food.

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So what are GM foods? Although different people and groups have different definitions, GM foods can broadly define as foods that “are produced from crops whose genetic makeup has been altered through a process called recombinant DNA, or gene splicing, to give the plant a desirable trait Bottled and jarred packaged goods.” The modification is usually done in the lab using molecular techniques or genetic engineering although there are others who would argue that crops produced through conventional breeding can also be considered as GM food.

The first GM food crop, a tomato developed by Montsanto was submitted for approval to the US FDA in August 1994 and came into market in the same year. As of September 9, 2008, a total of 111 bioengineered food products have completed the US FDA “consultation procedures” on bioengineered foods. In addition to the tomato, the range of products includes soybean, corn, cotton, potato, flax, canola, squash, papaya, radicchio, sugar beet, rice, cantaloupe, and wheat. According to estimates by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, “between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. Breads, cereal, frozen pizzas, hot dogs and soda are just a few of them.”

The benefits of GM foods. Support for GM foods come from different sectors: scientists, economists, and understandably from the agricultural and food industries.

GM foods can fight world hunger. The world population has reached an all-time high of over 6 and a half billion. Over 20% of these are suffering from poverty and hunger. That GM foods can stop hunger is one of the noblest motivations behind the development of GM foods. GM foods supposedly are easier to grow and bring higher yields. In poverty-stricken parts of the world, higher yields can save millions of lives and bring much-needed economic benefits. In a review, Terri Raney of the United Nations says “…the economic results so far suggest that farmers in developing countries can benefit from transgenic crops…”

GM crops are better. GM crops are designed to be sturdier and more robust than their non-modified cousins. They are meant to be resistant to drought, diseases, and pests. The Hawaiian papaya industry, for example, only managed to survive a virus epidemic after the introduction of more resistant transgenic varieties.

GM foods have been with us for hundreds of years. The wide variety of many plants that we see today came about through natural as well as traditional man-made plant cross-breeding that took thousands of years. That is peppers come in different shapes, colors, and taste, from the very spicy hot to the sweet types. That is why we have more than 1000 different types of tomatoes.

GM foods can fight malnutrition. In a world suffering from malnutrition, GM foods can answer the need for more nutritious food. To cite an example, Swiss research strove to create rice strains that contain large amounts of beta-carotene and iron to counteract vitamin A and iron deficiency. Malnutrition can refer to both undernutrition and wrong nutrition. People in rich and developed countries may have more than enough food but not the proper nutrition necessary to keep them healthy. For this reason, researchers at the European-funded FLORA project have developed strains of fruits and vegetables with enhanced content of antioxidants. Through genetic engineering, FLORA oranges have higher than normal flavonoids and phenolics. The FLORA purple tomatoes have three times the amount of the antioxidant anthocyanins compared to normal tomatoes.

GM foods are good for the environment. The damage to the environment that insecticides such as DDT bring about is well-known. The use of synthetic fertilizers in the farmlands led to the eutrophication of rivers and lakes all over the world. GM foods translate into less use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and therefore less pollution.

GM foods can help medicine. GM foods can be used in producing pharmacological products in the so-called “medical molecular farming: production of antibodies, biopharmaceuticals and edible vaccines in plants.” FLORA stands for “flavonoids and related phenolics for healthy living using orally recommended antioxidants” and it sees it self as “a player in the future of medicine.” As early as 2005, Indian researchers reported the potential use of transgenic bananas in carrying vaccines against hepatitis B. In the same year, the biotech company GTC Biotherapeutics based in Framingham, Massachusetts has developed a herd of genetically modified goats that produce milk which contains a human anticoagulant called anti-thrombin.

GM foods are safe. The creators of GM crops are quick to assure that GM foods are safe and pose no threat to human health. GM crops are regulated by three agencies: the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US FDA. “The FDA ensures that foods made from these plants are safe for humans and animals to eat, the USDA makes sure the plants are safe to grow, and the EPA ensures that pesticides introduced into the plants are safe for human and animal consumption and for the environment. While these agencies act independently.”

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